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Afghan Women March, America Turns Away

Afghan Women March, America Turns Away

Author: Nader Nadery and Haseeb Humayoon
Publication: The New York Times
Date: April 19, 2009

Last November, extremists on motorbikes opposed to education for women sprayed acid on a group of students from the Mirwais School for Girls in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Several young women were severely burned. Yet it did not take more than a few weeks for even the most cruelly disfigured girls to return to school. Like the crowds of women in Kabul this week who protested a new law that restricts their rights, the Mirwais students demonstrate unbending courage and resolve for progress. They don't fear much - except that the world might abandon them.

That is why President Obama's Afghanistan-Pakistan policy speech last month and his administration's related white paper are worrisome: both avoided any reference to democracy in Afghanistan, while pointedly pushing democratic reforms in Pakistan. The new policy represents critical shifts - such as a new emphasis on civilian work, and recognizing the regional nature of the problem and the inadequacy and abuse of resources. But a faltering commitment to the democratization of Afghanistan and ambiguous statements from Washington on an exit strategy have left us Afghans scratching our heads.

The Obama administration's bold declaration of what is to be defeated (Al Qaeda) and absence of equal zest for what is to be built (democracy) inspires a sense of déjà vu. The last time the United States was seriously involved in Afghanistan, its goal was the defeat of the Soviet Union. But after that "success," extremist militias greedy for power brought our society to its knees. In the absence of the rule of law and legitimate and democratic institutions, the militias' atrocities allowed the Taliban to rise to power and harbor those behind the 9/11 attacks.

To defeat the forces of oppression, Washington must promote and protect the ideals of democracy and human rights. It is true that Afghanistan has miles to go before it will be a real democracy. But why won't the new administration state a commitment to helping us get there?

First, with the economic crisis and other domestic priorities, there is a sense in Washington that helping Afghanistan democratize is either a luxury American taxpayers cannot afford or a charitable cause they can delay. This shows a misunderstanding of both what is needed to help Afghans build a real democracy and the lasting interest of the United States.

Second, there is a temptation among some in Washington to believe that if the zeal for democratic reform or women's and minority rights in Afghanistan were relaxed, Taliban insurgents would find "reconciliation" more attractive and the war would end more quickly.

This belief is encouraged by the radically conservative forces that have increased their influence since 2005 over the Kabul government, which has been backtracking on its commitment to rights like freedom of the press and equality under the law. This was exemplified by two events last month: the upholding of a 20-year jail sentence given to a young journalist for printing a controversial article from the Internet that was critical of the role traditionally assigned to women in Islam; and President Hamid Karzai's signing of a law affecting the country's Shiite minority that places restrictions on when a woman can leave her house and states the circumstances in which she is obliged to have sex with her husband. That law prompted the protests this week in Kabul.

It would seem that the escalating violence the country has suffered since 2005 would be a pretty convincing demonstration that giving up ground on democracy and human rights is not helping end this war. Rather, the Taliban has interpreted it as a sign of the weakness of the Afghan government and its international allies. The Afghan public, even as it faces an unpopular and brutal insurgency, is no longer sure if a government that is reluctant to stand up for human rights deserves support. Afghans are also aware that if their government does not honestly commit to judicial and legislative reforms, it will lose American and European public support.

Third, and perhaps most important, many Westerners still cling to incorrect assumptions about Afghans, which they use as excuses for abandoning democratization. One such belief is that Afghans are a "tribal people" who probably do not want a say in choosing their leaders. Others claim that because Afghanistan is a traditional Islamic society, any promotion of democracy and women's rights will be resented as an imposition of Western values. Another much-heard statement is that Afghans are "fierce independent fighters" who mercilessly defy external influence, so the United States better not get bogged down in this "graveyard of empires."

These assumptions are wrong. In our first democratic elections, in October 2004, 11 million Afghans - 41 percent of them women - registered to vote. In a 2008 survey by the Asia Foundation, 76 percent of Afghans responded that democracy was the best form of government. An estimated 10 million people, one-third of the population, live in cities. Almost 65 percent of Afghans are under the age of 25. This dominant generation came of age not under the old tribal structures but in an Afghanistan whose traditional fabrics were torn apart by Soviet tanks and our long civil war.

As for women's rights, the troubles that brewed in Afghanistan during the 1990s - civil war, followed by the Taliban's totalitarianism and harboring of Al Qaeda - were in great part the result of the female half of our population being deprived of social and political participation. Like everyone else, Afghans crave security, justice, accountability, educational and employment opportunities, and a promise of a future.

Democracy and progress are not products to be packaged and exported to Afghanistan. Afghans have to fight for them. Last month, the two of us helped organize "Afghanistan: Ensuring Success," a conference led by Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born former United States ambassador to the United Nations. Speakers included Afghans from all walks of life and there was broad agreement that, in the words of President Obama, it was time to "pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off" and strive for genuine democratic progress and self-reliance.

But as we approach Afghanistan's second democratic elections, in August, we cannot afford to have our allies falter - through rhetoric or policy - in supporting our nascent democratic forces. Those brave and burned young women of Kandahar did not give up. How could we?

- Nader Nadery is a member of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. Haseeb Humayoon, a student at Middlebury College, has worked as a consultant to nongovernmental groups in Afghanistan.

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