After all, President George W. Bush presented the war in Afghanistan as a mission partly intended to liberate women from Taliban oppression. This framing helps explain why most Americans assume that U.S. support for Afghan women’s rights began with the U.S. invasion in late 2001. But American commitment to Afghan women actually dates to the 1990s. Today, the future of this long-standing American policy is uncertain.
The Taliban first emerged in the mid-1990s. Afghanistan had been at war since the Soviet Union invaded in 1979 to prop up Afghanistan’s unpopular communist government. After a long and bloody war, Afghan rebel groups known as the mujahideen defeated the Soviet Union in 1989 and ousted the country’s communist government in 1992. Yet the mujahideen’s victory did not bring peace. The various mujahideen factions turned on one another, sparking a civil war between warlords that lasted until the Taliban seized Kabul in 1996. The warlords often brutalized Afghan civilians, including women and children.
Founded by two veterans of the Soviet-Afghan war, the Taliban cast itself as the savior of Afghanistan. Most Taliban members were young Afghan men who had grown up in refugee camps in neighboring Pakistan and had learned an ultraconservative version of Sunni Islam in the camps’ religious schools. The Taliban promised to end the mujahideen’s abuses and bring peace. The Afghan people initially welcomed it, and the group began seizing territory in 1994. However, the Taliban soon proved to be worse than the mujahideen.
In each area it conquered, the Taliban imposed the most radically conservative form of Islamist law in history. It sought to eradicate Western influences and force Afghans to conform to its vision of a “purified” Islamic Afghanistan. Controlling women and erasing them from public life was central to this vision. Those who violated the Taliban’s laws faced harsh punishment — even death — at the hands of religious police. Women could not leave their homes without a male relative. Girls could not go to school, and women were forbidden from having jobs. Male doctors were not permitted to treat female patients, depriving women of health care. A host of other laws restricted women to the home and subordinated them to control by men.
The U.S. government covertly supported the mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan War but largely forgot about Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal. When the Taliban seized Kabul and control of the Afghan government in 1996, the United States and the international community scrambled to respond. The Taliban’s brutal human rights violations could not be ignored. Afghan women soon became central to the U.S. policy response.
The Clinton administration had worked to place women’s rights at the center of domestic and foreign policy. This policy focus on women was unprecedented. Among other actions, the administration supported passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994. President Bill Clinton also appointed more women to high-ranking federal positions than any previous president. These included Attorney General Janet Reno and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
The administration worked closely with nongovernmental organizations to advance women’s equality at home and abroad. And Clinton created new institutions focused on women’s rights, including the State Department Office of International Women’s Issues. As first lady, Hillary Clinton famously declared that “women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights, once and for all,” at the 1995 U.N. World Conference on Women in Beijing.
The Taliban’s unambiguous and brutal oppression of women was an affront to this emphasis. The Clinton administration therefore worked with international feminist organizations as it considered its options. Most important, these groups included international NGOs like the Sisterhood Is Global Institute (SIGI), which was headed by feminists from Muslim countries and one of whose founders was Afghan. Groups like SIGI helped connect U.S. policymakers with Afghan women’s groups like the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) and international networks like Women Living Under Muslim Laws. With their input, the United States refused to recognize the Taliban government specifically because of its violations of women’s and girls’ human rights. In a powerful show of support for Afghan women, every government on Earth — with the exception of Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia — denied the Taliban recognition.
The Clinton administration paired nonrecognition with meaningful foreign aid. Because it consulted with organizations such as SIGI, the administration avoided relying on negative stereotypes of Muslims or claiming to know what was best for Afghan women. Instead, the administration let Afghan feminists set the agenda. The U.S. became the largest provider of humanitarian and development aid to the Afghan people by the time Clinton left office; a significant portion of that went to women’s rights programs.
American aid did not dislodge the Taliban, but it was a critical step toward advancing women’s rights in Afghanistan and integrating women’s human rights into U.S. foreign policy. Nonrecognition denied resources to the Taliban; the United States scuttled an oil pipeline deal that would have enriched the Taliban. And development aid supported groups like RAWA, who resisted the Taliban and smuggled videos of its human rights abuses to international media.
The Bush administration also condemned the Taliban’s “brutality toward women,” but this time the U.S. imposed women’s equality at gunpoint. The U.S. invaded Afghanistan in late 2001 in retaliation for 9/11; the Taliban had given the al-Qaeda terrorist network safe harbor in Afghanistan. But once the U.S. geared up for war, Bush announced that another important war goal was the liberation of Afghan women from the Taliban’s oppressive rule. Americans from across the political spectrum cheered this policy.
Later, the Obama administration continued supporting women’s rights initiatives in Afghanistan, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declaring that women’s rights were a “cornerstone of American foreign policy.” Unlike the Bush administration, the Obama administration’s women’s rights policies did not focus solely on Islamic countries. It instead incorporated Afghan women into its broader gender equality initiatives to advance women’s education, leadership, economic empowerment and democratic participation.
Yet pairing women’s rights with a U.S. invasion complicated the work of Afghan women’s rights activists. Unlike the Clinton administration, the Bush administration relied heavily on the advice of groups such as the Feminist Majority, a U.S. organization that lacked experience with Afghanistan or foreign affairs. This caused the Bush administration to embrace a more imperialist approach that cast Americans as Afghan women’s saviors. The Taliban and others could dismiss Afghanistan’s homegrown women’s rights movement by charging that gender equality was a Western import. Resisting women’s equality became one way of resisting American occupation. Afghan feminist groups such as RAWA opposed the U.S. invasion for this reason, arguing that war would increase women’s and children’s suffering.
After nearly two decades of war, the Trump administration began negotiations with a reinvigorated Taliban and announced that the U.S. would soon withdraw. President Biden inherited this policy and chose to continue the withdrawal plans. The United States’ withdrawal without securing the stability of the Afghan government has brought the Taliban back to power, and Afghan women will now pay the price.
The Taliban today claims it is different from the 1990s. Yet recent actions indicate that the group is as brutal and misogynist as it was a quarter-century ago. There are reports of Taliban fighters kidnapping young women to be their “wives,” hunting women journalists and political leaders, murdering a young woman for not wearing a veil and using violence against Afghans who resist. As the Taliban seeks to reimpose its radical version of Islamist law, Afghan women face a grim future.
The Biden administration has said that women’s rights must be central to U.S. policy. It created a new Gender Policy Council, and Biden claimed continued support for women’s rights in Afghanistan in his Aug. 16 address on the fall of Kabul. Will the Biden administration really try to live up to the quarter century of promises the U.S. made to Afghan women? Perhaps the administration can learn important lessons from the Clinton administration’s approach to supporting Afghan women. Denying recognition to the Taliban, letting Afghan women set the agenda and providing meaningful assistance will be crucial. If the United States fails, or chooses to abandon its commitments, Afghan women will be the ones to suffer.