Letter from the Road #42

Path of the Friend

Elizabeth Rabia Roberts


Afghanistan: Glimmers of Light

Most of my liberal friends are discouraged about Afghanistan. They are convinced the Afghans don’t want us there, that the military is not capable of doing anything right, and that we have to admit the Taliban are the default leaders of so backward and misogynist a country.

When this discouragement is coupled with news media dishing out the standard fare of war coverage – IEDs, suicide bombings, civilian casualties, and acid-throwing Taliban – then where can we find hope for a better future for Afghanistan?

No one will disagree that Afghanistan is a dark story. But as philosopher and historian Hannah Arendt once said, “Even in the darkest of times we have a right to some illumination which may comes less from theories and concepts than from the flickering light some women and men will kindle over time….”

It may seem naïve to search for glimmers of light in the midst of so much on-going violence, corruption, and poverty in Afghanistan. It may seem naïve to be hopeful at the same time that we acknowledge the history of errors, aggression, and exploitation visited on that benighted country over the past 30 years.

But I would like to suggest that to recognize light in the surrounding darkness is our most crucial responsibility. Without seeing the glimmers of light, we may lose hope. Without hope, we are  likely to lack conviction, and without conviction we will not have the staying power needed to do the job right this time.  What does it mean to “do the job right”?

The Light of Our Failures
As members of the peace movement point out, we need to have a sober view of the failure of our past relations with Afghanistan. This historical view shines a light on the importance of our responsibility to the Afghan people today and what will happen if we fail to meet it.

I have written in previous Letters from the Road  (#37 and #38) about the role the U.S. has played in the past 30 years of war Afghanistan has endured. To summarize: we armed and supported the most fundamentalist Mujahedeen warlords to fight the Soviets for 10 years, then walked away in 1989 when the Soviets left. Without reconstruction and even a modicum of international security, the Mujahedeen then fought among themselves for power, throwing the country into five more years of a terrible civil war that ended when the Taliban entered Kabul.

The people of Afghanistan will tell you the Taliban rule was “a living horror,” “a blanket of fear,” and it became a natural home to anti-Western fundamentalist terrorists. In 2002, after bombing the country and chasing the Taliban into Pakistan, we turned our misguided attention to Iraq and once again abandoned the people of Afghanistan, leaving them undefended against the returning Taliban, growing corruption of the government, and the build up of a criminal drug economy.  Now we have the perfect storm.

Each time we have ignored our role in helping the Afghans help themselves rebuild, the situation has returned worse than it was before. This is not only bad for Afghans, it is bad for regional and U.S. national security. If we walk away once again we risk decades more of blowback. We need to leave behind some stability and security and a workable process – a process of development in which we partner with all Afghans and with the international community for the well-being of Afghanistan, the region, and ultimately for all of us.

This will be tough to measure for a while – this is why hope and commitment are so important.  So before we walk away in defeat let’s listen to a few positive indicators that may offer us a different option.

Most Afghans Want International Forces There
There are many different voices in Afghanistan and even more in the U.S. media telling us what the Afghans want. When I was in Kabul in October with a peace delegation, I was surprised to hear that most men and women I spoke with felt it was premature for the international troops to leave. Their country is under attack. They need and want protection until the Afghan army and national police force are able to do it.

Recent research confirms that despite eight years of misguided military policy the Afghans still support an international military presence. Last month in a new survey conducted by ABC news, the BBC, and Germany’s ARD, their fifth survey of this type since 2005, approximately 70% of Afghans said they support the presence of international forces in their country and 61% are in favor of the U.S. military build-up of 37,000 reinforcements. This survey was nationwide including both rural and urban areas.

Furthermore, Afghans today are generally more optimistic than they were a year ago. 70% think their country is headed in the right direction – that is up 30% from last year. 61% of the Afghans surveyed expect the next generation will have a better life. This too is an improvement over past surveys.

It seems that despite all of the mistakes made by the Karzai government and U.S. forces, the people still reserve their severest judgment and dislike for the insurgents with only 10% of Afghans supporting the Taliban today. In the country’s southwest, where the Taliban are most firmly entrenched, still only 27% support the Taliban. In a similar survey conducted by the Human Rights Field Mission last year, 75% said the Taliban were responsible for the deteriorating security situation. Despite a new propaganda initiative on the part of Mullah Omar, the people of Afghanistan clearly see the Taliban as the source of their problems, not the solution.

Everyday Heroes
If you are like me you are discouraged by hearing that Afghanistan is a place of chronic abuse of women, medieval tribal codes, terrorist bombings, kidnappings, increased drug use, etc. And it is true that in every province of Afghanistan, every single day these kinds of things are happening.

But what you might not hear in the news is that every single day throughout the country, many men, women, and children get up in the morning and go to schools and educational programs, go to trainings, because they know they must be educated. They know that this is the only way the cycles of violence and poverty will be stopped. They are working and learning and they are doing these things despite the insecurity and threats all around them. When all we hear about is the needs of Afghan people we forget they have assets too and they are contributing the most essential element to their own development: their lives.

Most of the men and women I spoke with in Kabul were working in the civil society sector. They are engaged in some form of education, capacity training, agricultural development, peace building, or service delivery. Many have received death threats and most had to travel to their offices, schools, orphanages, and clinics in cars with armed guards. They spoke of drive-by assassinations and kidnappings of women who work for women’s rights. Every day they go to work is an act of hope, a bit of light.

“What the Taliban hate most is capacity building,” said Aziz Rafiee, director of the Afghan Civil Society Forum. When we pay heed to the progressive voices in Kabul we can clearly see that one of our most essential roles is to protect the breathing space of Afghans working for a future where the violent, criminal, repressive, and woman-hating ideology of the Taliban no longer has a foothold.

Every day Afghans give us signs of their desire for change, and send us reminders that they are entitled to the same rights we enjoy in our privileged and free societies. We need to read these signs.

Signs of Progress
Most of the notes I took in Kabul are filled with the complaints of Afghans who want and need the U.S. and the international community to do better than they are doing. They have watched the Taliban return and human security deteriorate. Neither the international military nor the USAID community has lived up to its promise. That is the bottom line. We need to do better on every front.

Yet if you ask women whether things are worse now than they were under the Taliban, every one tells you it is better than it was.

The women will tell you about the 1.4 million girls in school and the women working in schools, hospitals, clinics and service agencies. They will tell you about the small training programs throughout the country where women are learning sewing, soap making, embroidery, jewelry design, bee keeping, and other jobs to integrate less educated women into the economy.

They will tell you about the first public demonstration for women’s rights last spring on the streets of Kabul. This was unheard of in previous regimes.

They will tell you about the Afghan women’s writing project supplying computers to women writers and the first Internet cafe for women so they can have a voice despite the growing violence.

They will tell you of the new residence for children over five who had been living in the Kabul women’s prison with their inmate mothers (who were imprisoned often for rape or infidelity.) Traditionally if a mother goes to prison her children go with her. These children now get education and emotional counseling and are reintegrated with their mothers upon their release.

Dr. Manizha Naderi of a women’s NGO tells of the village elders, all of them male, that beg to have schools built for their daughters because, they say, “We want them to learn and to study and to have knowledge and also to learn about Islam and world affairs so they can serve their area and their Islamic country.”

I received an email report from Fatima Vorgetts who travels in six provinces outside of Kabul including Wardak, Herat and Baghlan starting girls’ schools and women’s shoras (councils). She works with elder women to recruit the support of the men’s shora to help find funding and do the construction. She describes an incident in which “one woman was wearing the burqa when she arrived. She had started during the Taliban era and had continued out of caution and fear. When I asked about it, her husband spoke up and said it was time to take it off. She agreed. In frontof us he helped her remove it and put it in the car for her. The symbolism was moving for everyone.”

Then there are the 1000 women who have been trained by just one school in the conservative town of Kandahar. So far because of this schooling more than 300 women have found jobs paying more than $600 a month, well above the national average. “We are mobbed, we need more computers, more desks, more Internet capacity,” says Mr. Esham who opened the school with funds from individual Canadian donors in 2007.

“The classes are free, says student Ms Barazki, “but many more students would come if it were safe. I feel very frightened. I live only two blocks away but my parents drive me every day because they say the Taliban will throw acid on our faces”.

These are only a few of the initiatives taking place in Afghanistan by local people often with the help of Western partners. My files have dozens more examples. Yes, the bad news I receive outweighs the good. But what I learned in Afghanistan and what I continue to learn through my study, web-searching and on-going emails is that there are a great many people working very hard to bring changes to the lives of the Afghan people throughout the country.

They all need security to continue. We cannot expect to see the results of this work right away.  We would have seen more, more quickly, if we had provided the physical security and economic development needed between 2002-2008. We did not. But it is not too late. There are positive results. As Fatima Vorgetts says, “I recognize amazing changes every time I see these women. I have seen them before we started to work with them and after a few years, what a transformation! To see them proud of themselves, with hope in the future of their children! Helping even one woman changes the lives of many. It changes our society”.

And Now?
Can the United States partner in this process of development? Are we ready to learn from past mistakes? Do we know how to fight a counter-insurgency that prioritizes protecting civilians?

Perhaps most importantly, are we willing to try? Just this week, in response to our outpouring of care and assistance to Haiti, we have heard the naysayers say, “We can’t afford it.” “They aren’t the right kind of people.” “Why should we care?”
In the next Letter from the Road, we will continue to consider why supporting Afghanistan matters and how it is possible.

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