The Cable

‘Shadow summit’ calls attention to plight of Afghan women

As the war in Afghanistan winds down, Afghan women and those who support them are clamoring to make sure that years of progress in women's rights are not reversed as the international community leaves.

The State Department's ambassador at large for global women's issues, Melanne Verveer, represented the U.S. government at a series of events in Chicago meant to highlight the plight of Afghanistan's female population and urge their inclusion in the political process. There was only one woman in the Afghan government's official delegation, but Verveer and others strove to make sure the issue didn't get short shrift in Chicago.

Verveer headlined a "shadow summit for Afghan women" Sunday in Chicago that included the participation of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL). The goal of the summit was to urge Afghan President Hamid Karzai and NATO leaders, especially President Barack Obama, to boost women's participation in Afghan civil society development and to call on them to protect hard-fought rights for Afghan women if and when the Taliban re-enter the Afghan government.

"This issue was not one that should be viewed as a favor to women, but one that is absolutely critical to any future progress, stability, or peace in Afghanistan," Verveer said in a Monday interview with The Cable.

She noted that the joint declaration issued at the summit Monday gave a nod to women's equality in Afghanistan but said that more work needed to be done to ensure promises will be kept if the Taliban join the government.

"Red lines have been established [for Taliban reconciliation] that, in addition to renunciation of violence and rejection of al Qaeda, talk about adherence to the constitution, which includes women's rights and all that represents," Verveer said. "It has been an intensive, extensive, ongoing effort and that will continue."

Leading human rights groups are not so sure that effort is succeeding. Amnesty International, the organization that convened the shadow summit, released Sunday an open letter to Obama and Karzai pleading for more protections and a greater role for Afghan women.

"We are concerned that the U.S. and allied withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 may put women and girls at even greater risk of abuses... In this climate, we are alarmed that inadequate attention is being paid to women's rights and participation in peace talks with the Taliban," stated the letter.

"The United States, Afghanistan and other relevant parties must commit to clear, measurable steps to ensure that women's and girls' rights are protected and that positive momentum is maintained. Without these safeguards, any peace agreement will represent false progress and doom Afghanistan to repeat its repressive past."

The letter was signed by Albright, Schakowsky, actress Meryl Streep, musician Joan Baez, former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor, artist Yoko Ono, feminist leader Gloria Steinem, musician Sting, and many others.

Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of Amnesty International USA, told The Cable Monday that although Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spoken out about Afghan women, there's a lot more the U.S. government can and must do.

"This weekend's summit contained no specific recognition of the circumstances women faced under the Taliban, the progress that has been made over the last 10 years and the primary importance of making sure that progress continues," she said. "There's not a sense this is being considered a critical piece of the overall transition process. This really requires presidential leadership."

MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

Panetta’s February Afghanistan announcement announced again at NATO

Today, President Barack Obama announced today that the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will hand over lead combat responsibility for all of Afghanistan in mid-2013 -- just as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in February.

"Today, we'll decide the next phase of the transition -- the next milestone," Obama said today at the NATO summit in Chicago. "We'll set a goal for Afghan forces to take the lead for combat operations across the country in 2013 -- next year -- so that ISAF can move to a supporting role. This will be another step toward Afghans taking full lead for their security as agreed to by 2014, when the ISAF combat mission will end."

Obama's announcement is meant to set a marker of progress next year when ISAF hands over the fifth and final tranche of territory to Afghan security forces. As of this week, three out of those five areas now have Afghan security forces in the lead. The announcement was made to show progress toward a complete end of the ISAF combat role in 2014, as agreed at the last NATO summit in Lisbon.

The announcement's weight and impact was lessened somewhat by the fact that Panetta had already made it in February, some say accidentally, most say inelegantly, on a plane ride to Brussels.

On the way to a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels, Panetta made news when he told reporters on the plane, "Our goal is to complete all of that transition in 2013... Hopefully by mid- to the latter part of 2013 we'll be able to make a transition from a combat role."

Those remarks were initially interpreted as a speeding up of the Lisbon schedule, but two days later in Munich at an international conference, Panetta clarified that he was talking about a transfer of lead combat responsibility and that ISAF troops would retain some combat role well into 2014.

"We hope Afghan forces will be ready to take the combat lead in all of Afghanistan sometime in 2013. But of course ISAF will continue to be fully combat capable and we will engage in combat as necessary thereafter," he said.

Your humble Cable guy was in Munich and heard from several NATO officials that they were surprised by Panetta's remarks because they expected the milestone announcement to come out in May. "It was all carefully planned and now that plan is completely ruined," one European defense official said at the time.

At the time, one administration official told The Cable that the reason Panetta disclosed the 2013 milestone inelegantly and months ahead of the planned rollout was that he accidentally went beyond the talking points cleared for public consumption to reporters on the plane.

Today, a senior defense official told The Cable that simply wasn't the case.

"The messages he delivered were the messages he intended to deliver. It's wrong to say that he accidentally read from internal documents. He drew from materials that officials across the interagency knew would be made public," the defense official said.

An internal document obtained after the fact by The Cable backs up that claim. According to the document, Panetta did have clearance to talk about the shift away from a combat mission during his Brussels/Munich trip, although not in explicit detail and not with the 2013 date attached.

"NATO and its partners in ISAF are discussing the establishment of an interim milestone for transition in Afghanistan, which would be announced at Chicago," reads the document. "When we reach the interim milestone ISAF forces will shift from a lead combat role to a supporting role - focused on training, advising and assisting the ANSF."

The internal document was marked "For use with allies and press."

Either way, the White House today said that Obama's announcement today about the milestone was still significant because it included the endorsement of all the relevant world leaders and made it the official ISAF policy, regardless of who said what and when.

"What happened this week codified at a head of state level a lot of hard work and planning that's been ongoing for months and which builds on what we agreed to at the Lisbon Summit," National Security Council Spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable.