“If the Taliban severs its ties and its support of al Qaeda and wishes to participate in the Afghan political system peacefully like other groups that came in, which had fought each other and fought other groups, they’re welcome,” Mr. Holbrooke said.
This tension between anti-war fervor and passion for women’s rights has caused some on the left to argue that women are not really all that better off now than they were before U.S.-led forces drove the Taliban from the capital in Kabul months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“Women are not being protected now by the insecurity and the violence,” said Medea Benjamin, executive director of Code Pink, an anti-war feminist group. “Many women we talk to say they don’t feel safer by the presence of U.S. troops. They feel scared by the presence of U.S. troops.”
But Melanne Verveer, the Obama administration’s special envoy for global women’s issues, told Congress recently of dramatic progress of educating women in Afghanistan.
“In 2001, only 1 million Afghan children were enrolled in school, and all of them were boys; the education of girls was banned. Today, approximately 7 million Afghan children attend school, of which 2.6 million, or roughly a third, are girls,” Ms. Verveer said. “Whether these numbers continue to grow and the ratios equalize will say much about Afghanistans future.”
Carol Yost, with the Asia Foundation, added that women now hold 68 out of 249 seats in the lower parliament, though she added that voter registration among women was down to 38 percent for the August election, compared with 42 percent in the 2004 election.
“Women are mobile, certainly in the urban centers and not as much in the rural areas,” Ms. Yost said. “Health indicators have improved. Women are able to work in the workplace.”
Some Democratic leaders acknowledged that the Taliban’s record on women’s rights complicates the wishes of liberals who do not want an increase in U.S. troops.
“In a very general way, I will concede that when you add American troops to a problem, it usually gets better and that that creates some tension on this,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, disagreed.
“If we do the wrong thing and have too many combat troops, we’ll play right into the hands of the people who want to put them back into the Dark Ages,” he said. “The Taliban uses our Western footprint as a way … of trying to dominate their country, and we shouldn’t play into their hands.”
Faiz Shakir, a blogger and research director at the Center for American Progress, agreed.
“You have to start with the question of whether our presence is fueling the Taliban’s resurgency,” he said. “If your answer is yes, then our occupation is imperiling the future for women in Afghanistan.”
A study released in September by the London-based International Council on Security and Development reported that the Taliban has a “permanent presence” in 80 percent of Afghanistan, up from 72 percent in 2008 and 54 percent in 2007. It defined “permanent presence” as an area where there is an average of one or more insurgent attacks, lethal and nonlethal, per week.
Mr. Inderfurth, however, said that in a country where the gun is still the most powerful form of influence, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan at this point would be disastrous for the nation’s women.