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Obama Backpedals on Empty Promises to Afghan Women

Last night, President Obama took to the airwaves to announce the “accelerated” withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan: 10,000 troops out by the end of the year and a total of 33,000 out by the end of next summer.

But if you spaced out for even a second, you might have missed it: Afghan women and girls were mentioned only once in his speech. As Obama spoke of transitioning responsibility for security to Afghans, he lauded those who are “creating new opportunities for women and girls.”

This after-thought is a far cry from the declaration of Laura Bush in November 2001 that “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” This was almost 10 years ago, with the Bush Administration rallying for war in Afghanistan and hoisting the banner of women’s rights to pave their way.  In the past decade, Afghan women have come to see how little weight these words carried.

Removing the Taliban from power did create openings for women to exercise new freedoms. But when women rushed to fill these openings to work, travel or study, they were viciously attacked by the Taliban and other ultra-conservatives, including those in the US-backed Karzai government. Often facing death threats, these women saw first-hand that the US was not willing to risk more than sound bites in defense of their rights.

Soon, even the empty promises began to be discarded. By April 2009, just months into his presidency, Obama was already backpedaling mightily on women’s rights, saying “while improving conditions in Afghanistan is a commendable goal, people need to remember that the primary reason that US troops are fighting there is to protect Americans from terrorist attacks.”

MADRE never believed that the war on Afghanistan would “improve conditions” for women or anyone else. Nor, for that matter, did we believe that it would “protect Americans from terrorist attacks.” A war is no way to bring about either human rights or human security. Maybe the Administration is doing us a favor by dropping the façade about women’s rights: one less false rationale to debunk.

Last night, Obama pointed to future peace talks and the need to include the Taliban. He set forward the conditions that any participants in these talks must renounce violence and abide by the Afghan Constitution. Yet, none of his conditions offer any promise that women’s rights will be protected. The US-brokered Afghan Constitution, for instance, contains no meaningful guarantees of women’s rights or any prohibition on gender discrimination.

Meanwhile, Afghan women, like all women living in conflict zones, suffer disproportionately from war. They shoulder the responsibility of caring for the most vulnerable, including children, the wounded and the elderly. And when foreign military intervention emboldens fundamentalist forces who claim to defend their homeland and whose vision of Afghanistan depends on denying women’s rights, women come out the losers.

Perhaps President Obama hoped to soothe critics on the left by claiming to accelerate the troop pull-out. But if he follows through to remove 33,000 troops by the end of next summer, the US troop levels will not even have returned to what they were when Bush left office. For Afghan women and families, there is no end in sight to years of living with war and military intervention.

For more information, click here to read “Pressing Reset on the Afghanistan Debate: Towards Ending the War and Upholding Women’s Rights”

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Yifat Susskind

Yifat Susskind is the Executive Director of MADRE, an international women's human rights organization. She has worked with women’s human rights activists from Latin America, the Middle East, Asia and Africa to create programs in their communities to address women's health, violence against women, economic and environmental justice and peace building. She has also written extensively on US foreign policy and women’s human rights and her critical analysis has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy in Focus and elsewehere.

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