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Kerry Returns to Afghanistan; Women’s Rights Remain in Peril

by Catherine Powell
August 8, 2014

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks next to Afghan presidential candidates Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Abdullah Abdullah in Kabul, Afghanistan, following the signing of a deal to form a national unity government (Courtesy Reuters/Omar Sobhani). U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks next to Afghan presidential candidates Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Abdullah Abdullah in Kabul, Afghanistan, following the signing of a deal to form a national unity government (Courtesy Reuters/Omar Sobhani).

This year marks a significant moment for Afghanistan: with the recent presidential election and the U.S. withdrawal of troops, the country will undergo both political and security transitions. However, these twin transitions are currently imperiled.

The result of Afghanistan’s presidential election has yet to be settled. Last month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry struck a deal between the two candidates to recount the votes, but political squabbling unraveled the agreement. Kerry returned to Afghanistan yesterday, and just this morning, the rival presidential candidates issued a joint communiqué confirming they would sign last month’s Kerry deal, which had essentially collapsed.

On the security front, the Taliban is ascendant, once again, in parts of the country. Earlier this year, a war weary President Barack Obama announced he would withdraw active U.S. troops by the end of this year and draw down all U.S. forces by the end of 2016. But as the United States steps back, the Taliban appears to be gaining control. Without adequately prepared security forces, Afghanistan runs the risk of becoming another Iraq—vulnerable to resurgent Islamic extremists—and the recent Taliban attacks indicate that this possibility is becoming more likely every day.

If Afghanistan is to overcome these challenges—and maintain the strides it has made in improving the status of women and girls—then the United States must continue to support the struggling country through its transformations. A successful political transition is critical for women, rule of law, and democracy.  While President Hamid Karzai has taken some steps to support women—such as issuing the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law by Presidential proclamation—the next president needs to do more to protect and support women and girls. Both political candidates have emphasized the importance of women’s rights while campaigning and have expressed intentions to implement policies to benefit women and girls, but without a political resolution, neither is able to act on those promises. Security is also essential for women’s participation in public life; without it, women and girls’ ability to work outside the home, run for office, or seek an education is stymied.

To ensure that women and girls are able to participate in their country’s future, the United States must finalize and implement a bilateral security agreement with Afghanistan in order to maintain a small contingent of U.S. forces in the country after 2014. Encouragingly, both presidential candidates have vowed to adopt such an accord. Washington can also support Afghanistan’s security transition with targeted funding. Currently, the United States provides assistance to Afghanistan through the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund (ASFF). As per the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the ASFF is required to dedicate no less than $25 million to “programs and activities to support the recruitment, retention, integration, training, and treatment of women in the Afghan National Security Forces” (ANSF). This has already led to 13,000 women being trained in the ANSF. While this is a positive start, integrating women in larger numbers into the security forces and other key sectors is essential, not only because would advance gender equality, but because it would likely lead to less violence and greater economic growth and stability. Research demonstrates that investing in the educational and economic advancement of women and girls leads to more prosperous, stable, and secure societies.

The 2015 NDAA, currently under review in the Senate, includes amendments to further support women and girls. Earlier this month, Senators Kelly Ayotte and Bob Casey proposed an amendment to ensure the “safety, security, and rights of Afghanistan’s women and children.” The amendment calls on the Obama Administration to work with the Afghan authorities to increase the number of women serving in the National Army, Nation Police, and ANSF; train police officers to combat gender-based violence and to work with victims of abuse; and support women to vote in the 2015 Parliamentary elections by adequately staffing polling stations with female officers.  The bill passed the House of Representatives in May, with another amendment from Representative Niki Tsongas, which calls upon the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, and the Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development to support Afghan-led initiatives to prevent sexual and gender-based violence and ensure the rights of Afghan women and girls, their participation at all levels of government and decision making, and their integration into the ANSF.

It is essential that Congress pass the 2015 NDAA with provisions that enhance Washington’s commitment to the women and girls of Afghanistan. After years of conflict and U.S. engagement, it is more important than ever that the United States ensure that Afghanistan does not backtrack on women’s rights.

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