The United States has not had an easy couple of months in Afghanistan. With news of the kill teams in Kandahar, the recent killing of 16 unarmed civilians by a rogue American soldier, and the controversy surrounding Quran burnings, public sentiment on the war by Afghanis and Americans alike is at an all-time low. These events have placed increased pressure on the international community to withdraw forces from Afghanistan, but while the troop withdrawal in 2014 should not be abandoned, the United States must not also abandon Afghan women as a result.
The behavior of U.S. troops in Afghanistan has caused a reversal of a recent Taliban agreement to have early negotiations with the U.S. government, and as a consequence, the strengthening of Taliban support in rural populations. This is problematic for a number of reasons, but most importantly is the existential threat the Taliban pose to the many strides that women have made in the country since the toppling of the regime.
Without the Taliban's extremely conservative Sharia policies in place, more than 2 million girls are now able to attend school and women make up a quarter of the national Parliament. Women in Afghanistan still enjoy little protection from their government and face constant threats from insurgents and troops, but the progress they have made cannot and should not be neglected by the international community with a hasty, mismanaged withdrawal that places women back in the dark days of a Taliban-dominated country.
A focus on women's rights is not simply an ethical decision for the international community, but increased freedom for women has always been tied to democratization and growth in developing countries. Educated women that attend school are less likely to marry at a young age, decreasing repeated pregnancies and strengthening the work force in the country. These, among other factors, can foster profoundly positive benefits for Afghan civil society.
When General David Petreaus released his Counterinsurgency Field Manual, he outlined policies that involve the use of public diplomacy through military means. In more layman's terms, he advocated for "winning the hearts and minds" of the everyday citizens. The U.S. government can accomplish these goals through targeted diplomacy and development funds within Afghan civil society, preventing the Taliban from gaining a foothold in rural regions where woman are affected most.
Now that the Afghan military has taken leadership over night raids and other military operations, the United States should divert its attention towards fostering a principled understanding of the Afghani culture and people. With these policies in place, we can avert instances like the Quaran burning that showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the country's values.
Rather than drone strikes and night raids, why not build schools and health clinics in rural areas? And why not provide support for fostering a strong civil society in Afghanistan? President Barack Obama has called for a “responsible” end to the war in Afghanistan, but this goal is not possible without the involvement of women in the country's future.
The War in Afghanistan cannot be won with gunpowder and steel, but only with policies aimed at reducing the Taliban's influence in rural communities and providing real, practical benefits to women. The U.S. should continue with a swift withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, but the international community (including the U.S.) has a responsibility to preserve the gains made by women, fostering development and stability throughout the country for all Afghanis and ending the repressive Taliban regime once and for all.