Women in Afghanistan: The Forgotten Objective

The US decision to focus on civil rights and institutions as a part of an overall counter-insurgency strategy was not a mistake. The suggestion that the United States has no obligation to address women’s rights in the negotiation process because “such rights have never existed in most of Afghanistan” is an insult to the thousands of women that have sacrificed for the American ideals of freedom and equality pushed by the Allies since 2001.

India Boland is a second-year MA candidate at Johns Hopkins SAIS, concentrating in Conflict Management. She focuses on the nexus between humanitarianism and international development and has worked in Jordan, Northern Ireland, and Tajikistan. India is currently an Associate at Albright Stonebridge Group.

The international community is watching the unfolding talks in Qatar between the United States and the Taliban with some excitement and a significant amount of trepidation.[1] Led by Afghan-American Zalmay Khalilzad, Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation at the U.S. Department of State, these unprecedented talks appear to be moving towards some kind of peace agreement that hinges on a U.S. exit in exchange for a guarantee that the Taliban will not harbor extremist groups. Though the most recent round of talks ended in mid-March and fighting has resumed, American and Taliban counterparts seem optimistic that an agreement can be reached and are currently preparing for another round of talks.[2] Alarmingly, Afghan women are completely missing from the table, reportedly appear nowhere in the content of discussions, and have not been discussed as members of future conversations.[3] The United States risks abandoning Afghan women to an almost-certain future of persecution and subjugation – and increases the likelihood that the talks will fail altogether – if it misses the opportunity to establish Taliban commitment for women’s rights in these initial conversations.

Gender Equality as a U.S. Military Mandate

While the original American invasion in Afghanistan was a direct response to the al-Qaeda attacks on September 11, 2001, over the years U.S. involvement in Afghanistan has expanded to include military and financial support for democracy, civil society, human rights, and gender equality. This intervention, perhaps more so than any other since Vietnam, has become an exercise in comprehensive state-building – a mandate the United States was similarly unprepared to execute in the 2000s as it was in the 1960s and 1970s.[4] The evolving mandate has meant that the United States and allies, including Britain and Germany, have not only needed to eradicate insurgent groups like al-Qaeda and the Taliban, but have also sought to quell general violence and instability by supporting, and at times directing, the establishment of democratic institutions. Importantly, the United States recognized that multiple levers would need to be employed in order to achieve this lofty goal beyond traditional tactical pressure. Though international donors, including USAID, projects targeted diverse sectors such as infrastructure, including roads and electricity, education, agriculture, judicial reform, and countless others including gender equality. It is estimated that the war and its various reconstruction objectives have cost the United States between $841 billion and, more accurately, approximately $1 trillion – in addition to more than 6,000 American lives.[5] Upwards of 26,000 Afghan civilians are also believed to have died since 2001 in pursuit of these objectives.[6]

It is impossible to paint a comprehensive picture of the deeply complicated story of Afghan development succinctly. Numerous studies and research already exist that seek to evaluate progress across a number of factors, including economic growth and the stability of institutions. That being said, most researchers, aid workers, and diplomacy professionals regard the outcome as a mixed bag.[7][8]

A brighter spot in the story, however, is the issue of women’s rights. Though surveys show that fewer Afghans trust the government, the armed forces, and the judicial system today than in 2004, many more Afghans believe women have the right to vote independently, the right to be educated, and the right to hold political office. The evolution of survey responses on women’s rights shows a clearly positive trend. Significant barriers still exist, and progress has not been experienced equally by all Afghan women. USAID programs like Promote have been criticized for poor progress [9] – but more women are, on average, certainly better off than they were twenty years ago. Afghan women were ruthlessly targeted by the Taliban in the 1990s, completely shunned from public spaces and barred from schools. Though precise statistics do not exist for this period, we know anecdotally that domestic violence was rampant. Some 80% of Afghan marriages are believed to have been forced. Women faced public flogging and execution.[10] The treatment was so egregious some scholars have labeled this systematic segregation “gender apartheid.”

Since 2001, incredible legislative progress has been made: gender equality is protected in the constitution, rape was criminalized for the first time, and a Ministry of Women’s Affairs was established. 40% of all schoolchildren are girls.[11] A quota system ensures that 68 out of the 250 parliamentary seats are reserved for women. The presence of girls in schools and in political offices cannot be understated; just twenty years ago, none of these women would have been allowed to enter these public buildings. And though the baseline of the Taliban era is low, it would be overly critical and incorrect to state that women in Afghanistan have not experienced progress over the last twenty years. But there is significantly more work yet to be done: many women are still excluded from the judicial system, experience domestic violence, and struggle to access education beyond elementary levels. Amnesty International still rates Afghanistan the world’s worst place to be a woman, ranking below DR Congo, Pakistan, Somalia, and India.[12] If the United States neglects the issue of women’s rights in the next round of negotiation with the Taliban, progress made to date is at risk and remaining obstacles to equality are likely to remain or become more entrenched.

Negotiation and Women’s Rights

Many observers claim the lack of Afghan government involvement at this point is not cause for concern, arguing that the current negotiations in Qatar will surely be the first many rounds and the Afghan government will be involved later.[13][14] They argue that this round of negotiation should focus on critical security issues.[15] According to their logic, women’s rights don’t make the cut. They further believe that these negotiations should ideally not involve the United States at all [16] – mirroring the long-held wish of the U.S. military that the entire state-building process should be led “by Afghans, for Afghans.”[17] Thus, it should ultimately be the job of the Afghan government to raise the issue of gender equality with the Taliban in later rounds. This rationale is flawed for several reasons, let alone the fact that these separate talks have not yet been scheduled and would be between two parties that have never agreed to officially meet and have attacked the other’s legitimacy and credibility for decades.

First, women in Afghanistan have been active participants in the last several decades of war and should be a central part of any peace agreement. Like Afghan men, some women suffered under Taliban rule and some contributed to the Taliban’s success. Immediately following the end of the Taliban era, some women in Afghanistan engaged with international donors to work on state reconstruction and institution-building efforts while others continued to support traditional systems. The idea that women are simply passive recipients in war, whether it be helpless victims of violence or grateful targets of reform, is outdated and inaccurate. Studies such as Brenda Opperman’s “Hawks, Doves, and Canaries: Women in Conflict” show that women have historically engaged in conflict as both combatants and proponents of peace.[18] It is foolish to assume that women are not a critical component of problem-solving and peace negotiations in Afghanistan. Relegating women to the collective position of spectator negates their involvement and stake in Afghanistan’s peace prospects.[19] Numerous UN norms and obligations recognize the importance of women’s inclusion in negotiations, including The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), General Recommendations 23 and 30, the Beijing Platform for Action, and in numerous Security Council resolutions and regional treaties.[20]

Second, a wealth of data exists that proves the substantive involvement of women in negotiations (both Track I and Track II) leads to a higher likelihood of success and more durable solutions.[21] The Geneva Graduate Institution’s Broadening Participation Project states that “when women participate in the peace process, the resulting agreement is 35% more likely to last at least 15 years.”[22] As Foreign Policy further summarizes, researchers such as Elisabeth Porter, Sheila Meintjes, Anu Pillay, and Meredeth Turshen show that “a more gender-balanced process enhances local trust and buy-in, interjects legitimacy into the process, and increases the chances that problematic social norms and power imbalances that contributed to the conflict will be rectified.”[23] The inclusion of women and other civil society groups, completely unrepresented at the current negotiation table, would make any subsequent agreement much more likely to succeed. Importantly, these outcomes are only likely when women are substantively involved – Afghan government and US lip service in support of Afghan women outside of the negotiations themselves are ultimately useless.[24] The intra-Afghan negotiations in Moscow between the Taliban, Afghan politicians, notably not the government, and civil society groups in February only included two women; this is not sufficient.[25] The purpose and goal of these negotiations is additionally unclear, and the next round of talks was just canceled; further highlighting the importance of bringing women’s issues to the security-focused discussions between the US and the Taliban.[26] Though the United States might argue that it would be unwise to bring Afghan women to the negotiation table at this phase, there is nothing preventing them from engaging in Track II conversations and advocating for women’s rights issues as a central element of the agenda. In an already tenuous situation, why wouldn’t US actors utilize every tool available to them to ensure the peace agreement is one that lasts?

Third, the exclusion of women’s rights issues from “security-focused” negotiations means that these issues would be inevitably excluded from any binding agreement. Without a champion in the room from the beginning and continued support throughout the subsequent rounds of negotiation, it is unlikely that women’s rights will enter the discussions. Furthermore, the inclusion of even a small element of women’s rights issues in the initial negotiations will allow for expanded discussion later on. Looking to Afghanistan’s own history, we can see evidence that the inclusion of women in early rounds of negotiations allowed for greater gender-focused progress down the line. The all-important 2001 Bonn negotiations laid the foundation of future international state-building efforts in Afghanistan and provided the framework for the 2004 constitution. Following international pressure, an official consultative forum for the negotiations was created that included 35 percent female delegates. Among other provisions, the legislative gender quota is a result of this forum. This set a pattern of engagement; it gave women the ability “to point to the explicit provisions in the Bonn agreement” that “supported women’s groups in their cause from agreement to implementation.”[27] Women’s rights should not be an afterthought in the negotiation process, as they were not an afterthought for either the United States or the Taliban – treatment of women was central to the objectives and governance systems of both groups. Empowering women to enter the public space was a hallmark of the US state-building strategy, and the persecution of women was central to the Taliban’s harsh system of control. The United States claims that they have protected women’s rights in the Afghan Constitution; a constitution that the Taliban has explicitly and repeatedly declared illegitimate.[28] The United States should take this opportunity to set in stone new agreements and commitments protecting women’s rights, rather than depend on previous legislation drafted without Taliban buy-in.

Fourth, claims that immediate peace should take precedence over the discussion of controversial topics, potentially dragging out the negotiation, are misleading. This idea that women’s participation in peace negotiations will derail or disrupt the process of peace, known as “the urgency argument,” is not supported by research.[29] The recent gathering of over 700 women in Kabul protesting the absence of women at the negotiating table is a clear example of the false promise of immediate peace. Women in Afghanistan want peace, yes – but not at the cost of their hard-won progress and opportunities. As one woman stated clearly at the gathering: “We want peace, but we don’t want to lose our achievements. We took a long road to reach here, and we don’t want to go back.”[30] They fear an agreement with the Taliban will signal a return to Taliban-era laws; not an unfounded fear, given Taliban statements about their commitment to their particular interpretation of Shari’a law. For example, while the group’s opinions on education for women have moderated, in areas of shadow control they still in practice prevent girls from attending school past puberty.[31] In closing remarks following the March round of negotiations, the Taliban’s chief negotiator commented that “in the name of women’s rights, Afghanistan has seen a rise of immorality, indecency, and a corrupting media that spreads non-Islamic culture and encourages women to violate Afghan customs.”[32]


Women’s rights in Afghanistan are not an ancillary issue; they are a central mechanism through which the United States has sought to achieve its military objectives. The United States need only to read existing literature and look back at its own engagement strategy to understand that Afghan women are central to peace efforts taking place in Qatar. The US decision to focus on civil rights and institutions as a part of an overall counter-insurgency strategy was not a mistake. The suggestion that the United States has no obligation to address women’s rights in the negotiation process because “such rights have never existed in most of Afghanistan”[33] is an insult to the thousands of women that have sacrificed for the American ideals of freedom and equality pushed by the Allies since 2001.

Peace for the people of Afghanistan includes protection from brutal Taliban-era control rather than simply the cessation of violence; a concern that remains completely unaddressed in current negotiations. A preliminary agreement without mention, inclusion, or discussion of gender equality will be undeniably bad for Afghan women – even if violence completely ceases and civilian casualties end immediately, which seem to be extremely unlikely outcomes. The United States has the unique opportunity in these historical conversations to prioritize substantive, durable peace for all Afghans by addressing the issue of women’s rights; to actively allow it to pass by would send a message to Afghan women that they are unimportant to the future of Afghanistan. The United States should not pass the issue off to the Afghan government for a hypothetical later conversation. This contradicts the history of U.S. engagement, and would be a disservice to the hundreds of thousands of Americans that have fought and worked to bring stability and progress to Afghanistan.


[1] Pamela Constable, “Afghan government, shut out of U.S.-Taliban peace talks, running short on options,” Washington Post, March 18, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/afghan-government-shut-out-of-us-taliban-peace-talks-running-short-on-options/2019/03/18/92cd6128-497d-11e9-8cfc-2c5d0999c21e_story.html?utm_term=.d6ee27facd41.

[2] James Mackenzie, “Taliban announce annual spring offensive in Afghanistan,” Reuters, April 12, 2019. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-taliban/taliban-announce-annual-spring-offensive-in-afghanistan-idUSKCN1RO0LU.
[3] Adam Gallagher, “Progress in Taliban Talks, but ‘Long Way to Go’, says U.S. Envoy,” United States Institute of Peace, February 11, 2019. https://www.usip.org/publications/2019/02/progress-taliban-talks-long-way-go-says-us-envoy.

[4] Jeff Ewen, Inventing Vietnam: The United States and State Building, 1954-1968. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2008).

 [5] “Afghanistan in Review: Oversight of U.S. Spending in Afghanistan,” Subcommittee on Federal Spending Oversight and Emergency Management, May 9, 2018. https://www.hsgac.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Afghanistan%20Initial%20Report%20FSO1.pdf.

[6] Neta Crawford, “War-related Death, Injury, and Displacement in Afghanistan and Pakistan 2001-2014,” Watson Institute for International Studies, June 2, 2015. https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/files/cow/imce/papers/2015/War%20Related%20Casualties%20Afghanistan%20and%20Pakistan%202001-2014%20FIN.pdf.

[7] Clayton Thomas, “Afghanistan: Background and U.S. Policy,” Congressional Research Service, February 26, 2019. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R45122.pdf.

[8] Anthony H. Cordesman, “Afghanistan’s Uncertain metrics 2017-2018,” Center for Strategic and International Studies,” September 12, 2018. https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/180912_Afghan_Conflict_Metrics.pdf?B1mWmx9vVkZqIdpuPjviUzp3_DrE.G5A.

[9] Jessica Donati, “USAID’s Largest Program for Afghan Women Is Falling Short, Watchdog Says,” The Wall Street Journal, September 14, 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/usaids-largest-program-for-afghan-women-is-falling-short-watchdog-says-1536881208.

[10] “Afghanistan: Rights on the Precipice,” Human Rights Watch, January 17, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/01/17/afghanistan-rights-precipice.

[11] “Behind Closed Doors: The risk of denying women a voice in determining Afghanistan’s future,” Oxfam, November 24, 2014, https://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/file_attachments/bp200-behind-doors-afghan-women-rights-241114-en.pdf.

[12] “The World’s Worst Place to be a Woman,” Amnesty International, 2018, https://www.amnestyusa.org/the-worlds-worst-places-to-be-a-woman/.

[13] Robert Kaplan, “Time to Get Out of Afghanistan,” New York Times, January 1, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/01/opinion/afghanistan-war-american-troops-withdraw.html.

[14] Tess Bonn, “Retired veteran says U.S. should run, not walk out of Afghanistan,” The Hill, January 29, 2019. https://thehill.com/hilltv/rising/427436-retired-veteran-says-us-should-run-not-walk-out-of-afghanistan

[15] Barnett Rubin, “Negotiations Are the Best Way to End the War in Afghanistan,” Foreign Affairs, March 1, 2019. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/afghanistan/2019-03-01/negotiations-are-best-way-end-war-afghanistan.

[16] Bonnie Kristian, “US forces should leave Afghanistan, even if a deal with the Taliban fails,” Defense News, January 30, 2019. https://www.defensenews.com/opinion/commentary/2019/01/30/us-forces-should-leave-afghanistan-even-if-a-deal-with-the-taliban-fails/.

[17] Mike Pompeo, “Press Statement: On Afghanistan President Ghani’s Ceasefire Offer,” U.S. Department of State, June 7, 2018. https://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2018/06/283015.html.

[18] Brenda Oppermann, “Hawks, Doves, and Canaries: Women and Conflict,” Small Wars Journal, August 13, 2014, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/hawks-doves-and-canaries-women-and-conflict.

[19] “Our Rights are Fundamental to Peace: Slow Implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) Denies the Rights of Women and Girls in Armed Conflict,” Human Rights Watch, August 2015, https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/supporting_resources/our_rights_are_fundamental_to_peace.pdf.

[20] “Women’s Human Rights,” International Justice Resource Center. https://ijrcenter.org/thematic-research-guides/womens-human-rights/.

[21] “Making Women Count – Not Just Counting Women: Assessing Women’s Inclusion and Influence on Peace Negotiations,” Inclusive Peace and Transition Initiative, 2016, https://www.inclusivepeace.org/sites/default/files/IPTI-UN-Women-Report-Making-Women-Count-60-Pages.pdf.

[22] Marie O’Reilly, Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, and Thania Paffenholz, “Reimagining Peacemaking: Women’s Roles in Peace Processes,” June 2015,


[23] Melanne Verveer and Anjali Dayal, “Women are the Key to Peace,” Foreign Policy, November 8, 2018, https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/11/08/women-are-the-key-to-peace/.

[24] Heather Barr, “Afghanistan’s Mysterious Vanishing Plan on Women and Peace Talks,” Human Rights Watch, October 27, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/10/27/afghanistans-mysterious-vanishing-plan-women-and-peace-talks.

[25] Andrew Higgins and Mujib Mashal, “In Moscow, Afghan Peace Talks Without the Afghan Government,” New York Times, February 4, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/04/world/asia/afghanistan-taliban-russia-talks-russia.html.

[26] Craig Nelson and Ehsanullah Amiri, “Talks Canceled in Big Blow to Afghan Peace Push,” New York Times, April 18, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/afghan-peace-talks-stall-after-taliban-objects-to-guest-list-11555572767.

[27] “Making Women Count – Not Just Counting Women: Assessing Women’s Inclusion and Influence on Peace Negotiations,” Inclusive Peace and Transition Initiative, 2016, https://www.inclusivepeace.org/sites/default/files/IPTI-UN-Women-Report-Making-Women-Count-60-Pages.pdf.

[28] Borhan Osman and Anand Gopal, “Taliban Views on a Future State,” Center on International Cooperation,” July 2016, https://cic.nyu.edu/sites/default/files/taliban_future_state_final.pdf.

[29] Michelle Barsa, Olivia Holt-Ivry, and Allison Muehlenbeck, “Inclusive Ceasefires: Women, Gender, and a sustainable end to violence,” Inclusive Security, March 10, 2016, https://www.inclusivesecurity.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Inclusive-Ceasefires-ISA-paper-Final-3.10.2016.pdf.

[30] Fatima Faizi and David Zucchino, “700 Afghan Women Have a Message: Don’t Sell Us Out to the Taliban,” New York Times, February 28, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/28/world/asia/afghanistan-women-taliban.html?module=inline.

[31] Ashley Jackson, “Life under the Taliban shadow government,” Overseas Development Institute, 2018, https://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/resource-documents/12269.pdf.

[32] Belquis Ahmadi, “Afghanistan Talks: No Women, No Peace,” United States Institute of Peace, March 1, 2019. https://www.usip.org/publications/2019/03/afghanistan-talks-no-women-no-peace.

[33] Anatol Lieven, “It’s Time to Trust the Taliban,” Foreign Policy, January 31, 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/01/31/its-time-to-trust-the-taliban/.

India Boland
India Boland

India Boland is a second-year MA candidate at Johns Hopkins SAIS, concentrating in Conflict Management. She focuses on the nexus between humanitarianism and international development and has worked in Jordan, Northern Ireland, and Tajikistan. India is currently an Associate at Albright Stonebridge Group.