This International Women’s Day, a clear-eyed look at why American troops should remain in Afghanistan and who will be hurt most if they don’t.

The Two Afghanistans

There are currently two Afghanistans, like the proverbial two wolves of the old Cherokee tale, each fighting to control the destiny of a nation.

One is an Afghanistan firmly on a path of peace, prosperity, and equal rights for everyone under the law. It is a modern democracy and a breathtakingly beautiful country known as the “friendliest place on earth”.

Whether tourists might soon get to visit that nation- to experience the rugged mountain landscapes and warm Afghan hospitality for themselves- depends almost entirely on the other Afghanistan.

More specifically, it depends on which Afghanistan U.S. foreign policy feeds over the next few months.

In the other Afghanistan, there is violence, oppression, and worse.

“In Afghanistan, there is not just disagreement- there is war,” says Afghanistan’s first female Ambassador to the U.S. Roya Rahmani. “Persistent violence threatens Afghanistan’s democracy and its future.”

In the midst of this struggle, as Rahmani points out, is the presence of around 2,500 U.S. troops still based in Afghanistan.

Acting in close cooperation with Afghanistan’s own national security forces and its democratically elected government, these U.S. soldiers are mainly involved in counterterrorism measures. The partnership between the U.S. and the people of Afghanistan, and with their elected leadership, has never been stronger- or more promising.

Under an agreement forged between the Trump Administration and the Taliban, however, the critical linchpin of U.S. troops will be removed in May, leaving the citizens of Afghanistan to an uncertain fate.

That the Taliban has thus far failed to keep their end of the bargain is reason enough to reconsider the deal: A promised reduction in insurgent violence has not materialized on the ground in Afghanistan. Persistent terrorism remains an everyday reality, and with it the constant threat of more violence if the demands of the Taliban are not met.

At issue are some of the hard-line demands of the Taliban. As Afghanistan’s government works to forge a difficult peace, one sticking point in particular is emerging.

Women’s rights.

Since the Taliban fell in 2001, there have been great strides for women in Afghanistan.

Female literacy has more than doubled. Over 3.5 million Afghan girls are currently enrolled in school and one-third of university level students are women. 28% of Afghanistan’s legislative body is now comprised of women; Afghanistan’s work-force, 21% women

KABUL, Afghanistan (May 27, 2010) — Candidates from the Women’s Afghan National Army Officer Candidate School proudly hold their nation’s flag during an oath ceremony. In late April of this year, thirty women between the ages of 18–25 volunteered for the inaugural ANA Female OCS. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jeff Nevison)

6,000 women are proudly serving in Afghanistan’s national security force, a feat unheard of pre-2001.

In other great news for Afghanistan, and for the world, Afghan women are entering into the STEM disciplines at exponential rates.

There is no question that Afghanistan needs the contributions of these women; the world needs the contributions of these women.

Whether or not these resilient and diligent women will be allowed to make their contributions depends, again, on which Afghanistan the U.S. chooses to feed this coming May.

Every millimeter of ground women have gained in Afghanistan over the past few decades is under threat, but it shouldn’t be. Turning back the clock on rights for women is not a bargaining chip and it cannot be the price of peace with the Taliban for one simple reason:

Compromising the hard-won rights of women will not lead to peace. On the contrary- only through the full participation of women in Afghan society can peace be achieved.

A thriving economy is the best bulwark against extremism. Prosperity dries up streams of disillusioned and angry young people who are easy prey for extremist recruiters.

A robust economic ecosystem prevents radicalization. In a thriving job market, there are fewer places for resentment and hopelessness to fester, fewer footholds for terror-agents to exploit.

A bird with one wing cannot fly: No country can expect to prosper by keeping half its workforce oppressed and uneducated. The peaceful and prosperous future of Afghanistan will never get off the ground if women are prevented from fully contributing to it.

With a majority of Afghanistan’s population under the age of 25, the role of Afghan mothers in reintegrating former Taliban fighters back into communities also cannot be overstated.

The Taliban will never be able, or willing, to turn its militants back into productive, tax-paying members of society. The women of Afghanistan, on the other hand, are both able and anxious to do so.

Women have proven essential to the peace process at every level, from stabilizing communities, to contributing to the GDP, to serving in government, to improving the national security of Afghanistan by serving in the military.

Female participation in Afghanistan’s national security force has resulted in better intelligence gathering, as women are permitted into places where men are not allowed.

The price of peace in Afghanistan cannot include the betrayal and abandonment of everything the U.S., the Afghan people, and especially Afghan women, have worked so hard to achieve.

The Taliban cannot expect the people of Afghanistan to sacrifice decades of progress to buy a tiny respite from the ongoing violence. While the Taliban, and its affiliates, promise to end the violence if their demands are met, they also threaten more violence if their terms are ever rejected.

This isn’t a peace negotiation; it is coercion at gunpoint. Giving in to the demands of those willing to use violence to achieve their ends will only lead to more violence, and more threats of violence.

All too often, it is onto the heads of women that this violence falls.

Last week, the terrorist group IS claimed responsibility for the assassination of three female journalists in Afghanistan.

The women were executed by a single gunmen on Tuesday in three separate attacks. According to their attacker, who has been arrested and charged, he targeted the women due to their work for, “media stations loyal to the apostate Afghan government”.

While the Taliban has denied any responsibility for these depraved and savage acts, the Afghan government is far from certain. The Taliban certainly continues to threaten violence. It may be that they are hiding that violence behind proxies and affiliates while pretending to engage in good faith negotiations with the U.S. government.

It may also be that extremist violence has grown well beyond the Taliban’s ability to control it.

In either case, the single best hope for the future of Afghanistan is equal rights-and responsibilities- for women in the peace process; not appeasement of the Taliban. This isn’t speculation; the world over, one of the best indicators of public health and welfare in any nation is the safety, security and social standing of women.

The only way security and safety can be upheld is by the women themselves, actively engaged in growing the economy, working in government, and participating in the peace process.

Removing U.S. troops in May would only embolden the Taliban, and others, in their unceasing and often violent efforts to derail the peace process and reestablish their extremist dominance over every aspect of Afghan life.

For the sake of Afghan women, who have worked alongside their countrymen and U.S. troops for decades on reconstruction and peace efforts, the U.S. must not abandon its investment in Afghanistan.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bel