WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday that women's rights should not be sacrificed in any settlement between the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Taliban militants.
"We will not abandon you, we will stand with you always," Clinton told three senior female Afghan officials who accompanied Karzai on his four-day trip to the United States, which ends today with a visit to U.S. troops in Fort Campbell, Ky.
Clinton said it was "essential that women's rights and women's opportunities are not sacrificed or trampled on in the reconciliation process."
Her comments came amid concerns that any political deal with Afghan insurgents could erode gains women have made since a U.S.-led invasion drove the Taliban from power in 2001.
Karzai came to the United States this week in part to persuade the Obama administration to back his plans for ending the war through negotiations. But insurgents and their sympathizers routinely intimidate or attack women who work outside the home, wear Western dress or try to attend school.
Karzai, meanwhile, sought to allay fears that negotiations with the Taliban would turn Afghanistan from its alliance with the United States and commitment to human rights.
Sitting next to Clinton at the United States Institute of Peace, Karzai called low-level Taliban sympathizers "countryside boys" who are not enemies of the United States or its government. "We must try legitimately to return them," he said.
He distinguished rank-and-file militants from their leadership, for whom "reconciliation is more difficult and more to the future."
Karzai and Clinton both said a planned operation to root out the Taliban from Kandahar would not be a traditional military offensive. They said the upcoming operation would be done in coordination with local elders and rely heavily on their support for success. Karzai raised U.S. eyebrows last month when he said locals would have veto power over the plan.
But he and Clinton said they agreed on the strategy.
Kandahar is considered make-or-break for the expanded U.S.-led military commitment to Afghanistan, and the key test of whether the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy is working. The NATO effort is already under way in outlying districts and is expected to move into the city in June.