The Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan Explained—And How Women Could Be in Peril

But there is reason not to believe these promises. Parts of Afghanistan have been controlled by the Taliban even as the U.S. has continued to have a presence in the country. “Public beatings and executions are routine inside the Taliban’s Afghanistan,” The Washington Post reported in December 2020. “And women are almost entirely absent from public life, largely denied equal access to education and employment.” This July, women in Taliban-controlled regions told Voice of America that they were forbidden to leave home without a male chaperone and forced to wear a full body covering. “They have conducted summary executions. They are beating up women. They are shutting down schools. They are blowing up clinics, and they are blowing up infrastructure,” former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. Husain Haqqani told NPR of life in Taliban territory.

How did this happen?

This week marks the tail end of the 20 years the U.S. has spent waging war in Afghanistan. On September 11, 2001, terrorist group al-Qaida attacked the U.S. The following week President George W. Bush pledged that the U.S. would “defend freedom,” “bring our enemies to justice,” and fight and win the “war on terror.” The U.S. invaded Afghanistan, and the Taliban surrendered in December 2001. But the U.S. spent two more decades in the country, attempting to build a democratic government and strong Afghan military, even as the Taliban rebuilt and gained power.

The numbers from the 20-year war are grim: More than 47,000 Afghan civilians have died, as well as 66,000 members of the Afghan military and police. The American death toll exceeds 6,000, which includes more than 2,400 soldiers. The war has cost the United States more than $2 trillion, a number that is expected to balloon, due to interest. It is the longest war in American history.

In May, under President Biden, U.S. forces began finalizing their withdrawal from Afghanistan, a path paved by a peace treaty signed under President Trump between the U.S. and the Taliban. Biden had insisted that the transition would be smooth, and that Afghan leaders would withstand Taliban forces. But this week the Afghan military and government fell to the Taliban.

In remarks on Monday, President Biden defended U.S. military actions and blamed the Afghan government and military. “Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country,” he said. But the situation on the ground is more complex. The Afghan soldiers who folded to the Taliban have faced years of huge fatalities and pay theft, The New York Times reports.

Why is the U.S. leaving after years of claiming to help Afghan women?

The urgent danger facing women in Afghanistan may not feel like an occasion for nuance. But it’s worth noting the painful irony—Afghan women are being left in peril, even though the U.S. has, from the start, used the rights and safety of Afghan women as a pretext to wage war in the country.

In president Bush’s first address to Congress and the nation about the war in Afghanistan, he laid out reasons for intervention, saying, “Afghanistan’s people have been brutalized—many are starving and many have fled. Women are not allowed to attend school.” In a radio address in November 2001, first lady Laura Bush claimed that U.S. engagement in Afghanistan was part of a larger effort to secure rights and safety for women. “Because of our recent military gains, in much of Afghanistan women are no longer imprisoned in their homes,” she said. “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” American feminists, including Gloria Steinem, Meryl Streep, and Kim Gandy, then the president of the National Organization of Women, signed an open letter to the president arguing that, “U.S. women supported the war against the Taliban in unprecedented numbers—in large part because they believed your promises that it would liberate Afghan women from abuse and oppression.”

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