Foreign Policy Op–Ed: Fighting a 50 percent solution in Afghanistan

July 21, 2011

Speaking in Chennai on Wednesday U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sought to reassure a worried India that the United States has no plan to cut and run when it comes to Afghanistan, no matter how ready the American public may be to end its longest-ever war.

“I want to be very clear. The United States is committed to Afghanistan and to the region. We will be there,” Clinton said, acknowledging India’s concern that Pakistani influence on the country will grow while the U.S. presence recedes.  “Yes, we are beginning to withdraw combat troops and transfer responsibility for security to the Afghan people, a process that will be completed in 2014, but drawing down our troops is not the same as leaving or disengaging.”

That American commitment, Clinton said, extends to the country’s women.  While the U.S. sees the “not…pleasant business” of negotiating a political settlement with the Taliban as the only viable option for ending the Afghanistan war, Clinton has vowed that women’s rights will not be negotiated away during the peace process.

“Any potential for peace will be subverted if women and ethnic minorities are marginalized or silenced,” Clinton said. “What we have learned in the 20th century that we must apply in the 21st century is that you cannot deny women and minorities, whether they be religious minorities or ethnic minorities or tribal or any other minority — you cannot deny your own people the chance to be full citizens in their own country.

And so when we look at what will happen in Afghanistan, the United States will not abandon our values or support a political process that undoes the progress that has been made in the past decade.”

Wednesday’s statement is only the most recent — and most extensive — of a slew of pledges from Clinton that Afghan women will not be ‘abandoned’ to a resurgent Taliban, who famously barred women from schools and offices when they swept to power in the 1990s. Under the Taliban’s rules, women could not leave the house without a male chaperone. Universities for women closed and the country’s female teachers and civil servants were forced to remain at home. Only female doctors could treat women, and, with women banned from medical schools, these often proved hard to find.

At a Senate hearing the day after President Obama’s June speech announcing the beginning of America’s troop drawdown in Afghanistan, Clinton argued that “including women and civil society” in the peace process “is not just the right thing to do; it is the smart and strategic thing to do as well.” Under questioning from Sen. Barbara Boxer Clinton agreed that “it is important that (women) have more seats at the table” in the High Peace Council, the body established by Afghan president Hamid Karzai to promote reconciliation with the Taliban, than the nine out of 70 currently allotted them.

Yet while Clinton’s commitment to keeping women front and center is clear, the White House’s interest in deploying political capital on Afghan women’s behalf is far less certain. Women received no mention in Obama’s December 2009 West Point speech announcing the ‘surge’ of 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, and the President referred to them only once in last month’s address regarding the withdrawal timeline for those same forces.

Around Washington human rights advocates and policy wags wonder whether Clinton and her State Department have any chance at winning their fight to help women gain a substantive role in the nascent reconciliation process. Does the United States really intend to veto a peace deal that leaves women out and puts the Taliban in, particularly given the eroding public support for the war and the growing desire for a swift Afghanistan exit?

Already there are signs that political realism may trump American ideals. Those familiar with Obama administration thinking say that the White House wants to be able to point to concrete achievements in the country in the run-up to 2012, while wrapping things up in Afghanistan “at any cost” — and that a far more narrow definition of American interests in the region is in the offing.

As one senior administration official told the Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekran, “Gender issues are going to have to take a back seat to other priorities…There’s no way we can be successful if we maintain every special interest and pet project. All those pet rocks in our rucksack were taking us down.” But as Wednesday’s speech shows Clinton will not give up quietly on half of Afghanistan. As the 2014 troop withdrawal deadline approaches Afghan women will continue to speak out on their own behalf, as they did recently in Washington when they issued their recommendations for a peace process that includes women, as well as civil society more broadly. They have a staunch ally in the current U.S. Secretary of State. But whether support for their stake in their country extends to the rest of official Washington remains an open question that only the coming months will answer.

In the end, it may become a question of the clock. Right now there is no real or formal peace process to point to, as State Department officials admit, and it is possible that the hunt for a viable political solution could stretch into 2013 or 2014, long after Clinton leaves Foggy Bottom.

“Clinton will not be in office by the time that (a settlement) is adopted, but even if she is I think it is going to be some sort of watered-down language that the Taliban agree to where it says ‘we agree to respect the rights of women,'” one administration official involved in Afghanistan deliberations told me recently. “It will likely be something so vague as to be meaningless.”

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.