USA Today Opinion: Afghan people are still fighting the good fight

August 9, 2011

The military alone cannot end the conflict in Afghanistan. On that much nearly everyone can agree, offering a rare island of consensus among sides otherwise divided on the question of how and when America’s longest-ever war should wind down.

Yet news media coverage from Afghanistan is dominated by the politicians in the Kabul government and men with guns. This means Americans hear little from the Afghan men and women fighting every day for their own communities. If Americans did, they would get to know people who share their values and who work each day for the future of their children and the progress of their country, despite overwhelming obstacles.

“The society has moved … a lot quicker than its government,” says Saad Mohseni, a founder of Afghanistan’s Tolo TV. “Afghanistan itself has changed for the better.”

Among the leading indicators of that change:

•A communications boom that has seen cellphone penetration top 50% —up from barely a blip a decade ago.

•A thriving, independent regional and national news media.

•2.4 million girls in school, from fewer than 10,000 in 2001.

•Nearly 3,000 nationally accredited midwives, up from 250 in 2001, who teach women to deliver babies more safely.

No backwards country

“People here still think we are living in 2001,” said Hasina Safi, head of the Afghan Women’s Educational Center. Safi, whose organization runs literacy classes for children and rights training for women, recently met in Washington with Obama administration and Capitol Hill leaders about what Afghan women hope for from proposed peace talks.

Despite these advances, daily life for most Afghans is still a series of challenges. They tell me the local police often fleece citizens while government workers pry bribes from the people they are there to support. Roads that used to be secure are now riddled with risks. In the face of these dangers, men and women far from power refuse to give up.

Courageous victims

Khan Mohammad was one of these leaders. He ran a school for girls only an hour away from Kabul, but with little of the capital’s security. Mohammad was threatened with death several times for teaching girls, but he continued his work. Late in May, he was shot in the head and killed by Taliban members.

His story received precious little press attention. And yet the values he fought for are critical to creating a more stable Afghanistan: education, opportunity and the chance for girls to contribute to their own society.

Few Americans have met Feroza Mushtari, 26, who heads the Afghan Midwives Association and who chose her career because she believed women deserved to stay alive while giving birth. They do not know entrepreneurs such as Aziza Mohmmand, who exports soccer balls to the U.S. to create jobs for women to earn an income.

This narrow lens on the powerful comes at a price. Many argue that the U.S. should withdraw immediately because the country is a hopeless case. The recent loss of 30 elite U.S. servicemen whose helicopter was shot down only adds to the grief. But that argument ignores the real gains won by everyday Afghans.

Afghan society’s steps forward are real, but fragile. Those leading them deserve a seat at the negotiation table, because their fight is for a secure and stable country where children study, the economy grows and women thrive. And in a tough neighborhood of porous borders, nuclear neighbors and rising radicalism, their battle matters to more than just themselves. To leave Afghanistan without ensuring a role for these men and women in any peace process would be a tragedy. And not just for Afghanistan.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is the author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana as well as a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.