US lawmakers will grill President Joe Biden's envoy for Afghanistan on Tuesday about how the administration plans to ensure women's rights will be protected if the hardline Islamist Taliban take control after US troops withdraw later this year.
Zalmay Khalilzad, special envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation, will testify to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the panel's first public hearing on the administration's Afghanistan policy since Biden announced plans to withdraw troops by Sept. 11 after two decades of war.
When Biden made his announcement on April 14, he said the United States would continue providing assistance to Afghan security forces and to civilian programs, including those for women and girls.
Members of Congress, many of whom are skeptical about the plans to bring home the 2,500 remaining troops, worry the US departure would cede control to the Taliban, whose 1996-2001 rule severely curtailed activities for Afghan women.
Since the Taliban was driven from power, the international community has poured billions into Afghanistan's development. Gains for women and girls in access to education and public life are repeatedly touted as one of the major successes.
Women have been underrepresented during peace talks, despite promises that they would have a place at the table.
Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee and its only woman member, said Khalilzad, who also served under former Republican President Donald Trump, had not made including women enough of a priority.
She said there was too much uncertainty about the plans for Afghanistan after Sept. 11 to know whether women's rights would be protected.
"They at least recognize it's an issue, which is a start," Shaheen told Reuters. Shaheen, who is also on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said women's rights had been discussed at every briefing she had been to.
"I think it's important for us to continue to do everything we can," she said.
Under the Taliban, women were barred from education or work, required to fully cover their bodies and faces and could not leave home without a male relative. "Moral offences" were punished by flogging and stoning.
Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, the foreign relations committee's chairman, said after a classified committee briefing last week that he had continuing concerns about ensuring rights for Afghan women and minorities will be protected.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said he had no doubt the Taliban would close schools and again impose harsh restrictions on women.
The Sept. 11 deadline - which marks 20 years since the attacks on the United States that prompted Washington to go to war in Afghanistan - extended the US presence there beyond the May 1 deadline negotiated under Trump.
Graham was among Republicans, and some Democrats, who also questioned Trump's plan.
Former Republican President George W. Bush, who sent the US troops into Afghanistan in 2001, has also said he is worried.
"My first reaction was, 'wow, these girls are going to have real trouble with the Taliban,'" Bush recently told NBC's "Today" show. "A lot of gains have been made, and so I'm deeply concerned about the plight of women and girls in that country."