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Trump's envoy grilled by lawmakers over women's rights in Afghanistan

The envoy said the U.S. would advocate for women’s rights but conceded the country’s future would be determined by peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
Image: House Holds Hearing Examining Trump Administration's Afghanistan Strategy
U.S. Special Envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad testifies during a hearing before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform on Capitol Hill on Sept. 22, 2020.Alex Wong / Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s envoy to Afghanistan faced tough questioning on Tuesday by Democratic lawmakers who accused the administration of jeopardizing the rights of Afghan women in pursuit of a peace deal.

The grilling of U.S. special representative Zalmay Khalilzad came days after the Taliban and the Afghan government entered into peace talks for the first time, a breakthrough that followed a months-long diplomatic push by the Trump administration.

But Rep. Stephen Lynch, chairman of the House Oversight Subcommittee on National Security, and other Democrats said they feared for the future of Afghan women without a firm guarantee from Washington to safeguard their rights.

“How do we demonstrate to the Taliban that the status of women and girls is a major priority in restoring that country's stability . . . when we don't list it as a priority in our negotiations but instead, leave it to the Afghans to fight that fight?” Lynch asked the U.S. envoy.

Khalilzad said women’s rights and minority rights were a top priority for the United States, and insisted that the administration had not abandoned their cause. But he acknowledged that the country’s political future would be determined by talks between the Taliban militants and an Afghan government-led delegation.

“At this hearing, I want to assure the Afghan women that we will be with them,” the Afghan-born diplomat said.

He added that the administration “will express ourselves forcefully” on the issue.

The peace talks that got underway on Sept. 12 followed a U.S-Taliban agreement signed in February. Under that deal, Washington agreed to withdraw American troops by May 2021 in return for the Taliban renouncing terrorism and agreeing to direct peace talks with their foes in the Afghan government. The U.S.-Taliban agreement did not address women’s rights.

Lynch cited a letter from 19 members of the Afghan parliament calling on the United States to stand up for women’s rights in any future peace agreement.

The parliament members appealed to Washington to “let this deal be known as one that preserved the rights of every Afghan man and woman. Not a deal that prevents little girls from going to school, not a deal that leads to the destruction of our institutions, not a deal that backtracks on the great achievements of freedom and democracy,” according to the letter obtained by NBC News.

Khalilzad said future U.S. assistance to Afghanistan would depend on what decisions are made in the peace talks, including on the rights of women.

H. R. McMaster, who served as Trump’s second former national security adviser, has sharply criticized the administration’s negotiations with the Taliban, saying the U.S.-backed peace talks were doomed to failure.

"What (does) power-sharing with the Taliban look like?" McMaster said in an interview with USA Today published Monday. "Does that look like ... every other girls' school bulldozed? Or does it look like mass executions in the soccer stadium every other Saturday?"

Under the Taliban's extremist rule from 1996 to 2001, women were barred from attending school, holding jobs, taking part in politics and leaving their homes without male escorts. Since U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban in 2001 after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the status of Afghan women has dramatically improved, with women entering universities and the workplace in unprecedented numbers.

Even as peace talks began this month, violence has surged across Afghanistan over the past 10 days. Khalilzad said the violence levels were too high in Afghanistan, and that the United States wanted to see the violence reduced.

Khalilzad also said that the Taliban had "taken some positive steps" toward cutting ties with al Qaeda, but the administration was not satisfied and wanted to see further action. He did not offer more details.

The Taliban’s actions and whether it fulfilled its commitments would shape U.S. decisions on the pace of a troop drawdown, the envoy said. The American contingent is due to decline to about 4,000-5,000 troops in November from the current force of about 8,500, he said.

Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowksi of New Jersey blasted the administration’s approach as “incredibly naive,” accusing it of failing to extract substantial concessions from the Taliban apart from the group agreeing not to fire on U.S. forces as they withdraw.

“Look we’re all for peace. I understand people want to leave. But I think what you're selling us is not peace, it is a fairy tale to make ourselves feel better about leaving Afghanistan,” Malinowski said.

Khalilzad defended the administration’s diplomacy, saying compromises were required to bring the two sides to the negotiating table. “Among the alternatives we face, this is the best available,” he said.

He also noted that since the U.S.-Talban deal was clinched in February 2019, no U.S. troops have been killed by the insurgency.