By coincidence, the women of Afghanistan this fall enter their 19th year liberated from the Taliban, whose despotic version of Islam brutally relegated them to specters in their own land. Women risked flogging, or worse, for failing to wear full-body, tent-like burqas in public or walking the streets unaccompanied by a male relative. They were barred from school, work, accessing health care and participating in politics or public speaking.
In addition to the suppression of women, the Taliban's depredations included the destruction of priceless antiquities and the harboring of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror organization. After the 9/11 attacks launched from Afghan soil, a U.S.-led coalition drove the Taliban from power within a few months. The Constitution of Afghanistan adopted in 2004 grants men and women equal rights, bars discrimination and requires a "balanced education for women."
More than 3.5 million girls now attend primary and secondary schools, 100,000 women are enrolled in college and millions have voted for the first time in their lives. About 85,000 are teachers, health care professionals or law enforcement officials; 20% of parliamentary seats are held by women.
All of that progress is at risk if the Trump administration, in its haste to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, accepts a lopsided peace agreement with the Taliban.
Fear of Taliban resumption of power
Heather Barr, a Human Rights Watch official who works with Afghan women, says "they're absolutely terrified" what might flow from a Taliban resumption of power.
The precarious security situation was underscored Saturday when a suicide-bomb blast in a crowded wedding hall killed 63 and wounded nearly 200, one of the most lethal attacks in Kabul this year. An Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State claimed responsibility.
President Donald Trump is hungry to fulfill a 2016 campaign pledge to shed foreign entanglements by pulling the remaining 13,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan before the 2020 election. Yet he also has a duty not to leave behind chaos and cruelty toward women. American troops are conducting vital counterterrorism operations and supporting the Afghan military in its stalemated war with the Taliban.
Open talks with Afghan government
During ongoing talks between the U.S. and Taliban leadership, the presence of American troops is Trump's only leverage to ensure that the Taliban live up to any promises to renounce ties to terror groups, agree to a cease-fire and open direct discussions with the Afghan government.
The freedoms won for Afghan women, though far from perfect, hang in the balance. Sensitive to the issue, the Taliban have offered assurances this year that their views on women have softened and that rights will be respected.
This can be proved true only with time, and a phased troop withdrawal contingent on demonstrated Taliban progress toward a cease-fire and reconciliation talks with Kabul — talks that include participation by, and assurances for, women.
America shouldn't be in the nation-building or "forever war" business. But it already helped build nearly a generation of hope for Afghan women. The United States shouldn't allow that to be torn down as it heads for the exit.
USA TODAY's editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view — a unique USA TODAY feature.
If you can't see this reader poll, please refresh your page.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Women 'terrified' of Donald Trump giving Afghanistan deal to Taliban