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Joan Vennochi

Women of D.C. and the women of Afghanistan

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / September 11, 2011

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REMEMBER THE women of Afghanistan.

They are the clearest beneficiaries of the US war against the Taliban, which was launched after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In the decade since the fall of that repressive regime, girls returned to school, women took public office and are no longer forced to wear burkas.

Now, the planned drawdown of US troops threatens fragile gains in a place known for its brutal tradition of female suppression. Common ground is rare in Washington. But, fearing a power vacuum as Afghanistan transitions to its next phase of government, Republican and Democratic women in Congress are pushing the White House to make sure women in Afghanistan have a seat at the negotiating table.

The congressional Afghan Women’s Task Force - which is co-chaired by Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Republican of Washington, and Representative Donna Edwards, Democrat of Maryland - wants to make sure that women “play a meaningful role in the Afghan Peace and Reintegration Plan.’’ It’s not just about preserving women’s rights, said Rodgers. Preserving those rights is a way to fight terrorism.

“The terrorists gain power by oppressing women,’’ said Rodgers. “As we stand by women, we are undermining the terrorist stranglehold.’’

Representative Niki Tsongas, Democrat of Massachusetts, who is also on the task force, said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will play a leading role when it comes to keeping the faith with Afghan women. Clinton has made it a personal cause, declaring it essential “that women’s rights and women’s opportunities are not sacrificed or trampled on in the reconciliation process.’’ She also promised Afghan women leaders that “we will not abandon you, we will stand with you always.’’

But even with Clinton’s strong backing, Tsongas said, it’s important to keep pressure on the Obama administration. She has taken four trips to Afghanistan with groups of Republican and Democratic women. The snippets of hope and progress seen on those visits linger, she said. During a trip over Mother’s Day weekend, the American delegation met with Afghan women who were training to become helicopter pilots. They visited a school where young girls dream of becoming doctors, teachers, and nurses. They also met with the Afghan minister of health, a woman who is committed to improving health care and living standards for women and children.

“The integrity of our effort demands that we not walk away from those gains,’’ said Tsongas.

Rodgers, who was also on the trip, described it as “a different world, like you’re going back in time. One of my takeaways was just how difficult the assignment is. We have to be careful about imposing American ways on the people of Afghanistan.’’

How much clout these female lawmakers have in a town that features only one woman on the all-important budget “super committee’’ is unclear. To what extent the White House can really influence the outcome in Afghanistan is even cloudier.

According to a recent Washington Post article, there’s already a rift between President Hamid Karzai’s High Peace Council - whose 9 women and 60 men are charged with directing Taliban negotiations - and the leaders of Afghanistan’s fledgling women’s movement. That is partly because the Peace Council’s female members have not been allowed to take part in the initial talks - not exactly a good omen.

Americans want out of Afghanistan. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, the number of people saying US troops should be brought home from Afghanistan shot up to 56 percent. A year ago, just 40 percent favored troop withdrawal. But, the majority surveyed by Pew still say the decision to use force in Afghanistan was the right one after 9/11.

America did not fight the Taliban to free the women of Afghanistan. But achieving their freedom and sustaining it honors this country and those who have died for it.

If the Taliban return to power, the Afghan women who bought into the American dream of equal rights have much to fear. Support from their Washington sisters won’t be enough to save them then. Now is the time to push hard for their voices to be heard.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.