President Obama was elected to fix the economy. But as of the first anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden, he looks like he is running for reelection as the foreign policy president.
Running as the foreign policy president requires him to be muscular not only in protecting the interests of Americans at home and abroad, but in promoting the human rights of the women of Afghanistan. As I said in a post on April 9, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report, women in Afghanistan are being arrested for “moral crimes,” including such treasons as running away from abusive husbands and fleeing child marriages. Some women were even kidnapped, accused of having sex with their kidnappers, and consequently thrown in jail. Far too often in matters of U.S. foreign policy, the rights of women always seem to be one of the last priorities addressed by policymakers. Afghanistan’s women cannot afford to be our nation’s last priority.
A year ago, Navy SEALS killed Osama bin Laden. The president deserves credit for approving a mission which looked uncertain at best. His political preening is well-deserved and President George W. Bush would have done the same. And Obama effectively rebutted Hillary Clinton’s infamous 2008 political spot asking whether he could be trusted to answer the 3 a.m. phone call.
But while justice was achieved for those murdered on 9/11, bin Laden’s death did not eliminate security challenges facing America. Al-Qaeda was in eclipse even before last May. A concerted effort — begun by Bush and continued by Obama — to eliminate the organization’s leaders and dry up its funding had left it much weakened. Unfortunately, however, the terrorist challenge morphed with the rise of independent national groups only loosely modeled after or aligned with al-Qaeda. Such organizations created mayhem in Iraq, struck in Madrid and London, and now are active in Pakistan and Yemen. So far they have not killed in America, but eternal vigilance is required. Americans are entitled to a victory dance after bin Laden’s death, but cannot let down their guard against foreign threats.
Moreover, the U.S. still faces its own home-grown terrorists. Five men were just arrested for allegedly planning to blow up an Ohio bridge. They are not Muslims and apparently had their own agenda.
Even more serious is the Afghanistan war. Obama made a surprise visit to that country on the anniversary of bin Laden’s death and spoke to Americans. “This time of war began in Afghanistan, and this is where it will end,” he proclaimed.
It is in Afghanistan where Obama first demonstrated that his foreign policy would be as muscular as that of his predecessor. Following Bush’s “surge” in Iraq, Obama twice increased the number of troops in Afghanistan. He also maintained the Bush withdrawal timetable in Iraq, began his own war in Libya, sent Special Forces into Uganda, intensified drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen and, of course, approved the mission to kill bin Laden.
However, getting out of Afghanistan is not likely to be as easy as the president hopes. He intends to withdraw U.S. forces by the end of next year. While in Afghanistan he signed an agreement with the government of Hamid Karzai for future security cooperation. The accord, explained the president, “defines a new kind of relationship between our countries — a future in which Afghans are responsible for the security of their nation.”
It is a worthwhile objective, but despite the growth of Afghan security forces, Kabul doesn’t look anywhere near ready to handle its own security. The Afghan people have little confidence in a government which they see as corrupt and incompetent. Most Afghans reject the Taliban’s brutal return to past oppression (as they should). However, that doesn’t mean they will die fighting to keep Karzai and his allies in power.
Thus, if the United States withdraws too quickly, it risks losing all of the hard-won gains of a decade of war. Bush aimed for more than just defeating al-Qaeda. His “Freedom Agenda” sought to spread liberty to other nations, most obviously Iraq and Afghanistan.
Neutralizing the Taliban is a moral issue, since all Afghans would suffer if Islamic fundamentalists again took power. At particular risk are women and girls, who suffered extra hardship and humiliation under the Taliban. Even now, they have not achieved genuine equality, but increasing numbers of girls are being educated and more women are getting active in business and government. Those gains would be wiped out by the Taliban’s return. Even a coalition with the Taliban would put equal treatment of women at risk.
While whoever is elected president in November cannot continue an unpopular war only to uplift Afghan women, the transition should be designed to maximize the likelihood of preserving human rights for all where so many Americans, allied soldiers and Afghans already have died fighting undemocratic forces. Afghanistan will be a failed state if it fails to recognize the human rights of its women and children.
Obama has an impressive foreign policy story to tell and he told it with characteristic eloquence in his speech from Afghanistan. Almost four years after he took the oath of office, Americans may be safer today because bin Laden is dead. The United States must support and advance the human rights of Afghan women with the determination our nation exhibited in killing bin Laden and fighting al-Qaeda. Today, our democracy, democracies around the world and the women of Afghanistan need the president and the United States to continue to be muscular in how we deal with the Taliban.
Michelle D. Bernard is president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics & Public Policy. Follow her on Twitter @michellebernard.