"If you had to choose between saving a girl's life or enabling her to go to school, which would you do first?" This was Afghan President Hamid Karzai's reply when I asked him last month if the rights of Afghan women might be sacrificed for a peace settlement with the Taliban.
While real peace talks may not begin for a long time, it was clear to me on a recent trip to Kabul that the political and intellectual groundwork is being laid for "reconciliation" with insurgents. Karzai seems tired of the war's carnage and uncertain of the international community's staying power. Many of his foreign allies, meanwhile, have become so cynical about Afghanistan's present state that they can't imagine how a deal with the Taliban could make it worse. Yet the prospect is deeply unnerving to those Afghans who suffered most under Taliban rule -- women and ethnic minorities, above all.
Afghan women have fought with some success -- and strong support from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- to be included in discussions about reconciliation with the Taliban. But the Obama administration has not ruled out supporting a process in which Taliban commanders who have a track record of atrocities against Afghan women and men are offered government positions or even de facto control over some areas, so long as they have no ties to al-Qaeda and promise to respect the Afghan constitution. As one Western diplomat recently told Time magazine: "You have to be realistic. We are not going to be sending troops and spending money forever. There will have to be a compromise, and sacrifices will have to be made."
If we're going to be realistic, let's at least face what those sacrifices would be. The Taliban is not just another warlord militia fighting for a piece of the action; it is an ideological movement whose leaders believe they were right to plunge Afghanistan into darkness when they ruled in the 1990s. In many parts of the country where they hold sway, they continue to kill women who go to school, work or participate in the political process, as well as the men who support them. If a Taliban provincial shadow governor with such a history were made the real governor of a province, the "night letters" the Taliban now delivers to threaten women would become daytime edicts.
Perhaps that should not be enough to determine America's strategy for ending the war. But before resigning ourselves to compromising our principles for peace, we must ask: Would such a trade-off bring the security it promises? This is where the realist argument collapses.
The same argument, after all, was made by Pakistan when it negotiated its 2008 settlement with the Taliban, giving it control of Swat Valley in exchange for pledges to recognize the writ of the central government and let women work without fear. The Taliban broke those promises; Pakistanis were horrified by images of women being whipped and schools being torched. Within months, the Pakistani army launched a massive military operation to retake what it had given away.
Much the same happened when Colombia ceded territory to the FARC insurgent group in 1999 (the FARC continued its kidnappings and killings, and war resumed); when Angola brought the UNITA party of brutal warlord Jonas Savimbi into its government in 1994 (the deal collapsed, and UNITA went back to fighting); when the international community helped broker a peace deal in Sierra Leone in 1999 that gave Foday Sankoh's vicious rebel group a share of power (Sankoh's forces continued to conduct attacks until a British intervention restored order). Each time we were shocked to learn that abusive, predatory movements, when given power, continue to behave in abusive, predatory ways.
The same is likely to happen in Afghanistan if those Taliban leaders who have committed the worst atrocities are given control over the communities they terrorized. Images of abuses against women are likely to be broadcast around the world, raising the painful question of whether this is what foreign and Afghan troops sacrificed for. There could be retribution against perceived U.S. and government collaborators, and people fleeing areas where insurgents are given power. Afghanistan's ethnic minorities (who together constitute a majority) are especially fearful of a deal that increases the Taliban's influence; many Afghans believe that a hasty process could lead to a broader civil war.
None of these appalling consequences would speed a U.S. withdrawal. Quite the opposite. And it is not realism, but a leap of faith born of desperation, to think they could be avoided simply by requiring "reconciling" Taliban forces to renounce violence and support Afghanistan's constitution.
Some suspect that talking about women's rights is a pretext for keeping the United States in Afghanistan forever (ironically, the part of President Obama's constituency that would normally be most concerned about defending women in Afghanistan is also the part most wary of the U.S. commitment there). But whether one believes in Gen. David Petraeus's strategy of counterinsurgency for as long as it takes, or a more limited counterterrorism mission with fewer troops, there is no need for hasty deals that give the Taliban a share of power.
Whatever one's vision of the way forward in Afghanistan, the answer to Karzai's heartfelt question must be: You must help that girl stay alive and go to school at the same time. For if you try to settle the conflict in a way that sacrifices human rights in the name of peace, you will end up with neither.
Tom Malinowski is Washington Director for Human Rights Watch.