U.S. lawmakers grilled President Joe Biden's envoy for Afghanistan on Tuesday about how the administration will ensure women's rights are protected if the hard-line Islamist Taliban take control after U.S. troops withdraw later this year.
Both Republicans and Democrats said they would oppose aid if the rights of Afghan women and girls are not protected in any peace agreement and preserved after U.S. troops go home.
"I don’t believe under any circumstances that the United States Senate will support assistance for Afghanistan, especially under the World Bank’s program which provides budget support, if the Taliban has taken a governing role that ends civil society advances and rolls back women’s rights," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez.
Zalmay Khalilzad, special envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation, testified at the committee's first public hearing on the administration's Afghanistan policy since Biden announced plans to withdraw troops by Sept. 11 after two decades of war.
When Biden made his announcement on April 14, he said the United States would continue providing assistance to Afghan security forces and to civilian programs, including those for women and girls.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the Biden administration was working with Congress to provide nearly $300 million in civilian aid to Afghanistan.
Congress members, many of whom are skeptical about the plans to bring home the 2,500 remaining troops, worry the U.S. departure would cede control to the Taliban, whose 1996-2001 rule severely curtailed activities for Afghan women.
FEAR OF TALIBAN OFFENSIVE
Menendez and Sen. Jim Risch, the panel's top Republican, asked how counterterrorism efforts would continue after a U.S. withdrawal, as well as about the Taliban's ambitions.
"I'm concerned that the administration's decision may result in a Taliban offensive that topples the government," Risch said.
The international community has poured billions into Afghanistan's development since the Taliban was driven from power. Gains for women and girls in access to education and public life are repeatedly touted as one of the major successes.
Women have been underrepresented during peace talks despite promises that they would have a place at the table.
Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, the only woman on the committee, said Khalilzad, who also served under former Republican President Donald Trump, had not made including women enough of a priority.
She said there was too much uncertainty about the plans for Afghanistan after Sept. 11 to know whether women's rights would be protected. She said women in Afghanistan remain targets of violence, something that must be stopped.
"I'm disappointed to say that my concerns will have not been sufficiently addressed," Shaheen said.
She referred to seven women who had been killed by the Taliban for advocating for human rights.
"I will not support any efforts that will allow them to continue to commit these horrific acts without any accountability," Shaheen said.
Khalilzad insisted that Washington was pressing for women and minorities to be included in future peace talks.
Under the Taliban, women were barred from education or work, required to fully cover their bodies and faces, and could not leave home without a male relative. "Moral offenses" were punished by flogging and stoning.
The Sept. 11 deadline - which marks 20 years since the attacks on New York City and the Pentagon that prompted Washington to go to war in Afghanistan - extended the U.S. presence there beyond a May 1 deadline negotiated under Trump.
© 2021 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.