“The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women,” proclaimed First Lady Laura Bush in her radio address to the nation in 2001, as the United States entered Afghanistan in a war against the Taliban. Twenty years later, on August 30, 2021, the last of the US Armed Forces exited Afghanistan. In the wake of the American departure, the country quickly fell under an oppressive Taliban regime, experienced one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises, and, vitally, saw the systematic elimination of the rights and freedom of its women. How did a war with the purported priority of defending the “rights and dignity of women” end with women possessing even less rights and dignity than before? In this case, the Hillary Doctrine, the principle in US foreign policy that the subjugation of women around the world is a threat to US security, was distorted to justify US militarism in Afghanistan—ultimately exacerbating the subjugation of women.
The physical and political subjugation of women permeates human history. Yet, US foreign policy and the field of international security have historically been gender-blind—ignoring or marginalizing women’s issues. It was not until the 1980s to 2000 that various international organizations began to make space for women’s issues. Only in 2000 did the UN Security Council formally address gender-based violence in armed conflict in Resolution 1325. For the first time, women’s issues were officially recognized as a distinct priority on the international agenda.
Ten years later, then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that “[t]he subjugation of women is […] a threat to the common security of our world and to the national security of our country.” The Hillary Doctrine offered the profound assertion that the empowerment of women is not only a moral and humanitarian issue but also a matter of strategic security. The State Department’s first Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review in 2010 established the promotion of women and girls as a primary foreign policy goal, which “is important in its own right” and “a way to maximize results across the board.”
A 2009 MIT study found a direct relationship between the physical security of women and the security and peacefulness of states. Additionally, the physical security of women was a better predictor of state security than democracy, economic development, and civilizational identity. A 2017 analysis of 156 countries from 1981–2005 shows that states that oppress women are more likely to produce anti-American terrorists.
So why has the status of women worldwide not improved significantly since the United States incorporated it into its official foreign policy?
Simply put, the practical implementation of the Hillary Doctrine was misguided, and it was often most impactful at the rhetorical level. Instead of being used to alleviate violence and oppression faced by women, it was used to justify further conflict. Rather than empower women to craft and influence policy decisions and implementation—supposedly crucial components of the Hillary Doctrine—it instituted only nominal change at the official State Department level. More women were not placed in traditionally male-dominated leadership positions, nor was there meaningful change created on the ground.
In Afghanistan, the lack of women’s empowerment initiatives in aid programs and in active implementation resulted in a ground-level failure of the American promise to the country’s women. While politicians used the language of gender, the policies were unclear. There was an uneven commitment to gender equality across government organizations. In the words of American journalist Ann Jones, “[America] spen[t] too much, too fast, without a clue.”
The war in Afghanistan marked the first time women’s issues were at the center of the rhetoric justifying intervention. When the United States entered Afghanistan in 2001, the rights and freedoms of Afghan women had already been severely limited. In 1996, the Taliban seized the capital, Kabul, and established a regime that would institute even more oppressive policies toward women. Although patriarchal norms predate the Taliban, the Taliban’s first period of rule from 1996 to 2001 saw the most repressive state of society for women in Afghanistan’s recent history (prior to now).
Today, two years into the Taliban’s second regime, the Taliban has rolled back any progress given to women in Afghanistan during the US occupation.
Any improvements made during the US occupation proved to be temporary and contributed to the threat to the security of Afghan women. Afghan womens’ right to freedom of movement is a perfect example of this. Freedom of movement is a liberty enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which was ratified by Afghanistan in 1983. However, according to Amnesty International, women’s freedom of movement has been severely curbed and a culture of normalized violence against women has reemerged in full force.
During the US intervention, women could exercise freedom of movement as they pleased. However, despite the removal of official barriers, Afghan women were still not “free to move.” For a woman in Afghanistan during this time, stepping out of the home to go to work or receive an education—rights that the US prided itself on providing—meant living in fear of being harrassed, kidnapped by militants and community members, or killed by bomb attacks, illustrating both the underlying problems of unchanged sociocultural norms and the overlying problem of violent fighting across the region. Despite the schools built and de jure freedoms the US involvement provided for a finite period, the violence from the conflict was the largest threat to the security of Afghan women.
Even further, US military intervention sometimes exacerbated the insecurity and violence faced by Afghan women. As a result of conflict-induced insecurity and poverty of the patriarchal Afghan society at large, women faced distinct forms of domestic and economic violence, such as the vulnerability to abuse and forced marriage. Today, two years after the end of US military presence in Afghanistan, Taliban laws now require women to be accompanied by a male guardian for long-distance journeys. Ultimately, freedom of movement for Afghan women is just as far from being realized as it was before.
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s (SIGAR) report, entitled “Support for Gender Equality: Lessons from the US Experience in Afghanistan,” provides a comprehensive glimpse into how the Hillary Doctrine got so lost in translation. The Doctrine’s loud and proud pro-women rhetoric did indeed find its way into the foreign policy in DC, but it was often flawed and subject to time lags. Despite the United States invading in 2001, they did not develop a comprehensive strategy concerning women’s rights until 2012. The SIGAR’s review of government documents revealed that strategies were often centered around incremental goals like increasing female professional training and building literacy centers, and ignored the prominent sociocultural barriers to gender equality. These important policy and decision-making spaces were male-dominated and lacked significant involvement of women—ironic, considering that the Hillary Doctrine was conceived to empower women.
Ultimately, the Hillary Doctrine was used to rationalize both US military intervention in Afghanistan and botched gender aid programs that did nothing to end the subjugation of women and failed in implementation. However, the United States cannot use Afghanistan as an excuse to walk away from the Hillary Doctrine. The principle that security and empowerment of women is directly tied to security and stability of nations, including that of the United States, is not in question. Rather, we have learned that many dysfunctional decisions and policies came from people who did not understand the true situation of Afghan women.
Men cannot know how to help women without including the women they want to help in the decision-making process. The United States has already largely abandoned the women of Afghanistan. Whether American intervention was justified and well-intentioned or not, future large-scale American intervention is historically probable and when it does happen, in order to provide for its own security, the United States needs to enable women to be leaders and decision-makers with the power to shape their own security and future. That is the Hillary Doctrine.