When the United States invaded Afghanistan after the 2001 terrorist attacks, the goal was not to drag the downtrodden women of that country into the 21st century. But the fall of the repressive Taliban government in the aftermath of the war with al-Qaida meant hope for millions of women and girls who had seen their legal standing reduced under religious law.
With the Taliban gone, women and girls were free to emerge from the shadows without fear of being beaten or killed. The United States helped install Hamid Karzai, a Western-educated Afghan national, in Kabul. President Karzai promised the kind of reforms that would help justify the U.S. expenditure of blood and treasure.
While Mr. Karzai's governance was not a full return to the social conditions that existed in Afghanistan before the takeover by the Taliban, there was little doubt that a more tolerant society was being born. Some women threw off their burqas, believing equality under the law was inevitable.
Though strictly segregated by gender, young girls could go to school and women could start businesses in the "new" Afghanistan. Just because someone was born female, it was no longer assumed that the best she could aspire to under the Afghan constitution was enlightened serfdom.
Earlier this month, however, President Karzai betrayed those hopes by signing legislation that legalizes the rape of a wife by her husband and prevents her from leaving the home without his permission. The law applies primarily to the Shiite minority, an estimated 10 to 20 percent of the population. The Sunni majority is not affected.
Mr. Karzai anticipates a tough re-election campaign, so courting religious conservatives makes sense from his selfish point of view. Still, it is an unacceptable position for an ally dependent on American military and financial aid. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is already pressuring him to reconsider.
The fight against the resurgent Taliban continues in that traumatized country. But given Mr. Karzai's willingness to sacrifice women's basic human rights on the altar of political expediency, it is reasonable to wonder whether the Taliban have already won.