This April, a report by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission stated that 14 women had been killed and 22 wounded since January in targeted attacks, even as the Taliban and the now-deposed Afghan government continued ‘peace talks’ in Doha. Not surprisingly, nearly all those women were professionals, including TV technicians, vaccinators and police officials; and the force behind the attacks was also ominously obvious.
US president Joe Biden emerged from Camp David on Monday to blame the Afghan government and its army for capitulating with hardly a shot fired, to the very force that was ousted 20 years ago by the US. He pointed out that both entities were unwilling to fight the Taliban despite decades of US support in terms of arms, training, education and opportunity. The question, of course, is why they—overwhelmingly men—did not resist at all.
The disturbing images of hundreds of Afghans milling around Kabul airport, trying to board commercial airlines, running after US military transport aircraft down the runway had one leitmotif too: only men. The two possible reasons for this are: the men left womenfolk behind, or the brave Afghan women—mothers, wives, sisters—told men to try to escape certain death while they would face whatever the Taliban has in store for them.
The absence of women in those crazy scenes at the airport this week, for me, portended a continuation of their long story of silent bravery and resilience. Afghanistan has historically been one of the worst places to be female. And their plight cannot be blamed entirely on the tenets of doctrinaire Islam. Tribal laws and practices often take precedence over Islamic and even secular laws there, and women have traditionally borne the brunt.
Even as more and more women and girls came out of their homes in Kabul and other urban centres, and benefited from the freedom and access to education and careers offered by the US intervention 20 years ago, rural Afghanistan did not change so willingly. Women had to work hard to gain their freedoms. Therefore, the Afghans who have the most to lose from the Taliban blitzkrieg and collapse of the US-supported structure are women.
How quickly the Afghan armed forces wilted before the advancing Taliban came as a shock to everyone—especially the Afghans themselves and the US. Biden said a day later, “The truth is: This did unfold more quickly than we anticipated. So what happened? Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military gave up, sometimes without trying to fight.” That is a damning indictment for any national fighting force.
The picture, of course, is not that simple. An estimated 70,000 Afghan police and military personnel have died fighting the Taliban and those troops also had to deal with rampant corruption besides erratic postings and lack of proper food and other supplies. But the fact is that despite the US allocating a stunning $89 billion for just training, they still crumbled once the Taliban stepped up their attack after 1 May, 2021 and totally gave up in the last 10 days.
After a policewoman was killed in Jalalabad this February by suspected Talibs, the Afghan government had announced it would increase the number of women in security forces from 4,000 to 10,000 by 2024. That is not likely to happen now, but it does give rise to an intriguing ‘what if’. Had the US concentrated on recruiting and training more (or only!) women combatants in the Afghan armed forces, would the Taliban have had such an easy run?
Once upon a time, the Western powers in Afghanistan aimed to have women comprise 10 percent of the Afghan security forces and went on a vigorous recruitment promotion campaign. But by 2015, that target was reduced to half. A report released in January 2021 by the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction revealed that as of 2020, 3.25 percent of Afghan police and less than 1 percent of the uniformed Afghan army were women.
Many Afghan women dreamt of combat roles and changing the prevalent culture of the region. But gradually they realised this was easier said than done. And from 2017, the number of women in the armed forces has actually been kept confidential. There is evidently something inherent in the patriarchal society there—besides the broader issue of corruption and bad leadership—that makes women fight hard for their freedom and rights.
Currently, the Taliban leadership is putting out its most ‘moderate’, glib faces, promising a ‘place’ for women in their society—within the dictates of the Koran, of course—with the international media attention focused on them at the moment. But there is enough reason for scepticism about their placatory pronouncements. More so because the rank-and-file talibs who will now run things in the areas outside Kabul have a very different idea of that ‘place’.
Given the way women have mounted an armed resistance to fundamentalist forces elsewhere—such as the Yazidi—the motivation for Afghan women is clear. They have the most to lose in a doctrinaire, hardline, male-centric regime and they have to fight for it. They have seen these very forces in action before, so there is every reason to believe that had they been in the Afghan armed forces, they would have fought till the last woman standing.