How the United States left women in Afghanistan

It was at a dinner party in a diplomatic residence in Kabul one summer evening that I began to doubt the sincerity of the international community’s commitment to Afghan women. It was a decade ago and we were sitting around an elongated table in an expansive courtyard, the air thick with the intoxicating scent of rose bushes. Our host, a senior Western official, waved a bottle of liqueur crowned with a miniature burqa, the full-body garment worn by many Afghan women and enforced by the Taliban. It even had a small peephole in mesh.

“What’s down below is haram,said the diplomat as he whirled the sky-blue polyester up its lower edge. “Geddit?” The guests, journalists and relief workers burst out laughing.

I understood that, but I did not find it funny. How was it acceptable to mix the bodies of Afghan women and illegal booze?

Or maybe that incident was not the source of my disillusionment. Maybe it was when my colleagues were raising enough money for a dowry, a gift for our aging driver so he could take another wife. The western men in my office piled on with gusto. I had been kept in the dark because the girl he married was exactly that – a girl. She was 14 years old.

At the heart of the US-led war in Afghanistan, which ended this weekend in total disgrace and failure as the Taliban quickly toppled back into power, was the campaign to improve the lives of Afghan women and girls. So many in the world believed in this mission. How could we not? Change was everywhere; in 2019, there was a larger percentage of women in Afghanistan’s parliament than the US Congress.

But beneath the surface, there have long been signs of betrayal. There was a time when a senior U.S. official described gender issues as “pet stones in our backpacks that take us down.” Then there was the method the CIA used to exchange Viagra pills with information about the Taliban’s whereabouts, so that, in the words of an Afghan journalist, “old men can rape their wives with America’s blessing.” Let’s not forget the controversy two years ago by academics Cheryl Benard, wife of the Afghan-born American Taliban negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, chastise Afghan women for not fighting for their rights, which they do not owe “by someone else’s army or taxpayer crowns.” And when Joe Biden was asked last year by CBS whether he bears “some responsibility” if Afghan women were to lose their rights during a Taliban takeover, the US president replied to the reporter. Margaret Brennan, with “No, I do not!”

Afghan police and Afghan journalists outside where the Taliban attacked a Lebanese restaurant popular with Westerners and some affluent Afghans. Afghanistan, Kabul, January 17, 2014.Photo by Joel likes.

Seeing the events unfold in Afghanistan in recent weeks has been nothing short of painful. A dual American-British citizen, I am full of shame: My two countries had the largest contingent of troops in the 20-year war. Throughout this time, these nations, along with the international community, built up Afghan women who constantly told them to pursue their dreams. Then, in an act of incredible cruelty, they left them overnight.

How did we get here?

I first moved to Afghanistan in 2011 as a senior correspondent for Reuters, at the height of the NATO war. Chairman Barack Obama‘s wave was in full swing, which meant that 140,000 foreign troops were stationed in the country. Afghan security forces were trained at lightning speed to fight the Taliban. Cash flows in all directions. NGOs grew like mushrooms. High-rise buildings shot up, steel outbursts of optimism marked Kabul’s skyline.

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