I am going to say what we all do not want to hear. In five years, the human rights situation in Afghanistan will be back to square one.
The Afghan government and Taliban have been at the negotiating table for six months now. In February 2020 the Trump administration agreed to a total withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021, a move that the media lambasted as hyperpartisan. But the Biden administration is now pushing a similar arbitrary timeline.
In a leaked letter from US Secretary of State Antony Bliken to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Bliken tried to jump-start stalled peace talks by threatening a May 1 withdrawal. Bliken acknowledged that the departure would lead to the Taliban making “rapid territorial gains” in a spring offensive. Such gains mean bad news for security and human rights. New areas under Taliban control translate into inroads for the al-Qaeda cells that enjoy Taliban protection—the same groups responsible for substantial modification of the New York City skyline. Moreover, territorial gains would correlate with rapid backsliding on human rights in war-torn Afghanistan.
Millions of Afghan women have enjoyed new freedoms since the US went into their tumultuous country two decades ago. Yet human rights violations, attacks on civil liberties, and civilian casualties are now surging alongside the talk of a May 1 withdrawal. The uptick began back in February 2020, following the US-Taliban Doha Accord. This agreement led to hundreds of insurgent attacks and assassinations, often directed at religious minorities and women. Targeted terror has a “shocking and disproportionate impact on Afghan women and children.”
The Taliban, Islamic State, and its affiliates enjoy frightening the educated and politically active. Take, for example, the three Afghan female journalists from the Enikass Radio Television Network who were assassinated on March 2 in Jalalabad. Terror groups often accuse women in public roles of violating social norms. These killings do not just illustrate the erosion of civil liberties or expose cheap Taliban tricks for keeping women in the home. Targeted journalist assassinations lead to progressively less access to information on the true state of human rights in Afghanistan.
Time and time again, the Taliban has demonstrated what it really is. From 1996 to 2001, the group prohibited women and girls from working outside the home or attending school. The same is happening now. These measures are standard operating procedure in the large swaths of Afghanistan’s countryside where archaic traditions still dominate. Restrictions on women are also starting to filter into urban centers. Take, for example, Kabul’s recent attempt to ban girls from singing in public. And over the past 20 years, Kabul has been unable to ratify a law that criminalizes violence against women.
After four decades of conflict, Afghanistan is home to one of the world’s largest populations of people with severe disabilities. As the human rights situation in Afghanistan reverts to pre-invasion conditions, the nearly 15 percent of Afghan women who have a severe disability will face greater hardships. Human Rights Watch, for example, documents how government officials often expect women to provide sexual favors in exchange for disability benefits. But thanks to the US forces that pushed the Taliban out of Kandahar, the southern province now boasts a thriving village built specifically for people with disabilities.
Bacha bazi—child sexual abuse perpetrated by older men against adolescent males—is already rampant in Afghanistan. Terror groups and government forces alike participate in and then cover up the true pervasiveness of this pedophilia. The State Department reported that in 2019, the Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police, and Afghan Local Police recruited boys for bacha bazi from every province in Afghanistan. In 2019, activists discovered 165 young male victims in three high schools in Logar Province. Several victims were found dead after they exposed their abusers. The same year, the Taliban participated in the murders of eight child sex trafficking victims, who were killed for dishonor. Government official complicity in bacha bazi is seriously impeding human trafficking investigations and prosecutions, and is a major reason why Afghanistan was recently downgraded to the blacklist in the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report.
The US military has largely been required to look the other way on bacha bazi, so it is wrong to say that a continued military presence would significantly decrease the problem. Changing customary norms is key to stopping this and other human rights problems. Widespread liberal education is a crucial first step, education which would eventually translate into women gaining more control in government and the male-dominated society. It is in this respect that the US presence on the ground in Afghanistan has made advancements. However, progress will stop when the US leaves.
The American public tends to imagine that, in the absence of an American sheriff, people will work things out amongst themselves. But other actors—like Russia, China, and Iran—are at the helm and ready to increase their influence in Afghanistan. None of these crooked characters will genuinely encourage the sweeping reforms needed to tackle the factors that permit bacha bazi and other egregious human rights violations. Keeping such forces at bay is anything but egocentric foreign policy.
Afghanistan, it now seems, is on the worst possible path. Prospects of peace are pinned onto the expectation that the Taliban will behave reasonably. But the terrorist group has refused to drop its insistence upon a pure Islamic government. It has failed to uphold its part of the Doha Accords. Negotiations at a conference in Moscow last week provided new energy to peace talks but little clarity on what the actual agreement—or its enforcement mechanisms—will look like.
Americans are weary of the war in Afghanistan. They are tired of prolonged engagement in a country so distant and dissimilar to their own that it might as well be another planet. However, too many well-meaning people do not understand how a May 1 withdrawal will expedite backsliding on human rights, which should concern Christians. Overly ambitious state-building goals have clouded Americans’ view of the progress that the US presence in Afghanistan has actually made on human rights markers.
Leadership in situations like this is hardly an enviable enterprise. But the new US administration certainly has the experience needed to craft and implement a more delicate approach. Such an approach should center on the type of conditions-based withdrawal recommended by most top US generals. A statement that Biden gave this past week indicates slight progress toward this end.