Late in 2014, I interviewed a prominent Afghan women's rights expert in Kabul. The U.S. government had recently launched a new women's empowerment program designed to "empower" 75,000 Afghan women at a cost of more than $200 Million.
My gut reaction was that the program was going to be a waste of money because most of the women who would qualify for the program were already largely "empowered" and because this program was not addressing the real reasons why women were not empowered.
The rights activist confirmed my suspicions in our conversation. She argued that the international community had been wasting its resources on high-profile programs to support women, and many of those programs were doing as much harm as good. By educating and empowering women and building up their expectations about their career and life potential while doing nothing to change the underlying patriarchy in Afghanistan, the international community was setting women up for failure, or worse.
The activist said that as long as "empowered" women were returning to homes where the men believed that women were property and that controlling, selling, or beating them was considered acceptable behavior, then women women would not be making progress in Afghanistan. Holding training sessions for Afghan women to teach them about starting a business is easy. Getting Afghan men to change centuries' worth of cultural views and practices is not.
In 2015, after I had returned from Afghanistan, I was warning that there was a "development bubble" in the country. My point was that the gains people were touting in Afghanistan were a result of billions of dollars being pumped into development programs and that was inflating a tire with a hole in it. The international community wasn't patching the hole (cultural practices, and the lack of indigenous capacity and political will to change and improve). As a result, once you slow the flow of air into that tire, things backslide.
Critics of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan today continue to raise the alarm about how women will suffer. They say that the withdrawal will embolden and benefit the Taliban who will then return to power and once again subjugate and torture women. That is not outside the realm of possibility, but it still implies things today are better than they are.
Conditions for women in Afghanistan today are not nearly as positive as advocates would have you believe. Yes, more women are going to school. More women are serving in government. More women are playing sports and starting businesses.
However, many of those women are facing threats for breaking with tradition, and those threats are not coming from the Taliban.
Niloofar Rahimi was celebrated as Afghanistan's first female air force pilot. Yet, she ended up fleeing Afghanistan after enduring constant threats, not just from the Taliban, but from relatives who felt she was acting inappropriately and bringing shame to the family.
Women who are brave enough to join Afghanistan's security forces face threats from their male counterparts and their families. Some have been killed or driven into exile.
Afghan women who have taken up sports have been heralded as trailblazers who will inspire Afghan girls for generations to come. Yet, countless female athletes have been abused, killed, or driven into exile, more often than not by male acquaintances.
To this day, Afghanistan's Elimination of Violence Against Women Law remains a presidential decree only. The Afghan parliament has never been able to muster the votes to make it a durable law, and that's in part because female parliamentarians have voted against it.
As reported in the story linked above about the failure to pass the law, prominent Afghan men and presidential advisers hold views of women barely distinguishable from the Taliban.
The point of all of this is to say while Afghan women have benefitted from hundreds of millions of dollars of programs to lift them up, they aren't nearly as empowered as advocates claim.
For every case of a female politician or journalist murdered by the Taliban, there are dozens of cases of Afghan women killed and abused by their non-Taliban family members. The gains for Afghan women have come more as a result of military force than cultural change and acceptance.
Yes, the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan will reduce protections for women. However, even if the Taliban did not exist, large numbers of Afghan men today still believe women are property and will continue to treat them accordingly.
Don't just take my word for it. A recently declassified intelligence assessment (that should not have been classified to begin with) says exactly what I have been arguing since I left Afghanistan. The so-called gains for Afghan women are largely a mirage as Afghan men for the most part have not changed their views and values.