After almost a year of stalemate, Afghanistan finally signed a renewed bilateral security agreement (BSA) with the United States last Tuesday. The document, which allows 9,800 U.S. troops and 2,000 NATO troops to remain in Afghanistan in a training and advisory capacity after the end of 2014, was approved by newly-minted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai, had refused to sign the agreement since November 2013, casting grave doubts on the country’s future as the United States continued to draw down its military presence.
Despite winning the presidency in a run-off vote in June, Ghani only took office on September 29 due to a protracted dispute with opposing candidate Abdullah Abdullah. Allegations of fraud in the vote counting dogged the election, delaying its resolution, and the negotiation toward a political settlement took months and no fewer than two visits from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Once finally assuming office last week, Ghani signed the BSA a mere twenty-four hours later, making it the first major act of his administration.
The bilateral security agreement has important implications for Afghanistan’s future; not only does it pave the way for Afghanistan to receive continued U.S. military training support and additional U.S. aid, but its enactment will also create increased confidence for other nations and private investors to provide development and economic assistance to Afghanistan.
These implications are particularly significant for Afghanistan’s women and girls. The United States has already been actively involved in supporting avenues for women’s participation in the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF). The 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) appropriated $25 million for the integration of women into the ANSF. Not only would greater inclusion of women into Afghanistan’s military enhance female employment opportunities, but it would also help create a safe public environment for women. Due to cultural sensitivity that requires women to be screened only by female security officers—for example, at polling stations during an election—female security officers are needed to allow women complete access to the public space. The funding from the 2014 NDAA supported the training of 13,000 female officers for this very purpose.
More broadly, security is essential for women’s participation in public life; without it, women and girls are unable to leave their homes without risking their lives, limiting their ability to work, run for office, or seek an education.
Additionally, increased development assistance, which will hopefully support greater access to education, employment, and health care, will cement and extend the gains Afghan women and girls have already made.
Equally important to the bilateral security agreement, however, is Afghanistan exercising greater sovereignty over its future, both in terms of politics and security, as the U.S. military presence draws down. Ghani highlighted his insistence on maintaining and extending Afghan sovereignty in his speech at the signing of the BSA, specifically mentioning restrictions on foreign troops’ access to religious sites and laws governing foreign contractors. By ensuring that the Afghan government takes ownership of initiatives that support and empower women, these programs will be more likely to continue, even after the end of any U.S. involvement in the country. One such initiative—and one commentators on Afghanistan have previously called for—is Ghani’s campaign promise to appoint a woman to the Supreme Court. Inclusion of women at the highest levels of the Afghan government will both advance gender equality and strengthen the legitimacy of Afghan rule of law.
The ongoing involvement of United States—albeit in a way that uses U.S. leverage to empower Afghans through policies that support sustainable and cost-effective programs—is critical to the continuing advancement of Afghanistan’s women and girls and the country’s prosperity and stability more broadly.