Donald Trump was persuaded to send more troops to Afghanistan by being shown black and white photographs of women wearing miniskirts in Kabul in the 1970s, so the story goes. Lieutenant General HR McMaster, his National Security Advisor, produced the pictures to illustrate what the country was like before the Taliban imposed their brutal and intolerant rule. It is unsurprising that Trump, a man of limited general knowledge, knew little of Afghan history. It may be surprising that a misogynist like him would care much about women’s rights. It was, however, predictable that the news would lead to some idiotic utterings. Such photos are only shown, according to some, for – “right-wing propaganda”, “racist cultural appropriation” and to “justify neo-imperialist war”. Those who have been to Afghanistan would know that people there do show similar photographs, often of members of their family, a reminder of a society lost to devastating decades of war. No one, however, pretends that such a lifestyle was the norm across the country. A friend of mine, a journalist later murdered by the Taliban, had a rather wonderful picture of his mother, who lived in Kabul, sitting next to an aunt, from conservative Uruzgan, both dressed in shades of blue: one wearing jacket and skirt, the other in a burqa. It is also the case that women in Afghanistan have been failed by the West. First when militants were used to fight the Russians, ending, in the process, the left-wing reformist government in Kabul, and then the country abandoned to the Taliban and their savage suppression of women in the 1980s. It was repeated when the Taliban regime of Mullah Omar was overthrown by American and British troops in 2001. At the time George W Bush declared that the job was done, the Taliban were finished. Tony Blair promised “this time we will not walk away”. Laura Bush and Cherie Blair proclaimed that one of the best things to have happened is that Afghan women have been emancipated. There was a window when real change seemed possible – before troops needed to stabilise Afghanistan were sent off to Iraq by Bush and Blair and the Taliban came back. I interviewed five women at the time who wanted to help rebuild their country. Three years later, three of them were murdered and a fourth had fled and gone into hiding after narrowly escaping with her life in an ambush in which her husband was killed. One was Malalai Kakar, the most prominent policewoman in Afghanistan who led a unit of 10 policewomen specialising in domestic violence cases in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban. Commander Kakar was uncompromising with suspected abusers, men who in the past had relied on male police officers to turn a blind eye. “I’ve been accused of being rough with husbands who beat up their wives” she said. “But I’m angry, we try to apply the law in the right way and the constitution is supposed to protect women’s rights, women have been failed for too long in this country.” Kakar liked to cook breakfast for her husband and six children before going to work. She would spend a long time saying her farewell because, she said, she could never be sure what would happen. Her 15-year-old son was with her when she was killed. She carried a pistol under the burqa she wore to work, so as not to be recognised, before changing into uniform. But she had no chance to defend herself, or him, in an ambush. Kakar was a friend of 65-year-old Safia Amajan, who had stayed behind during the darkest days of Taliban rule to teach girls in lessons held in secret. She volunteered to work for the new government after the Taliban fell with great success, opening schools and workshops where a thousand women learned to earn their own livelihood. Amajan, or “dear aunt” as the girls she taught called her, survived the Taliban by learning the Koran by heart. She refused a marriage arranged by her father and then eventually chose her own husband, an educated man, a colonel in the army who was wholly supportive of her. Safia described the struggle of life for women under the Taliban: “Those of us who are around now are very lucky. There were others, very brave, who also tried to make things better for young girls through education and teaching them skills were caught and they were made to suffered.” Amajan was killed in September 2006. Two young men approached on a motorcycle on her way to work and opened fire with a Kalashnikov. A Taliban commander, Mullah Hayat Khan, announced that she had been “executed” for defying orders “not to spread disrespectful thoughts among women”. I met the two killers at Sarposa prison in Kandahar. They were young, dishevelled and craven, repeatedly whingeing that they were in danger from their own side as well as the authorities. They had killed Safia, they said, in return for $5,000 offered by a mullah in Pakistan. The men were caught when the mullah wanted proof that they had carried out their task and they attempted, by night, to dig up the body for a lock of hair. Amajan and Kakar used to work closely with the 36-year-old woman MP in Kandahar, Zarghuna Kakar (no relation). She fled her home after she and her family were attacked in a market. Her husband, Mohammed Nasir, was shot dead. Kakar had faced constant threats and repeatedly pleaded for security to be provided. At one point she turned in desperation to Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of the then Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, the shogun of Kandahar. “He told me there was nothing he could do,” she recalled at her place of hiding in Kabul. “He also said that I should have thought about what may happen before I stood for election. But it was his brother, the Americans and the British who told us that we women should get involved in political life. Of course, now I wish I hadn’t. If only I knew what would happen.” Ahmed Wali Karzai was himself to be assassinated a few years later. Kabul was not that safe either. Shaima Rezaye, a bubbly 24-year-old presenter of a popular music show called Hop on the independent channel Tolo TV who was also running schemes to promote women in the media was being targeted. The station was condemned for allowing her, a female in Western clothes and make-up to talk to men on the programme. Hardline clerics accused Tolo of “broadcasting music, naked dance and foreign films”. The abuse continued. “I want to carry on, but I am also very nervous” she told me. “The police say there is nothing they can do”. Shaima was eventually dismissed. Soon afterwards rumours began to appear that she had been killed. Tolo offered to broadcast an interview. “But they wanted to do it on radio, not TV,” she laughed. “The religious people might get offended even if they saw me for five minutes to prove I was alive.” Shaima was gunned down at her home near Kabul’s diplomatic quarters, a stone’s throw from Western embassy officials who talked of all that has been done for female emancipation. Despite all its problems Afghanistan now has women in parliament, in official positions in universities. But they face constant pressure from reactionary clerics and politicians. Schools for girls, meanwhile, are shut down in the areas controlled by the insurgents, teachers killed. The US sending 4,000 extra troops will not suddenly bring victory in the conflict overnight, a longer term policy is needed. But failing to confront the vicious extremists as they spread their reach would mean yet another act of betrayal of Afghanistan’s women. Published in Daily Times, August 27th 2017.