WASHINGTON — In the final months of her tenure as secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton is fighting a long retreat on a cause close to her heart, and to her legacy — the status of Afghan women.
Clinton embraced the cause long before the first U.S. troops landed in the country, and as secretary of State she has brought Afghan women worldwide attention, political power and unbending promises of American support.
"We will not abandon you," she pledged.
But now, with U.S. officials laying plans to remove most troops in two years, the Afghan government and other institutions appear to be adjusting their positions on women's rights to accommodate conservative factions. Restrictions on women have made a comeback.
"Most of women's important achievements over the last decade are likely to be reversed," predicted a bleak report issued last month by the Afghan Human Rights and Democracy Organization, a nonprofit in Kabul funded by Western governments and private groups.
This puts Clinton in a tough spot. Among senior U.S. officials, none is more closely associated with women's rights: When prominent Afghan women are alarmed by developments at home, they often fire off emails to Clinton's staff.
"She has been a very strong conscience of the world on this issue," said Wazhma Frogh, director of the Research Institute for Women, Peace and Security in the Afghan capital, Kabul. "We have leaned on her help in the past, and we are looking to her help for our future."
Clinton insists that the United States views women's rights as a nonnegotiable "red line." At a recent meeting of the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council, she insisted that "any peace that is attempted to be made by excluding more than half the population is no peace at all. It is a figment that will not last.... We will not waver on this point."
Yet administration officials also acknowledge sharp limits to what America can do. Even future U.S. funding to help women is uncertain.
Melanne Verveer, U.S. ambassador at large for women and a longtime Clinton aide, said that American officials remain influential and will do all they can.
"But this is going to be in the end an Afghan-led process," she said. "Ultimately, it is going to be the Afghans who are in the driver's seat. We can't see the future. This is a work in progress — we don't know — we hope it will be progress."
Senior U.S. officials see Afghanistan as an intractable foreign policy mess that will only get worse as long as large numbers of U.S. troops remain in the country. Winding down the U.S. commitment has become an overriding priority.
As America's chief diplomat, Clinton has won praise not only from liberals, but also from conservatives. Gallup polls have found she is the nation's most admired woman for each of the last 10 years.
Clinton has signaled that she will step down as top U.S. diplomat early next year, and the fate of Afghan women may not be clear until long after her departure. Even so, a reversal on women's rights would be a blow to Clinton's legacy.
"People will identify her with whatever happens," said Shamila Chaudhary, who was National Security Council advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan until late last year and is now with the Eurasia Group research firm in Washington. "There's a huge reputational risk in this for her."
Clinton's advocacy for women in Afghanistan goes back to her time in the Senate before the Sept . 11 attacks, when the world was horrified to see how the Taliban regime had marginalized women.
Clinton pushed for guaranteed seats for women in the Afghan parliament and other government bodies and has made sure that the United States has amply funded programs to supportwomen's healthand education, businesses, legal clinics and shelters. Clinton was among the Western officials who lobbied the Afghan government to set up a women's ministry and enact a tough law barring violence against women.
Her efforts have contributed to Afghan women's gains. Over the last decade, women's life expectancy there has increased from 42 to 64 years, and the number of girls in school has gone from 10,000 to 2.5 million.
But two months ago, the country's top religious body, the Ulema Council, issued an edict that men are "fundamental" and women "secondary," and barred women from mingling with men in schools or the workplace. Afghan President Hamid Karzai appeared to embrace the ruling, setting off an international outcry.
When Clinton called Karzai on March 8 to demand an explanation, Karzai said the ruling was only "advisory" and insisted that he stood by the Afghan Constitution's guarantees of equality for women.
Yet the incident was widely seen as proof that Karzai and other Afghan institutions have started to position themselves for the more conservative era they see ahead.
Karzai "has a lot to lose if he can't find a way to reach an accommodation with the Taliban," said Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch in Kabul. "The consequences for him of moving against women's rights are probably a lot less serious."
Clinton's pressure helped gain women nine seats in the High Peace Council, a body appointed to help direct the negotiations with the Taliban. But so far, Afghan women have been largely shut out of the preliminary talks, former First Lady Laura Bush, another advocate for the women's cause, said during the meeting of the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council.
There are other trouble signs. Dozens of mixed-gender and girls schools have been destroyed by insurgents in recent years, including 74 in 2010 alone, Amnesty International says. Prominent female politicians have been killed and others face growing threats of violence, Amnesty says.
U.S. spending for Afghan women, like other aid, has begun to decline, women's advocates say. Although the administration is committed to long-term development aid to Afghanistan, Verveer acknowledged that decisions on such appropriations "will be a negotiation between the administration and the Congress."
Although Clinton has remained focused on women's rights, others in the Obama administration have concentrated most on security goals, starting with winning Taliban commitments to break off ties with Al Qaeda, say current and former U.S. officials.
If the negotiators are able to work out an agreement on security and other key issues, "the final deal won't be held up by a disagreement over women's rights," Chaudhary predicted. "No way."