American troops pulled out of their main military base, Bagram in Afghanistan on Friday, as one of the country's top commanders warned the country may descend into civil war without them.

The base will be officially handed over to the Afghan government at a ceremony today. But whilst the withdrawal brings an effective end to the longest war in American history, there are serious concerns about the power vacuum and instability left behind.

Insurgents have made advances across Afghanistan, most notably in the north and the Taliban has refused to declare a ceasefire.

The US has urged an end to the ongoing violence and respect for the human rights of all Afghans, but many are warning that any hard-won rights, particularly for women are now under threat.

An Afghan National Army soldier at Bagram Air Base, after all the US and NATO troops left

The head of Afghanistan’s peace council, Abdullah Abdullah, warned on Thursday of his fears that the country’s survival is in danger, with wars and conflicts now approaching the capital city, Kabul.

The Irish Peace and Conflict Network heard this week from a prominent Afghan human rights activist, who warned that - as the September deadline for withdrawing roughly 10,000 foreign troops from the country approaches - "the rights of women are really hanging in the balance".

Horia Mosadiq, who has worked for Amnesty International and faced personal threats for the issues she has highlighted in Afghanistan, said there has been a recent rise in deliberate attacks against women and girls.

She said only when these are properly investigated, could there be steps towards a more lasting peace.

She said: "Really we don’t know what will happen after September, because at the moment we are seeing the escalation of conflict… and also a significant increase in the number of targeted killings against human rights workers, civil society activists and also media workers, for example.

"In 2020 around 18 human rights defenders and activists were killed, more than seven journalists were killed and all in active, targeted killings."

Shocking attacks on women and girls

She said one of the most shocking attacks had been the apparent deliberate targeting of a maternity hospital in Kabul, over a year ago on the 12 May 2020. Gunmen entered the Dasht-e-Barchi hospital and opened fire killing 24 people including mothers and children and a midwife.

The midwife worked for international medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF - also known as Doctors Without Borders) which had run the maternity ward there since 2014.

MSF was subsequently forced to close it, saying it had taken the decision "with the understanding that the victims were deliberately targeted". It has not been able to operate there since then, as the security of its staff could not be guaranteed.

Speaking on the first anniversary of the attack this May, Dr Isabelle Defourny, MSF director of operations said: "Our fact-finding exercise gave no indication that MSF, as an institution, was directly targeted. However, we can’t exclude that the presence of MSF in this ward may have played a role in the choice of this target.

"In any case, the first targets of this attack were pregnant women and women in labour in a maternity ward which we ran. We know that the attackers directly headed to the maternity ward and killed the pregnant women and women in labour who were present there.

More recently, at least 80 people, most of them schoolgirls were killed and 160 were injured, following multiple blasts at a school

"Two children who had come for routine vaccination and another caretaker were also shot dead in the attack. Healthcare staff were also killed and injured."

MSF said the maternity ward was a much-needed resource with 16,000 deliveries taking place there in 2019 alone. The United Nations condemned the attack as a "new low" with Deborah Lyons, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, vowing at the time that "the perpetrators must be found and held accountable".

To date, no one has claimed responsibility for the attack.

More recently, at least 80 people, most of them schoolgirls were killed and 160 were injured, following multiple blasts at a school, again in the Afghan capital Kabul

Both boys and girls studied at the high school in three shifts, but the attack targeted the second shift, which was for female students, according to education ministry officials.

Again, no group claimed responsibility for that attack, but the minority Hazara neighbourhood, where the school is located, has repeatedly been targeted by militants.

Ms Mosadiq told the online event, entitled 'Ireland and the Women, Peace and Security Agenda on the Council’ that her faith that the Taliban is open to change in ongoing peace talks, has been shaken. She says there has been little accountability, or the bringing of perpetrators to justice for these attacks.

"We are still waiting to see if there is any form of justice in these situations. We know the Taliban keep publicly denying their involvement in such attacks, but looking at the footprint that they have left in the past, looking at their record… it leaves us in no doubt to see that… if not for all those attacks, but for the majority, the Taliban is responsible," she said.

Ireland on the Security Council

Talks in Qatar between the Taliban and Afghan government representatives on a political settlement there, have now stalled. Many countries including Ireland, which is now six months into its two-year stint on the UN Security Council, have acknowledged that this is a crucial time for Afghanistan.

Last month, the Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, spoke at the quarterly Security Council briefing on the situation in Afghanistan, where he said there had been an "alarming deterioration in the security and humanitarian situations, and devastating attacks targeting civilians".

He said that women’s rights could not be the price of peace in Afghanistan.

"For Ireland, ensuring women are at the table in all peace talks and procession is not empty rhetoric. It is a position that has been informed by lived experience on our own Island," he said.

"Afghan women are demanding to be heard. Yet they continue to be severely underrepresented in and excluded from peace negotiations. This is unacceptable and must be remedied. Participation is their right."

Áine Hearns, Director of the Conflict Resolution Unit at the Department of Foreign Affairs said Ireland had taken a consistent and strong approach to women’s rights and she said the ‘Women Peace and Security Agenda’ on the Security Council would be a key priority for Ireland, during its time there.

She told the online event: "Women can be agents of change when they’re brought to the table", and she said this was something Ireland was working on, along with like-minded countries including Mexico and Norway.

"We have seen on this island the important role that the Women’s Coalition played in the Northern Ireland peace process, putting into effect the Good Friday Agreement, which holds to this day," she added.

Gains in women’s rights and girls’ education under threat

The United States and many other Western nations have held up education for girls as an example of one of the key successes of years of foreign presence in Afghanistan.

During the Taliban's hard-line rule from 1996, until they were ousted in 2001, girls were blocked from school and nearly all women were forced to quit work, with their movements carefully monitored. A strict dress code of a full-length burqa, that covered their face, was enforced. Many women were also not allowed out, unless accompanied by a male relative.

Now, especially in cities such as the capital Kabul, many women work outside of the home, and more than a quarter of Afghanistan’s parliament is female.

More than 3.5 million girls are enrolled in school, according to USAID, compared to none during the Taliban's rule.

Girls attending a school in Herat

Nevertheless, an estimated 3.7 million children remain out of school, 60% per cent of them girls, according to UNICEF.

As the security situation deteriorates, due to the vacuum left behind by foreign forces, there are fears that some hard-line Islamist groups will become emboldened and threaten these gains for women.

The Taliban says it is open to girls' education, to the extent allowed by Islamic law, or sharia law. They have denied any responsibility and condemned the bloodshed in the recent school attack.

However, Ms Mosadiq, warns that the international community must now hold the Taliban to account, for what happens next: "To make sure they are sticking with that in action and not only in words."

She added: "We want to see how many girls' schools have been reopened in the areas under their control. How many women civil servants who are members of the parliament are able to attend and continue with their daily business there?"

US forces due to leave Afghanistan by 11 September

Recent Taliban gains

Taliban insurgents have now captured more than 50 of the 370 districts in Afghanistan since May, according to the UN’s Ms Lyons.

She warned this week that the increased conflict there posed a risk of insecurity to many other countries, warning at the meeting of the UN Security Council that the news that foreign troops would withdraw sent a "seismic tremor" through Afghanistan.

After 20 years, the United States has already started to withdraw its remaining 2,500 troops in Afghanistan and aims to be completely out of the country by 11 September, the anniversary of the Twin Towers attack in New York.Close to 7000 non-US personnel from mainly NATO countries - along with Australia, New Zealand and Georgia - are also planning to leave by that date.

The US Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said the decision to withdraw US troops, was not taken lightly.

"We will use our full diplomatic, economic and assistance toolkit to support the peaceful, stable future the Afghan people want and deserve and will continue to support the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces in securing their country," she told the Security Council.

She added: "Preserving the rights of women remains a paramount concern and must not be used as a bargaining chip at the negotiating table. Men’s rights are not negotiable. Women's rights are not negotiable. Human rights are not negotiable."

She urged the Security Council, with the support of regional countries, to push the parties back to the negotiating table.