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Horia Mosadiq: Help Afghan women – and win the debate over the war

The UK government should speak out against the abuse of human rights

Why are 42 nations in Afghanistan and why has the UK lost over 200 of its armed personnel there? This apparently deadly question is rolling around the corridors of power and beyond like a grenade with its pin pulled out.

Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth says this is a war to "protect our national security." But the current Western approach seems to be counterproductive, both militarily and in terms of support from the Afghan people.

Many Afghans tell Amnesty that they support the presence of international troops as long as they're there to help protect their human rights and improve their lives. The UK government should take this seriously, incorporating human rights benchmarks into its Afghanistan strategy.

Doing so will provide desperately needed assistance to millions of Afghans, particularly women, who still suffer terrible human rights abuses. It will also assist in the military effort and the job of protecting the UK's national security.

Here's a simple change that would help: instead of a meaningless focus on how many Taliban are killed or how many villages are cleared, international forces should measure their success by clear benchmarks in terms of how they've improved human rights. Are more women in Helmand able to get healthcare? Are more children able to attend school?

This shift could improve the lives of millions of Afghans and it could help the UK government explain why so many British troops are serving (and suffering casualties).

The importance of human rights to the international effort in Afghanistan has been lost. In 2001 Tony Blair laid out reasons why "inaction" over Afghanistan was not an option. The Taliban's depredations of human rights, and particularly women, were to the fore. Women, said Mr Blair, "are treated in a way almost too revolting to be credible", explaining how they had been hounded out of education and confined as near-prisoners in their own homes.

The former prime minister's impassioned plea for the women of Afghanistan was a clarion call taken up around the world. The UK government and its allies may steer clear of the issue now, but helping to end the extreme repression of Afghan women was very much on the agenda at the mission's outset.

So what has changed? Not enough. With the removal of the worst of the Taliban's restrictions, conditions for women improved. Millions of girls were able to attend school again, some returned to work and the public arena (including as MPs) and new legislation was approved to improve the legal status of women.

Many of these fragile changes have shattered in the south and east of the country as the Taliban and other anti-government groups have returned, once again destroying schools and health clinics and harassing women.

Despite legislation forbidding underage marriage, more than half of all Afghan girls are married before they're 16. Poor families in rural areas still view girls largely as commodities to be bartered into marriages.

Afghan women still have very little recourse to justice and are discriminated against in both the formal and informal justice systems. The recent passage of a highly discriminatory law concerning Shi'a women households speaks volumes for President Karzai's failure to secure women's rights.

Whoever wins on Thursday and whatever international military presence remains in the country in the coming years, the brute fact is that abuses against the Afghan population – not least women – show little sign of abating.

This is unacceptable. The UK government should have the courage of its apparent human rights convictions and speak out about issues like the subjugation of Afghan women even as its armed forces pursue their "security" agenda in Helmand. If No 10 needs an excuse, it can cite UN resolutions on involving women in countries ravaged by conflict. But should it need an excuse?

Horia Mosadiq is an Afghan researcher for Amnesty International