In a televised interview, President Biden addressed the challenge of protecting women’s rights in Afghanistan, which has become one of the longest-standing justifications for continued US military presence in the country. To confront the reality of women’s rights abuses in Afghanistan and around the world, he said, we must put “economic, diplomatic, and international pressure on them [ruling leaders] to change their behavior,” and that the way to “deal with that is not with a military invasion.”
There is little solace in hearing a US president say today what many progressive feminists said, and were right about, 20 years ago. Not now, when decades of war-making on Afghanistan have culminated in a deal with the Taliban that sold out women, a so-called peace process that excluded women, and a US military withdrawal carried out without consultation with Afghan civil society, leaving women’s rights activists and so many vulnerable others at risk of violent Taliban reprisals.
The war on Afghanistan was one of the earliest and most brutal consequences of the post-9/11 march to a “war on terror,” launched by the Bush administration and maintained by all those that followed. In the name of “national security,” the US embraced a renewed commitment to violence, mainly against Black and brown communities globally, in order to keep “us” safe. Meanwhile, Afghan women’s rights were cited as justification for the invasion, but that didn’t stop the US from making deals with warlords who abused them. That didn’t keep the US from devoting almost 1,000 times more money on military spending in Afghanistan than on women’s rights efforts.
It didn’t have to be this way. As we remember the lingering pain of the September 11 attacks, we must also remember that even in the grim days that followed, people mobilized for peace and justice. For example, the international women’s rights organization and feminist fund MADRE launched a campaign called “Justice Not Vengeance,” calling for a response rooted in international rule of law, not in military retaliation. We knew that US military action was never going to be the force that overcame the Taliban, or any authoritarian power or terror group, for that matter.
The answer — now as it was then, in Afghanistan as in any country targeted by the US war on terror — lies in feminist foreign policy. This thinking offers three urgent lessons Biden must grasp now, to chart a better course for the next 20 years.
First, reject the binary choices that the foreign policy establishment is pushing on us now. The choice is not between endless military engagement and total abandonment. In fact, the US has a lasting responsibility to Afghanistan, especially to Afghan women and girls to whom it promised so much.
In recent days, the Biden administration has been desperately angling for a “pivot.” Now that the evacuations are purportedly over and the troops have come home, Biden wants to move on to happier topics. This is a gross abdication of responsibility and a far cry from what the US owes the Afghan people. A feminist foreign policy for Afghanistan would demand US accountability for the conditions created by its decades-long military intervention and reparations for the harms generated.
This means urgent and ongoing efforts to assure the safety of those most in danger now living under Taliban rule, including by transforming our own immigration and asylum system and mobilizing all available resources to support the safe passage of Afghans. This means engaging in rapid diplomacy with governments in the region and around the world to assist with relocation and the needs of refugees. We must also reallocate the more than $6 billion in funds, previously earmarked for the now-collapsed Afghan National Security Forces, toward humanitarian aid, diplomacy, and support for Afghan civil society and women human rights defenders.
Afghanistan is not the only country that needs justice and reparation. Countries from Iraq to Colombia and beyond, which have been in the crosshairs of the US war on terror, need the same consideration and healing. And US foreign policy thinking must be overhauled to meet that demand.
Secondly, Afghan women, like women peacebuilders in so many places targeted by the war on terror, can and must be allowed to chart the way to peace. Instead, the US has been complicit in silencing and excluding their voices from key negotiation forums, with serious consequences for women’s rights protections, prospects for lasting peace, and their country’s future.
The US must make amends now and support an immediate and comprehensive nationwide ceasefire. This includes an end to US airstrikes — like the retaliatory attack launched against ISIS-K after the Kabul airport bombing — which deepen the cycle of violence and kill civilians. And the Biden administration must add its diplomatic efforts to calls for a UN-mediated, inclusive, human rights-based Afghan peace process. We cannot repeat the failures of the past; any new rounds of talks must absolutely prioritize the full, meaningful, and safe participation of women. Their inclusion is not only a means to strengthen rights protections for women, but a strategy for supporting the hopes and needs of the majority of Afghans, who are not represented by armed groups.
Finally, now that Biden has recognized that military invasions are not the answer to rights abuses, he must follow his newfound conviction to the conclusion feminists have long advocated. The world needs an answer to the threats of extremist violence and authoritarianism, and it lies in feminist organizing.
For instance, the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq has spoken out for years against armed, fundamentalist militias and against their government’s corruption, while offering protection and safe housing for those displaced by violence. They have created space for youth to forge connections across sectarian lines and advanced a new vision of an inclusive Iraqi democracy. And they’ve done all of that while firmly rejecting US invasion and occupation.
This type of organizing is an essential, effective way to confront authoritarian power and the destructive role of armed, sectarian violence. By meeting people’s urgent needs and creating channels for collaborative action, grassroots feminist organizers strengthen their communities and build inclusive movements. These are vital steps that can work to create pressure for political change within authoritarian contexts.
Likewise, in Afghanistan, as women activists, journalists, and leaders are under attack, facing the threat of assassination by the Taliban, they are mobilizing to keep one another safe, by organizing secure relocation and protection measures on the ground. They are nurturing the networks woven between communities that are the best hope at protecting lives and that can be the basis for building peace and democracy. Even now, as they have been forced to evacuate out-of-country or go underground in-country, they are raising their voices and organizing for their country’s future. These are the leaders that the US must support, through funding and diplomacy, now.
Biden has belatedly realized that pro-peace feminists were right before about the futility of military invasions in the name of human rights. Don’t waste 20 more years on failed foreign policies before realizing what else we were right about.