Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., left, talks with Zalmay Khalilzad, special envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation, right, at the end of a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 27, 2021.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., left, talks with Zalmay Khalilzad, special envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation, right, at the end of a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 27, 2021. T.J. Kirkpatrick/The New York Times via AP, Pool

Biden Must Protect Women’s Rights After Afghanistan Withdrawal, Say Lawmakers

U.S. envoy says diplomats can handle the issue.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle grilled the administration Tuesday about its plans to ensure the gains America made in Afghanistan over the last two decades would not be lost when U.S. troops withdraw this year. 

Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee repeatedly stressed to Zalmay Khalilzad, the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, that the Biden administration must commit to maintaining the improved quality of life for women and girls in Afghanistan when negotiating its withdrawal from country — and that money for supporting Afghan’s military could hinge on whether that promise is kept. 

“Sometimes the commitment to human rights gets pushed to the back burner,” Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said at a hearing. “It may be necessary for Congressional action to make it clear to the Afghan government that if there is backsliding, the administration’s not going to be able to save them in negotiations, that Congress is going to demand that action be taken to protect the rights of women and girls. … We’ll be clear, but I am concerned about what happens at the diplomatic table at times.”

The Taliban forced women to quit their jobs and denied girls access to education. They have also responded violently to women who break those norms. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., showed photos in the hearing of seven Afghan women who had been murdered by the Taliban while commuting or at work, including one midwife who the Taliban killed while she was helping a mother deliver a baby. The Taliban also killed the mother and baby. 

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., worried the Taliban would revert to that kind of “brutal” behavior and that America would have no recourse without boots on the ground. 

But Khalilzad said concerns about women’s rights can be handled diplomatically, without the use of military personnel. 

“We have said that if they do want U.S. assistance, they want international acceptance … those things will be affected by how they treat their own citizens,” he said. “The issue is, should we use U.S. troops to enforce particular values, especially in a situation where we have been there for 20 years in a war for which there is no military solution. We have other instruments that will remain relevant and powerful, in my view, that we will have to rely on.” 

President Joe Biden announced this month that the United States would begin pulling troops out of Afghanistan by May 1, and that all service members would withdraw by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., that launched the so-called “forever war.” The decision, he said, would stand regardless of the conditions or level of violence in the country this fall.

The decision to bring the troops home follows through on an agreement reached by former President Donald Trump in February 2020, in which the United States committed to leaving the country in exchange for the Taliban agreeing to reduce violence and start negotiations with the government of Afghanistan.

Congress ordered the administration to deliver a report by April 1 on how well the Taliban complied with this agreement. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., slammed Khalilzad for the report being overdue. 

“I wrote this provision of the NDAA to gain insight as Congress conducts oversight of the agreement. I didn’t write the provision with the expectation that the administration would ignore it,” Menendez said.

“I don’t get the report, there will be no authorizations forthcoming from this committee,” he continued. “That’s not the way I like to operate, but if we’re going to be ignored, then there has to be a consequence.”

Senators also said they are concerned about how America can conduct counter-terrorism operations and collect intelligence to protect the United States from attacks while still in the planning stages without forces in the country. 

Khalilzad acknowledged that the ability to collect intelligence will be “degraded,” but said the infrastructure in place will be good enough that officials will get “adequate warning” to respond to an attack. 

Even though military forces have been ordered to leave the country, Khalilzad stressed that American assistance to Afghanistan will continue in the form of funding for Afghan security and police personnel, investing to stimulate the economy, and advocating for the rights of women and girls. 

Khalilzad also said he believes Afghanistan can succeed without direct bolstering from American troops.

“I don’t personally believe there will be an imminent collapse,” he said. “I believe the choice the Afghans face is between a negotiated political settlement or a long war. This is a choice that the Afghan leaders make for the sake of their current generation of Afghans and future generations.”