The Abandoned Mission: Life for Afghan Women after NATO's Withdrawal

The world’s promise to Afghan women should be kept

By Lema Ijtemaye

The American-led invasion of Afghanistan irrevocably changed the international security situation. Operation Enduring Freedom, with NATO’s military support and Canada’s participation in Operation APOLLO, had three very specific targets:1 (a) to eradicate any organization supporting Al-Qaeda; (b) to eliminate any potential threats against the US or its allies; and © to secure the freedoms that the Taliban denied to the Afghan people—notably that of the oppressed Afghan women.

The ruthlessness of Talib regime, which governed Afghanistan from 1996 until its collapse, had been obvious long before the 2001 invasion. Specifically, the Taliban’s exceptionally cruel treatment of Afghan women quickly became a major justification for NATO’s intervention. The world was told that the mission would liberate oppressed people. Freedom, liberty, and democracy—the foundations of Western society—were now also being extended to the Afghan people, and more significantly, to Afghan women.

Canada’s participation in NATO’s Afghan mission was based on its close defence relations with the US, as well as its obligations to NATO. The 9/11 attacks resulted in Article V of the Washington Treaty being invoked for the first time in NATO’s history, specifying that an attack on any member state is considered an attack on the whole organization. Thus Canada’s duty to NATO and its own security interests as an ally of the US prompted Ottawa to commit military resources to the invasion of Afghanistan.

Canadians were told that Canada’s objectives were the same as those of NATO as a whole—to neutralize security threats to Canada and North America and topple the Taliban regime so as to liberate the Afghan people—especially the women.

The treatment of Afghan women under the Taliban regime was so abhorrent that the Western objective was well received internationally. Although the Taliban’s particular style of governance, rooted in a fundamentalist understanding of Islam and Pashtun nationalism, was oppressive for most Afghans, the targeting of ethnic minorities and Afghan women was explicit. Restrictions on women transcended politics and was manifest in traditions as well; women were not permitted a right to education or any type of career. They were prohibited from leaving the house without of a male family member chaperone, and had to wear burqas in public spaces. Public flogging, and in some cases the public execution of women, was broadcast internationally, demonstrating to the world the barbarous character of the Taliban. Talib brutality was difficult for the international community to understand and hard for the people of Afghanistan to accept—especially the women. Prior to the establishment of the Talib regime and the civil conflict plaguing the country, Afghan women had played a role in every facet of Afghan society. In addition to possessing fundamental human rights, such as the right to education and to political participation, Afghan women had maintained active professional careers in the military, public service, and the private sector. Therefore, the eruption of civil conflict in the 1990s and the subsequent emergence of the Taliban were political turning points that had deeply harmed the women of Afghanistan.

A short-lived ‘liberation’

The toppling of the Taliban in 2001 lent fervour to the rhetoric that the people of Afghanistan were at last liberated. No longer would they cower in fear of brutal backlash. And no doubt critical progress indeed was made in the aftermath of the invasion; the Afghan people rejoiced in the regime’s removal and no jaded attitude toward foreign militaries had yet emerged in the psyche of the country. Fundamental measures restored rights to Afghan women, and cultivated an environment in which women could flourish. A surge of resources into the country’s infrastructure quickly resulted in the return of girls to schools, and the re-entrance of women into politics. A newly-formed government that was handpicked by the West as a result of the Bonn agreement. Women were no longer forced to wear the burqa and gained full mobility without male companionship. The foundation had quickly been established by NATO; it seemed that because state security was fully restored and a functional central government was established in Kabul, there was little possibility for Taliban resurgence. This supported the notion that Afghan women’s progress, both political and societal, would also no longer be impeded.

Thus the post-2001 political environment suggested that the objectives of the US and NATO were being realized. State security was being restored by NATO; the Talib regime had collapsed and its remaining leaders sought shelter in neighboring Pakistan; and the people of Afghanistan, the women in particular, were liberated.

NATO officially ended its combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014, and the US troops, except for personnel remaining to aid in government stabilization, were withdrawn in 2016.2 This was regarded as the next logical step toward successfully ending the war. Resources and personnel were now being devoted to supporting the government in Kabul, to stabilize state security and prevent Taliban resurgence.

The rhetoric portrayed the US and NATO as having achieved all their primary mission objectives, and as now acting only in a supporting capacity. The Canadian Armed Forces, having played a critical role in securing Taliban-dominated areas such as Kandahar at the onset of the war, also ended its mission in March 2014 after Ottawa declared the mission a success.3

But what exactly was accomplished? One gauge of NATO’s success in Afghanistan is the current situation of Afghan women. After all, their liberation was a key justification for the invasion. Regrettably, the current conditions of Afghan women, although not as brutal as under the Talib regime, remain difficult and desolate. Although women retain the right to be part of the political process and to gain an education, the current political climate does not let them take advantage of these rights.

Schools, Health, and civil society

Aside from the instability of the whole country, including the central government in Kabul, Afghan women still encounter insurmountable restrictions. Though young girls are allowed to gain an education, it is still very difficult for them to enroll in school. Continued political instability and the increasing presence of the Taliban across the country, in addition to persistent societal disapproval, mean that few Afghan girls, especially in rural regions, can pursue an education. Furthermore, systemic misogyny in Afghan society continues to manifest itself; women are dissuaded from pursuing professional careers, and those who choose to work do so at a great personal risk. There is no active platform through which women can voice their opinions on pertinent political and societal issues; both realms continue to be dominated by Afghan men, who have very little incentive to allow greater female representation. Maternal mortality rates in Afghanistan continue to be among the worst in the world, and despite the structural support given by non-governmental organizations and other Western countries, little progress has been made to improve basic living standards.4

Afghan women who challenge societal and gender norms face difficulties that often result in personal injury or even death. One recent and notable instance is the public murder of Farkhunda Malikzada in March of 2015. Malikzada challenged a prominent Mullah in Kabul over his unfounded and inaccurate sermons regarding the role of women in Islam, which led to the Mullah falsely accusing Malikzada of insulting Islam and burning a Quran.

Despite Malikzada’s denial of the accusations, a mob of men attacked and beat her to death while the police looked on helplessly. The incident shows the central government’s normalization of such actions. Kabul’s inability to intervene during the attack shows a lack of will to secure women’s rights and safety throughout the whole country.

The invasion of Afghanistan had clear-cut objectives, one of which was the securing of basic freedoms for Afghan women. NATO has failed in this objective and now has abandoned it as a goal, leaving the whole country destabilized. The causalities and deaths of Canadian and other NATO personnel were a heavy price to pay for such failure.

Afghanistan, in a snapshot, is in political turmoil and the Taliban continue to gain territory. This outcome leaves Afghan women still the most vulnerable group in the country.

But can anything still be done for them? Several significant measures can still be taken to improve their onditions. There are numerous NGOs in Afghanistan, many of which are native organizations that help women in the areas of education, community engagement, and empowerment. The Afghan Women’s Missions and the Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan are examples.

Funding and organizational aid can be provided by the Canadian government and private sources. The ending of military action in Afghanistan does not mean that efforts on behalf of the women there must also end. The missions that promote human rights in all areas of the globe should be continued. That was promised to Afghan women, and it should be fulfilled.


1 National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces. The Canadian Armed Forces in Afghanistan. (consulted 5 March 2017).

2 Sune Engel Rasmussen. NATO Ends Combat Operations in Afghanistan. The Guardian. (consulted 6 March 2017).

3 National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces. The Canadian Armed Forces Legacy in Afghanistan. (consulted 7 March 2017).

4 The World Bank. Maternal Mortality Ratio: Afghanistan. (consulted 7 March 2017).

Peace Magazine April-June 2017

Peace Magazine April-June 2017, page 27. Some rights reserved.

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