Zalmay Khalilzad, a special representative for the Afghanistan reconciliation, on Tuesday testified before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on policy in Afghanistan to detail its commitments to preserving the gains of minority men and women. During this meeting, congressional lawmakers questioned Khalilzad over whether recent US progress in Afghanistan would remain established.
Nearly two weeks after US President Joe Biden decided to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, many lawmakers remained skeptical of the decision because of fear that the Taliban’s continued influence would reinstitute many oppressive and violent rules on women.
Khalilzad maintained that if the Afghan government wanted to keep US security efforts and sustain military personnel, they would need incentive and advocacy as part of the negotiations. Khalilzad added that if the Afghan government did not live up to the global standards of women’s rights, then the US had “other instruments that will remain relevant and powerful to send that message loud and clear.”
Some US lawmakers suggested increasing sanctions on Afghanistan if the government did not continue efforts to maintain women’s rights, in which Khalilzad maintained that if the Taliban did not continue to respect human rights, they could not account on assistance from US and NATO allies to continue to provide support.
“Our commitment to continue with a strong partnership with Afghanistan has been clear,” Khalilzad added, but repeated that it would not be something that could be forced on the Afghan people. “The Afghans will make their own choices and the United States in return will respond to that and make its decisions.”
Khalilzad, who previously served as a UN ambassador, has for many years participated in the negotiations regarding women’s rights since the start of the US’ influence in Afghanistan in the early 2000s. According to Khalilzad, he helped to reestablish the Afghan constitution in 2004 so that it stipulated Afghan women were equal to the men.
In 2009, under then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the government established the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law, but according to some, it did not offer much relief to many women under the standards set by US influence.
Afghanistan has battled the US over religious and traditional treatment of women, which under Taliban rule during the 1990s made headlines as being oppressive and violent. The Afghan government and Taliban have held peace talks, most recently in Moscow, but some have worried that the negotiations did not include a push for women’s rights.
From 1996 to 2001, the United States spent $780 million to promote women’s rights in Afghanistan. This year, Biden promised another $300 million to be contributed to US influence in sustaining women’s rights in the country. During the Tuesday Senate hearing, lawmakers questioned Khalilzad on whether or not the other $300 million would need to be renegotiated as part of an incentive.
Khalilzad maintained that the money was the incentive, but claimed that though women’s rights was of high importance, he doesn’t “have a fix for the checks and balances and the process of negotiation when the decisions are made.” Pakistan has also been cited as a necessary tool in the continued talks.
In a report by Voice of America (VOA), the Taliban has remained strong in maintaining their cultural and religious beliefs as they pertain to women and tradition, but have attempted to readapt to the changing global perspectives.
“We can not justify women’s rights on the basis of the values that exist in the United States, in Europe and other countries. Our nation does not want this at all. Our nation is Muslim,” said Mohammad Naim, the Taliban political office spokesperson in Qatar.
Thousands of US troops have remained in Qatar as the US has maintained that the presence is necessary to decrease the spread of the Taliban’s beliefs.
According to the New York Times, US efforts to make women a part of the peace talks have long spread through the country, influencing many activists who now feel as though the US presence was just for propaganda.
“I remember when Americans came and they said that they will not leave us alone, and that Afghanistan will be free of oppression, and will be free of war and women’s rights will be protected,” Shahida Husain, an activist in Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar Province, where the Taliban now control large stretches of territory, told the outlet.
“Now it looks like it was just slogans.”
Afghanistan continues to try to make efforts to readapt to global changes that go against the strict traditional views. However, many Afghan women maintain that while women do deserve to increase their presence, they also want to do so under the values of their culture and beliefs.
“Every Afghan woman wants to lead her daily life, government, social and political work based on Islamic and Afghan cultural values,” said Sharifa Zurmati, member of the Afghan peace talks delegation, during an interview with VOA.
While the negotiations continue between men, women are attempting to hold more of a voice in the decisions going forward.
“All the time, women are the victims of men’s wars,” Raihana Azad of the Afghan parliament told the Times, “but they will be the victims of their peace too.”
During the Senate Committee meeting, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) named many women as victims of violence in efforts to convince lawmakers that the presence of US troops would be something that reflected on larger human rights issues. Many lawmakers agreed but held on to the idea that it was something the Afghan government would have to negotiate on their own terms in order to be considered part of the overall global efforts.
“If Afghanistan with or without the Taliban wants to be a country that is respected globally then they have to live up to their commitment on human rights,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) during the meeting.
US troops are scheduled to be fully withdrawn by September 11, months past the original May 1 deadline agreed to under the Trump administration.