KABUL (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Tuesday promised not to abandon Afghanistan's women as Washington weighs possible political solutions to an unpopular war against Taliban insurgents.
Clinton, who has made women's rights one of the hallmarks of her political career, promised a group of distinguished Afghan women that she had a "personal commitment" to ensuring that their rights must be fully guaranteed in any future Afghan political system.
"It can't come at the cost of women and women's lives," Clinton said before the start of an international conference aimed at plotting the next steps in Afghanistan's drive to take on more security and economic responsibility so that U.S. and other western troops can begin to leave.
Under Taliban rule, women's rights were severely restricted. Women were barred from work and education, and were accorded diminished legal status before Islamic courts.
Many Afghan women have been watching nervously as President Hamid Karzai pursues an effort to reach out to Taliban members who may be willing to leave the battlefield, worrying that this may be a prelude to a political settlement which could see them regain at least some power.
"We are aware of the concerns that many of you have expressed about the reconciliation process and we understand why you would have those concerns," Clinton said, again promising that Afghan women would not be cast aside in any rush to peace with militants.
Clinton told reporters before arriving in Kabul that she was determined to keep women's rights near the top of the agenda at Tuesday's conference, and she made her priorities clear in her formal address to the meeting.
"Over many years, I have participated in post-conflict reconciliation efforts in the Balkans, Northern Ireland, Africa, and Latin America," Clinton said.
"I speak from experience when I say that the work of Afghan women and civil society groups will be essential to this country's success.
"If these groups are fully empowered to help build a just and lasting peace, they will help do so. If they are silenced and pushed to the margins of Afghan society, the prospects for peace and justice will be subverted," she said.
The conference's final communique recognized the "centrality of women's rights to the future of Afghanistan" -- but some of the Afghan women who met Clinton Tuesday appeared have broader concerns.
"The women of Afghanistan deserve peace more than anybody else, but we want peace with justice," said Fouzia Kofi, formerly deputy speaker of Afghanistan's lower house of parliament.
(Editing by Alex Richardson)