It was America’s ‘forgotten war,’ but we can’t forget the girls and women of Afghanistan

It was America’s ‘forgotten war,’ but we can’t forget the girls and women of Afghanistan

Afghan girls in a class at the Bibi Mahroo high school in Kabul, Afghanistan (Photo by Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)

It’s been just over a week since the last U.S. troops flew out of the Kabul airport in Afghanistan, ending our 20-year war with the Taliban.

It was the longest war in U.S. history — some called it “America’s forgotten war” — but the 24-hour news cycle has already turned its attention to other stories, like the damage wreaked by Hurricane Ida, the still-raging wildfires in the West, and the latest surge of the deadly coronavirus.

News about the war has quickly devolved to scattered reports about the arrival of Afghan refugees in the U.S. and the political fallout for President Biden over his decision to end our occupation of Afghanistan and the chaos of our last days there.

While our attempt to build an enduring democracy in Afghanistan failed, the country, for better or worse, has changed since the U.S. invasion in 2001.

Granted, the U.S. did not achieve most of its stated goals, even after spending nearly $2 trillion fighting the Taliban, training, and equipping the Afghan army, and trying to modernize the country’s government and culture.

One goal that was at least partially met: Millions of Afghan girls and women for the first time were able to attend school, hold a job and help shape their destiny. Over the past 20 years, Afghan women became judges, teachers, journalists, police officers, and government ministers.

Until last month’s collapse of its government, Afghanistan’s parliament had a higher percentage of women than the U.S. Congress.

More Afghan women were attending universities and even working as professors in a country where under Taliban control in the 1990s women were not allowed to leave their homes without a male chaperone.

In a sign of Afghanistan’s advancements in women’s rights, “In the summer of 2017, the country’s first-ever all-female robotics team — six high school students deemed the Afghan Dreamers — earned a trip to Washington and international acclaim,” according to a report by Michelle Ruiz in Vogue Magazine.

But the headline on Ruiz’s article also posed this ominous question: “What will happen to the women and girls of Afghanistan now?”

I don’t think anyone knows for sure, but we can guess conditions for them are likely to go from bad to worse.

On Saturday, about 100 Afghan women in Kabul protesting a return to repressive rule under the Taliban were beaten and tear-gassed. In many areas of the country, women have been told not to report to work. Last week, a senior Taliban leader, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, told the BBC women may not be part of the future Taliban-led government.

Most women and girls are downright terrified of what the future holds for them in Afghanistan.

Still, I can’t help but believe that it may be impossible for the Taliban to completely turn back the clock on Afghan society, and especially its women.

The Chicano civil rights leader Cesar Chavez said, “Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read . . . You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.”

The U.S. lost its war, but the social change that Afghanistan’s 19 million women and girls experienced during the past two decades was real.

“All we are asking for is rights, a government without women will never last,” one woman protester told Aljazeera at a weekend rally.

In the coming months and years, the U.S. and its allies need to keep the spotlight on how the Taliban treats its people, and especially its women, even once the glare of world’s news cameras has moved on.

Afghanistan may have been our forgotten war, but that doesn’t change the fact that since the U.S. invasion millions of Afghan women now know what it means to feel the pride that comes from earning an education, working, and influencing government policy.

America’s war against the Taliban is over but our responsibility to the Afghan people, especially its women, remains.

To paraphrase Chavez: You cannot uneducate the Afghan girl who has learned to read. You cannot oppress the Afghan woman who is no longer afraid.

And the American people should never forget that we all bear a responsibility for having opened their eyes to the promise of a world where they have a right to choose their destiny.

James E. Garcia is a Phoenix-based journalist, playwright and communications consultant. He is the editor and publisher of Vanguardia Arizona and the weekly newsletter Vanguardia America and contributor to the Arizona Mirror, which first published this essay.