How far will the Taliban go to silence the voices of women and girls?
How far will its hatred extend to destroy any advances given to women and girls under the banner of freedom and liberty, in the name of basic human rights?
The world learned the answer this week.
And it was appalled by the savagery.
In cold blood, in a planned political assassination, a Taliban extremist shot and wounded a young teenage activist in Pakistan, targeting her for holding "Western" views.
The young girl, 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai, who has been called a "peace icon" for her tireless activism, was brutally attacked during the day while sitting on board a school bus. The attacker asked for her by name, and then shot her in the head. She was critically injured.
Yousafzai, a young Muslim student, had gained global and local fame for her work documenting the brutal and vicious world of the Taliban.
She authored a well-known blog that gave a global audience to her cause; she became a strong and vocal supporter of the rights of women and girls in a region formerly under tight Taliban control.
We now know it was a kind of control never fully relinquished by the Taliban.
After the shooting, cowardly Taliban leaders acknowledged that the assassination attempt stemmed from Yousafzai's "pro-West" ideology. They wanted to silence her voice, muzzle the truth, end her activism.
The attack also was designed as a calculated warning to other women and girls. It was meant to deter anyone who might have been inspired to follow Yousafzai's example.
Aside from being "pro-West," the young woman also was targeted for bravely speaking out against the Taliban, and for calling U.S. President Barack Obama her idol.
Today, I proudly join the countless other activists and humanitarians around the world who have condemned this attack.
And I predict that it will not achieve the Taliban's gruesome goals -- for the voices of women and girls cannot and will not be silenced, no matter how terrifying the cost.
As the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate from Maine, I also want to identify and support the work of President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Together, for the first time, they have framed the well-being of women and girls as part of the official U.S. foreign policy strategy.
Indeed, some within the Administration have described the gender endeavor to be at the "heart" of the Obama-Clinton foreign policy agenda.
Today, rather than seeing women as victims of so many things -- poverty, war, culture, violence, atrocities -- the U.S. government is acknowledging women as leaders. Our government also is making women's issues a top priority, key to strategic questions of global peace and stability.
For her part, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is working hard to advance the status of women and girls around the world, aiming to weave women's issues into every thread of U.S. foreign policy.
Yousafzai is an exceptional person. And her rise to prominence as a global icon for women is an example of this new approach to U.S. foreign policy. As a result of her work, the teenager won Pakistan's National Peace Award in 2011 and also was nominated for the International Children's Peace Prize.
The outrageous attack on Yousafzai crystallized the brutality of the Taliban and underscored how much hatred this group holds for women and girls. And it showed to what end the Taliban will go to reverse any and all gains in freedom made for women and for girls.
More, it gives credence to the mounting international concerns about the Taliban's resurgence in the wake of a planned U.S. military exit in 2014.
Despite our best efforts to root out the Taliban, the extremists have returned to the region, threatening both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Activists and humanitarians around the globe have warned that the Taliban is prepared to exact further atrocities against women and girls after the U.S. military departs this region of the world. This week, we saw a sampling of the Taliban's wrath.
Much has changed for women and girls absent the crushing hatred of the Taliban. And, thanks to national reform efforts and the presence of U.S. troops and allies in Afghanistan, the rights of women and girls in this region have grown as individual freedoms have flourished.
The data are overwhelming: Three million girls now go to school in Afghanistan; under the Taliban that number was zero.
Women today comprise 20 percent of the university graduates in Afghanistan. And that number is growing.
And 10 percent of all prosecutors and judges are women; under the Taliban, that number was zero.
In terms of women's healthcare, life without the Taliban has led to declines in both maternal mortality and infant mortality.
In the past 10 years, the governments of the U.S., Afghanistan and their allies have invested billions of dollars for programs to improve the lives of women and girls. The United States alone has spent more than $15 billion dollars on development and military programs in Afghanistan.
Still, violence against women remains rampant and a part of daily life. Women are tortured, beaten and brutally punished in areas controlled by the Taliban. Favorite targets of the Taliban are female candidates, politicians and human rights activists.
In 2010, according to Amnesty International, "more than 74 schools, including 26 girls' schools and 35 mixed-gender schools, were destroyed or closed due to insurgent violence" by the Taliban.
This week, eighth-grader Malala Yousafzai became the latest Taliban victim. We must see her attack for what it was - a wake-up call about the true intentions of the Taliban, whose quest to systematically dehumanize women and girls is clear.
In Afghanistan, the United States and its allies continue to wage a war for a just cause. Today, some 68,000 U.S. troops are in that country, fighting against terrorism and the inhumane reign of the Taliban.
President Barack Obama wants America to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, which would be 14 years after we first sent troops there. The Republican leader on the GOP presidential ticket, Mitt Romney, has called that deadline merely a "goal."
What happens in Afghanistan in 2014 depends so much on who is elected president of the United States in 2012.
And what happens to the women and girls of Afghanistan depends so much on who is elected president of the United States in 2012 as well.
Will all the advances in freedom that women and girls in Afghanistan have seen since the U.S. involvement be erased when our troops leave?
Will there be more innocent victims like Yousafzai? How many more?
The recriminations of the Taliban rightly remain a growing global concern. Almost presciently, Amnesty International recently took the lead with other human rights groups, writing an open letter of warning to President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The letter's aim: To ensure more protections for Afghan women and girls, and to create a strong role for them in that society.
"When the United States and NATO entered Afghanistan in 2001, then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell stated: 'The recovery of Afghanistan must entail a restoration of the rights of Afghan women; indeed, it will not be possible without them,''' the letter said.
"At the time, Afghanistan was among the world's worst countries in terms of women's and girls' rights."
I share the sentiments of Amnesty International and other world leaders, including former Secretary of Defense William Cohen and retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who signed the letter.
We all are justified in our concern that the U.S. military and allied withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 may well lead to a brutal, unrelenting backlash against women and girls.
We are already seeing it begin.
We must stop the violence against women and girls.
The world community must make it a top concern.
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