In a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing this week, senators from across the political spectrum expressed concerns about the security situation in Afghanistan post- U.S. and NATO withdrawal this year. Members also appeared tense in their questioning of the U.S. government’s special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad. Committee members repeatedly expressed their concerns on U.S. counter-terrorism operations as well the future of human rights and women’s rights in Afghanistan. Some senators in the committee expressed their support for President Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan on the 20th anniversary of the U.S. intervention in the country.
In her statement, Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) tried to put faces to some of the names of the women who have been assassinated by the Taliban just in the past year since the signing of the agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban. Shaheen brought a board with photos of the seven women, all ranging in careers and ages, including a journalist, physician, human rights activist, and civil servants of the Afghan government. In her testimony, she said, “these seven women didn’t deserve to die. We owe it to them and the generations that will come after them to do everything we can to prevent any more Afghan women [suffering] from the same fate.”
As the only woman sitting on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Shaheen has been a champion for defending and speaking for Afghan women’s human rights. She stated, “This is not a women’s issue; it is a human rights issue, and it is the security issue for the future of Afghanistan.”
In a rather frustrated voice, she said that she has been “disappointed” with the lack of consideration for women’s rights from the previous administration and stated that the current administration hasn’t “sufficiently” answered her concerns either. Referring to what the Taliban’s values are, the current level of violence, and what the future holds for Afghan women, Shaheen repeatedly said, “I want to put a face to all that.” Pointing to the photos of the seven women, “they were murdered for choosing to live their lives outside the narrow confinements of what the Taliban and other extremist groups deem acceptable for women.”
Shaheen did not ask questions and used her time to address the issue of human rights and women’s rights. She said, “These are the Taliban who we are being asked to join at the negotiating table to support. I will not support any efforts that will allow them to continue to commit these horrific acts without any accountability for their behavior.”
As part of the U.S.-Taliban agreement, the U.S. and NATO forces will withdraw starting May 1st. Many Afghans and allies were hoping that the deteriorating security situation since the signing of the agreement and the violations of human rights by extremists would compel the U.S. and NATO to stay in the country to help with some stability. President Biden’s announcement came as a shock that the U.S. will withdraw all U.S. forces by September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the horrific 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City.
Senator Shaheen warned that, “What we do over the next four months will impact the lives of women for generations to come. We cannot let those two decades of work be ignored in peace talks.”
In a more tense exchange between Khalilzad and Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on the provision of NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) to report to the Committee, he said, “if I don’t get the report, there will be no authorization coming from this committee.” The Senator referred to a requirement from the State Department to report on the Taliban’s compliance with the February 29/2020 agreement, signed between the U.S. and the Taliban under the Trump Administration.
Senator Menendez criticized the Biden Administration for a “limited” messaging on the withdrawal and what the future holds and urged the development of a “contingency plan” should the situation go out of control.
“I have deep concerns for the administration’s rush for the exit from Afghanistan,” said Senator James Risch (R-ID), ranking member of the Committee. The Senator agrees to withdraw from Afghanistan but that it “should only occur that safeguards U.S. national security, preserves the hard-fought gains, and protects the homeland.” All along, this is what the Afghan people have demanded as well. The Afghan people do not want the U.S. and NATO to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely but that allies should leave when the time is right.
While Khalilzad remained positive in his statement and spoke of “change” in the Taliban behavior and that the group does not intend to “return to the pariah status,” members appeared to be skeptical of his optimism. In response to much of the optimism shared by Khalilzad, Senator Menendez said, “I hope that your optimism is rewarded,” Menendez said. But “I fear that at some point in the future, we may be having a hearing that that isn’t the ultimate reality.” Khalilzad did not share the concerns of a collapse of the state of the Afghan government and mildly agreed to the high level of violence.