As President Obama considers the way forward in Afghanistan, factions within his party are increasingly torn between their strong wish to bring U.S. troops home and their equally passionate desire to protect Afghans — particularly Afghan women — from a return of the dark rule of the Taliban.
Signs indicate that after a lengthy review process, the president is leaning toward sending more troops and is simply considering the exact number. But he has come under heavy pressure from his Democratic liberal base to pull back and even to shut down the U.S. military effort completely.
It is this disconnect — the relegation of women's rights to secondary status by the political constituency that is the standard-bearer for feminism — that alarms human rights advocates, said Karl Inderfurth, who was an assistant secretary of state for the region under President Clinton.
"If the darkness descends again on Afghanistan, meaning a Taliban takeover, that will mean that women will pay the greatest price. They will be returned to that almost subhuman species that they were under Taliban rule," Mr. Inderfurth said.
"They know that if the clock turns back again, they're going to pay the greatest price."
Ellie Smeal, executive director of the Feminist Majority Foundation, said the future of Afghan women "has just dropped out of all public discourse."
"What happens with females over and over again is we're forgotten," she said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who has broken with the liberal anti-war movement to support a troop increase up from the 68,000 U.S. forces already in Afghanistan, said the fate of Afghan women must not be overlooked during Mr. Obama's review.
"Women, as the Chinese said, make up half the sky, and it's very important that women's rights be considered and be part of this," said Mrs. Feinstein, who added that she thinks Mr. Obama is weighing the issue.
The president said so himself during an interview with NBC last month.
"My own background is somebody who was taught by my mom that the single-greatest measure of how well a society does is how it treats its women. And so, we are going to redouble our efforts on that front," Mr. Obama said. But he offered no specifics.
All the expressions of hope do not change the reality of what is likely to descend upon Afghanistan's female population if large portions of the country fall back under Taliban control.
The administration's special representative to the region, Richard C. Holbrooke, hinted recently that in the end, the Taliban's attitudes toward women will be a secondary concern to U.S. strategic and military concerns.
Mr. Holbrooke, in an interview with PBS' "Frontline," identified the Taliban's ties to al Qaeda and its treatment of women as the two major problems with the loose network of tribal warlords and militias.
Yet he indicated that only the terrorism link would be an obstacle to reconciliation between the NATO coalition forces and the Taliban.
"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.
"There will not be anyone to fight for them," he said, "and we know it."