Members of Congress and members of the Trump administration sparred Thursday over the fate of women in Afghanistan under the U.S.-Taliban peace deal and amid a recent drawdown of U.S. troop numbers in Afghanistan.
Rep. Stephen Lynch, the chairman of the Subcommittee on National Security, said during a hearing on women, peace and security that the Trump administration was letting the U.S. commitment to women and girls in Afghanistan "slip." The Massachusetts Democrat criticized any U.S. assumptions that the Taliban would ever provide proper respect for females in the country as "the height of naivete or the willful abandonment of these women."
"The peace deal negotiated between the United States and the Taliban earlier this year does nothing to protect the rights of Afghan women and girls, threatening to reverse nearly 20 years of progress helping them to become successful participants of Afghan political and civic life," Lynch said.
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues Kelley Currie told members of Congress that the administration recognizes "how much is a stake" if women do not sit at the negotiating table, and she praised the Afghan government for naming four women to its inter-Afghan dialogue team. The women represent about 20% of its 21 negotiators.
She also pointed out that women hold two of Afghanistan's most senior roles — ambassador to the U.S. and ambassador to the U.N. — and women comprise more than a quarter of Afghan lawmakers, a percentage that is higher than the representation of women in the U.S. Congress.
Currie said the Afghan government and the Taliban alone won't be responsible for securing women's rights because Afghan women "will not let these rights go away." She acknowledged, however, that male Afghan leaders also must advocate for women's rights as the Taliban's human rights record has been "abysmal."
While Afghan women have made strides toward more equal rights in the last decade, Afghanistan remains a difficult place for women to thrive, especially in rural areas far from Kabul, the capital.
"I'm not going to lie about it, or even try to sugarcoat it, because it's pretty awful. But the goal here, peace, is going to be better for women in Afghanistan than continued conflict," Currie said in defense of the U.S.-Taliban peace deal.
Officials say a 15-year-old Afghan girl and her brothers have been relocated from their hometown in central Ghor province after the girl shot and killed two Taliban fighters who reportedly killed her parents last week.
Her actions have been widely celebrated in Afghanistan as a symbol of Afghan women's resilience.
"The government of Afghanistan praises you. Afghan women are proud of your heroism, courage and bravery," the governor of Ghor province, Noor Mohammad Kohnaward, told the girl during a meeting at his office Wednesday.
U.S. troop numbers
Within the subcommittee back on Capitol Hill, Chairman Lynch and Rep. Glenn Grothman, a Republican from Wisconsin, exchanged sharp jabs Thursday amid differences between how the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan could potentially affect women's rights.
"It's a little bit hypocritical on one hand to say, 'American troops out of Iraq. American troops out of Afghanistan,' and then complain when the human rights of people in general, women in particular, drop," Grothman said.
"You don't have to stay in Afghanistan with a heavy troop presence in order to proffer the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan as an issue in the peace negotiations," Lynch replied.
The hearing comes as the top commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, U.S. Central Command head Gen. Kenneth "Frank" McKenzie, told VOA last week that before the U.S. could greatly reduce its presence in Afghanistan, inter-Afghan dialogues needed to start and the U.S. would need to be confident that the Taliban would not host terrorist groups.
"Right now, it is simply unclear to me that the Taliban has taken any positive steps in that, in those areas," McKenzie said.
He told VOA the Taliban has not kept up their commitments agreed to in the U.S.-Taliban peace deal, which has led to one of the "most violent" periods of the war in Afghanistan.
"While the Taliban have been scrupulous about not attacking U.S. or coalition forces, in fact the violence against the Afghans is higher than it's been in quite a while," McKenzie said.
Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen later said his group was "fully committed" to the pact it signed with Washington.
Increased Taliban attacks on Afghan security forces, particularly last week's deadly suicide car bombing in northern Samangan province that killed nearly a dozen people and wounded more than 60 others, have drawn strong local and international condemnation.
An Afghan military attack targeting the Taliban in Herat province on Wednesday also raised international concerns as reports surfaced that the air assault may have killed civilians. Following the strike, Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted for "all sides to contain the violence, protect civilians, and show necessary restraint as the start of intra-Afghan negotiations is so close."
Roshan Noorzai, Khalil Noorzai and Ayaz Gul contributed to this report.