Who Will Bear the Cost of NATO’s Exit from Afghanistan? Ask Afghan Women

In the run-up to NATO’s 2012 Chicago summit, Alliance members look ever more determined to leave Afghanistan sooner rather than later. In spite of the flurry of media reports, recent security incidents involving members of both the Afghan and the American security forces can be considered tragic exceptions. They nevertheless fuel the argument that little good can come out of NATO’s continued presence on the ground in Afghanistan. This widespread skepticism is not unfounded. Yet those who advocate rapid exit as the only remaining option often fail to take a comprehensive view of the situation that will follow a hasty drawdown.

A large segment of Afghan society – its women – stands to lose on all fronts under the scenarios that NATO leaders will debate in Chicago. The drawdown of NATO forces by 2014, an exit date without a well-crafted plan for stability, is likely to give rise to a combination of the following: civil war, negotiation and erosion in funding. The ensuing plight of Afghan women threatens to undermine hard-earned progress on the ground and, in the long run, the credibility of NATO and its foremost military power, the United States.

Limited advances on the women’s rights agenda throughout the past decade can be considered as one of the scarce success stories of the current Afghan government. The Karzai administration, with the active backing of the international community, engaged in affirmative action through a series of policies facilitating women’s social, economic and political upward mobility. The new Afghan constitution adopted in 2004 states that: “The citizens of Afghanistan, men and women, have equal rights and duties before the law” (emphasis added). Afghan women now participate in elections, run businesses, empower the education system, and work in government and international institutions. Close to seven million students, 37 per cent of them girls are registered at schools. For the first time ever, 91 out of the 361 Afghan legislators are women and the Woulsi Jirga (lower house) counts 29 elected women (with 28 seats formally reserved to women).

These are significant signs of progress compared to the Taliban regime, which denied women access to education and work. Recent achievements in improving the condition of Afghan women, however, are under severe threat given the urgency with which NATO and the United States are striving to end combat operations and lessen their military presence prior to 2014.

Civil war

Regional experts have long speculated about the risk of civil war following the drawdown of NATO’s security presence. Judging from past experience, civil war will be highly detrimental to women’s rights in Afghanistan. Compared to former power holders, the current regime has provided a better life for many Afghan women, who suffered violations of their rights not only under the Taliban but equally during the 1990s Afghan civil war that followed the collapse of the pro-Communist regime. In the past, warlords from various rival Mujahidin factions targeted women and committed atrocities against them – a danger they now face again with civil war looming. Nasria Pashtun, a senior Afghan NGO worker based in Kabul, notes “When it comes to Afghan women, they are terrified by the fact that their security is under threat in the current situation. What will happen when NATO forces leave the country? Their biggest fear is what happens if Taliban take over power again. The life of the Afghan women will be miserable.” Sadeqa, a female social worker from Kandahar, says she still recalls the dark times for Afghan women during the civil war in the early 1990s.


Human rights advocacy groups have repeatedly voiced concerns over the role of women in the case of negotiations with the Taliban. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have gone a step further by demanding that women’s rights should not be compromised in a peace settlement with the Taliban. Afghan women’s fear of losing their voice in a political deal with the Taliban is real. Mrs Farid, a teacher at one of the few high schools for girls in Kandahar, says she worries about the return of Taliban and about a compromise that will jeopardize her job and participation in the rebuilding of her country. She has already received death threats to refrain from teaching at her school.

Although eight out of roughly sixty-eight members of the High Council for Peace are women, it is still unclear how much influence they will have over decision-making during negotiations with the Taliban. The changing attitude of Afghanistan’s Ulema Shura (the religious cleric council) towards separating women from men in the public sphere – and President Karzai’s backing thereof – give a clear sign of the constraints Afghan women will face. The president himself moreover faces incentives to compromise on women’s rights in attempts to appease the hardliners among his political rivals. President Karzai and his allies undoubtedly realize that compromising on women’s rights during negotiations will come at a cost. Yet they see women’s education as a luxury compared to the imperative of ending a conflict that cost thousands of Afghan lives. Finding a way to resolve this dilemma will be essential to the long term prosperity of Afghanistan.

Erosion in Funding  

Thousands of educated and uneducated Afghan women are currently employed by governmental, non-governmental and private sector organizations.  As most projects involving women are tied to foreign aid, these job pools will largely dry up as aid erodes alongside the diminishing presence of NATO forces. Many NGOs working in the capital and provincial cities in Afghanistan provide funds to Afghan women (mostly grants that do not have to be repaid, unlike bank loans) to support small and mid-sized businesses. These initiatives are in danger of shutting down if the security situation worsens. In the words of Nasria, the Kabul-based NGO worker, “many NGOs funded by international organizations want to withdraw their investments before NATO’s withdrawal because the security might get worse. They don’t want to risk their money. Many NGOs have already limited their activities, such as the [U.S.] Ambassador’s Grant Program, which is over now. Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Women program is a five years program, and 2013 is the last year.” 

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated at the Kabul Conference, “We will never support any attempt to sacrifice the fundamental human rights enshrined in the Afghan Constitution, including the rights of women.” Similarly, U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton who has taken a special interest in women’s rights routinely encourages women rights to be taken into account during future reintegration and reconciliation programs. Given the firm tendency among NATO members to push for withdrawal by the 2014 deadline, the above scenarios are likely to unfold in some combination. None of them bear good news for Afghan women. In this perspective, Western decision-makers’ assertions that they take women’s rights seriously cannot sound but hollow. The likely erosion of the limited achievements of the past decade for Afghanistan’s women not only undermines NATO’s exit plan but also the credibility of the Alliance and the values it stands for in the long term. 

Ahmad Waheed, Andrea Barbara Baumann and Geety Samadi are members of the Young Atlanticist Working Group. The women cited were interviewed via phone and email between 7 and 10 March 2012 by Ahmeed Waheed.

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