Worried about the plight of women in Afghanistan once U.S. troops leave, lawmakers are urging the Biden administration to ensure the U.S. will help keep women and girls in Afghanistan safe once the last U.S. forces have departed.
Should the Taliban seize control of more of the country, women could see their rights restricted or worse. There has already been a 37% increase in women killed or injured in the first quarter of 2021 compared to 2020, according to United Nations data.
Democratic Senators Mazie Hirono and Jeanne Shaheen and Republican Senator Susan Collins sent a letter to the White House last week asking for an ambassador-at-large for global women's issues to be designated to coordinate the protection of women's rights in Afghanistan.
Hirono told CBS News in an interview that she and her colleagues have "a major concern" about what will happen to Afghan women and they expect President Biden will act.
"We're not going to just, you know, forget about it," Hirono said. "There will be follow-up if we don't get some sort of response in a timely fashion from the White House."
The new at-large ambassador would work alongside Zalmay Khalilzad, the special representative on Afghanistan reconciliation at the State Department, who is the U.S. envoy engaged in the effort to secure a peace process for Afghanistan.
Earlier this month, a car bombing outside the Sayed Ul-Shuhada school killed more than 85 and injured over 150. Most of the victims were schoolgirls. The car bomb was detonated near the school, and then, as students began to flee, two IEDs went off.
The senators' letter said the bombing "demonstrates the bleak future we risk if women's rights and protections are not made a priority."
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani blamed the Taliban for the attack, although the Taliban denied responsibility. Khalilzad believes the car bombing was "likely to have been ISIS," he said during recent House testimony.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement that the United States "condemns the barbarous attack near a girls' school in Kabul" and is "determined to see to it that the gains of the past two decades aren't erased."
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, in a press conference with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin earlier this month, said that it's not a foregone conclusion that once the military pulls out, the Taliban will automatically win, and Kabul will fall. Austin said the U.S. is committed to continue supporting the Afghan security forces with financial aid and logistics help from outside the country when possible.
"Different scenarios keep coming to our minds like whether the Taliban will take over, civil war will start, or ISIS will emerge stronger. Each of these scenarios is scary for Afghan women because they will be the first victims and the biggest losers," Raihana Azad, a member of the Afghanistan Parliament, told CBS News.
Azad said that U.S. condemnation of any violations of women's rights safeguards, will do little to change the facts on the ground once American troops are gone.
Zarifa Ghafari, the youngest and only female mayor in Afghanistan, has already survived 3 assassination attempts, likely by the Taliban.
"They started shooting from back this way, this way, this way, and then from in front, they shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot," she told CBS News' Charlie D'Agata. "Just twenty days later, they murdered my dad."
A generation of Afghan women have grown up with freedoms that were unavailable when Afghanistan was under Taliban rule, and a recent unclassified report from the National Intelligence Council warns Taliban control could jeopardize those freedoms.
"The Taliban remains broadly consistent in its restrictive approach to women's rights and would roll back much of the past two decades' progress if the group regained national power."
Some women in the country are preparing for that possibility.
"Most of the women's rights activists I know are looking for ways to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible before September," says Azad. "Some of my colleagues say they will continue their fight for the betterment of women with or without U.S. presence, but how is that possible if they don't even have physical security in a dangerous environment?"