Just 12 days before President Biden ordered the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the U.S. intelligence community warned the White House that allowing the Taliban to control the country would put Afghan women at grave risk, according to a little-noticed intelligence assessment.
Biden nonetheless pressed ahead with the plan – with the support of his vice president, Kamala Harris, who boasted that she was the last person in the room with the president when he made the decision and felt comfortable with the plan.
The April 2 intelligence warning casts doubt on assertions by Harris that she is a fierce advocate for women’s rights, including her pledge to “protect” women in Afghanistan during the presidential campaign.
The rights of Afghan women and girls are central to criticism of America’s precipitous withdrawal, which has thrown Afghanistan into chaos and put women once again at the mercy of the same brutal Taliban regime. Gains made in women’s rights have been highlighted as a major achievement during the two decades that American forces have been deployed in the country.
Harris gave her blessing to the pullout of 2,500 remaining troops despite a two-page memo from the National Intelligence Council (NIC) warning that their removal would make it easier for the Taliban to return to power and systematically abuse women.
“Progress [for Afghan women] … would be at risk after coalition withdrawal,” cautioned the declassified memo, which was drafted by the NIC and coordinated with the CIA, Pentagon and the State Department. “The Taliban … would roll back much of the past two decades’ progress if the group regained national power.”
The document cited a number of recent red flags signaling that the Taliban, despite paying lip service to women’s rights in peace talks, had not changed their misogynistic ways. “Taliban officials have issued statements opposing ‘alien-culture clothes worn by women’ and have accused women’s rights advocates of promoting immorality, indecency and non-Islamic culture.”
Added the memo: “Thus far, the Taliban’s effect on girls’ education in areas under its control has ranged from total shutdown to negotiated agreements on which subjects are taught.”
The grim intelligence assessment has already proved prescient. Since the collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, there have been several reports coming out of Afghanistan of the Taliban beating, whipping and even killing women.
Taliban fighters surrounding the Kabul airport have used sticks, ropes and rifles to beat women and children trying to board U.S. flights to flee Afghanistan and escape what the fear is a return to hardline rule. The Taliban reportedly shot and killed a woman last week for not wearing a burka, the tent-like outer garment the Taliban previously forced women to cover themselves with head to toe. Taliban enforcers also reportedly set a woman on fire for cooking an unsatisfactory meal for them.
There are multiple reports of the Taliban forcing families to marry their young daughters to Taliban fighters. And in Kabul, Taliban operatives equipped with paint rollers have whitewashed large pictures of women outside beauty salons and painted over advertisements featuring women in wedding dresses in the capital city.
Women across Afghanistan say they are terrified the Taliban will reimpose rules enforced by so-called virtue police now that they have taken over the country. Examples of harsh treatment they suffered under the iron grip of the Ministry of Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue from 1996 to 2001 are legion:
- During the Taliban’s previous reign of terror, women were forced to quit their jobs and drop out of school or face beatings. They were essentially imprisoned in their homes, forbidden to go outside unless they were escorted by a male relative.
- Taliban religious police “required that windows of houses be painted over to prevent outsiders from possibly seeing women inside homes,” according to a State Department report from 2001.
- Women caught with an unrelated man in the street were publicly flogged with 100 lashes in a stadium full of people following Friday prayers. Married women found with an unrelated male were accused of adultery and stoned to death.
- Girls were banned from wearing white socks or shoes. Their dolls and stuffed animals were also banned by the Taliban.
- Under the Taliban’s strict dress code, even wearing nail polish was forbidden. One Afghan woman who painted her nails had her thumb cut off by the virtue police, according to a report on human-rights abuses.
It does not appear that safeguarding women’s rights was a component of the withdrawal deal the Biden administration cut with the Taliban. “We are … pressing for women’s inclusion in any future peace efforts,” Zalmay Khalilzad, Biden’s top U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, who led the negotiations with the Taliban, told a Senate panel in late April.
Harris has been widely criticized for her “deafening silence” on Afghan women in the wake of the Taliban takeover, as one women’s rights advocate put it. During an August 2019 campaign Q&A with the Council on Foreign Relations, Harris promised to “protect the gains that have been made for Afghan women.”
The White House did not respond to requests seeking comment from Harris, traveling in Asia this week, or from a representative. But administration officials have warned that the Taliban will be treated as “pariahs” by the international community if they mistreat women. Similarly, at an emergency session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on Tuesday, U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet warned that the treatment of Afghan women and girls is a “fundamental red line” that should not be crossed.
Before and after the peace negotiations, the Taliban have tried to assure the West that they have moderated their views on women and would allow them to participate in government and attend schools. But intelligence analysts briefing the White House had no illusions that they had really changed.
The analysts wrote in their April assessment report that although some Taliban leaders have promised to respect women’s rights, “they caveat that these protections must align with Taliban interpretations of the sharia,” or Islamic law, which oppresses women.
The intelligence analysts concluded that “the Taliban’s desires for foreign aid and legitimacy” were behind their public tack toward moderation.
These and other intelligence concerns over the potential for a resumption of Taliban mistreatment of Afghan women fell on deaf ears in the Oval Office, as Biden and Harris pushed ahead with the plan for withdrawal.
Harris was front and center in the meetings and briefings over America’s retreat from Afghanistan. She boasted that she had attended most of the intelligence sessions regarding Afghanistan. After the withdrawal, she attended the emergency tele-briefing on August 16. In the now-famous photo of Biden sitting alone at a Camp David conference table across from a large computer screen connecting him to his advisers, Harris can be seen occupying the center square.
“This is a president who has an extraordinary amount of courage,” Harris told CNN regarding the decision to pull out of Afghanistan. “He is someone who I have seen over and over again make decisions based on what he truly believes, based on his years of doing this work and studying these issues, what he truly believes is the right thing to do.”
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