Guarding rights, fighting terror

Remember the women of Afghanistan.

They are the clearest beneficiaries of the U.S. war against the Taliban, which was launched after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In the decade since the fall of that repressive regime, girls returned to school, women took public office and are no longer forced to wear burqas.

Now, the planned drawdown of U.S. troops threatens fragile gains in a place known for its brutal tradition of female suppression. Common ground is rare in Washington. But, fearing a power vacuum as Afghanistan transitions to its next phase of government, Republican and Democratic women in Congress are pushing the White House to make sure women in Afghanistan have a seat at the negotiating table.

The congressional Afghan Women's Task Force — which is co-chaired by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., and Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md. — wants to make sure that women "play a meaningful role in the Afghan Peace and Reintegration Plan." It's not just about preserving women's rights, said Rodgers. Preserving those rights is a way to fight terrorism.

"The terrorists gain power by oppressing women," said Rodgers. "As we stand by women, we are undermining the terrorist stranglehold."

Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., who is also on the task force, said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will play a leading role when it comes to keeping the faith with Afghan women. Clinton has made it a personal cause, declaring it essential "that women's rights and women's opportunities are not sacrificed or trampled on in the reconciliation process." She also promised Afghan women leaders that "we will not abandon you, we will stand with you always."

But even with Clinton's strong backing, Tsongas said, it's important to keep pressure on the Obama administration. She has taken four trips to Afghanistan with groups of Republican and Democratic women. The snippets of hope and progress seen on those visits linger, she said. During a trip over Mother's Day weekend, the U.S. delegation met with Afghan women who were training to become helicopter pilots. They visited a school where girls dream of becoming doctors, teachers and nurses. They also met with the Afghan minister of health, a woman who is committed to improving health care and living standards for women and children.

"The integrity of our effort demands that we not walk away from those gains," said Tsongas.

How much clout these female lawmakers have in a town that features only one woman on the all-important budget "super committee" is unclear. To what extent the White House can really influence the outcome in Afghanistan is even cloudier.

Americans want out of Afghanistan. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, the number of people saying U.S. troops should be brought home from Afghanistan shot up to 56 percent. A year ago, just 40 percent favored troop withdrawal. But, the majority surveyed by Pew still say the decision to use force in Afghanistan was the right one after 9/11.

America did not fight the Taliban to free the women of Afghanistan. But achieving their freedom and sustaining it honors this country and those who have died for it.

© 2011 Boston Globe

Guarding rights, fighting terror 09/11/11 [Last modified: Sunday, September 11, 2011 5:30am]

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