President Obama’s recent announcement that he plans to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by 2014 will not only prove disastrous for Afghanistan, a country which I fear will slide back in the abyss of either Taliban rule or civil war. It will also be disastrous for the United States; without international support Afghanistan may once again become the playgound for international terrorism.
One of the most common misperceptions about my nation is that democracy was forced on an unwilling population by the West after the defeat of the Taliban in 2001. The fact is Afghanistan has a long history of democratic traditions. At local level we have a system of Arbabs. An Arbab is usually a village elder who acts as representative to the others. He makes low level decisions on behalf of people and he represents his village at the Jirga, a local council where elders from neighboring villages meet and discuss problems or solve disputes. Anyone can bring a problem or dispute to a Jirga – the Jirga council will listen to both sides of the debate and make a judgment. Their decision is final.
At national level we have Loya Jirga – grand council. This system brings together regional leaders from all over the country. Our country is richly in culture (over 40 different languages are spoken with around 200 dialects). Immediately after the fall of the Taliban we had a constitutional Loya Jirga which included representatives from all the different ethnic groups and where the new democratic constitution of Afghanistan was agreed and voted upon. Most recently there has been a national Peace Jirga which included village elders together with politicians from all over Afghanistan who came together to discuss the ways forward as insurgency and insecurity grows.
Today many Afghans have lost or are losing faith in their government. But that’s got nothing to do with not wanting democracy. It has everything to do with how little has changed for ordinary people despite the billions of dollars of international aid money that has been spent in Afghanistan in recent years.
Most people still do not have access to clean water or electricity, even in Kabul, the capital city. In part this is due to government corruption. Afghanistan is now ranked one of the most corrupt countries in the world. But it is also a failure of the international contracting firms that built the roads, many of which were too small to allow farmers to pass trucks to get produce to market. Some used such poor quality asphalt that the roads need rebuilding already. Even in central Kabul the main road which runs between the airport and a central district called Wazir Akbar Khan is so badly pot-holed that visitors think it is due to war damage. The asphalt of the road, built a few years ago, has already worn away.
Many hospitals were so also so badly built they failed to include basics like plumbing and are not fit for patients. Yet these firms still took their profit. On a recent visit to Badakshan I visited one such institution. The walls were cracked, the door frames did not fit the doors and the piping didn’t work. Every time a tap was turned on water flooded. These things happen because foreign aid workers can no longer visit many places due to insecurity, so they must rely on corrupt local officials to tell them a project such as a school or hospital has been completed properly. The local official – who may have stolen half the funds for himself – reports back that it has been, no one makes a further check, a report is filed and the contracting firm is paid. It is a corruption that starts at village level and ends at international level. And because of this poor people do not get the help that was promised to them. They see a half built hospital and wonder how this could happen?
If Afghan people are cynical today, these are just some of the reasons why. But they still risk their lives to vote in elections. I represent Badakshan, one of the poorest and most remote provinces of Afghanistan, where many people are illiterate. Yet they still love to talk about politics, especially about so-called peace talks with the Taliban.
Last year the Taliban pulled out of previous talks with President Hamid Karazi but, more recently, the Taliban have opened a political office in the gulf state of Qatar, a key US ally. The current strategic thinking of NATO is that the only way to achieve lasting peace in Afghanistan (and allow a smooth foreign military pull-out) is to bring the Taliban into talks and allow them to participate in government. I feel strongly this is not the right approach.
I do not believe the Taliban will share power or will participate in democracy. The Taliban have tried to assassinate me and other female MPs, liberal MPs, and any opponents of their ideology Only a few weeks ago Taliban gunmen attacked my car. I was inside for 30 minutes not knowing if I would live or die. Three Afghan policemen were killed in the battle. Can I really be expected to believe a Taliban representative would take a seat in parliament alongside me?
According to one United Nations estimate, nearly 90 percent of Afghan women suffer from some sort of domestic abuse – some analysts believe that number may be even higher – making Afghanistan one of the most dangerous places to be a woman. Nonetheless, small but important gains have made in women’s rights in the past ten years.
Today around 2.7 million girls are now in school, compared to just a few thousand during the time of the Taliban. In the new Afghan parliament, 27 per cent of MPs are female – far higher than the world average. Thousands of women now go out to work in offices, a few drive cars (although this is not common) and glamorous women wearing lipstick with shiny bouffant hair visible underneath their headscarves are once again seen on TV as news anchors and journalists (all female voices and faces were banned during Taliban time). These women are role models to many young women in Afghanistan.
And of course women now have access to healthcare, in places where it is available. In the time of Taliban women were banned from visiting male doctors and female doctors were banned from practicing, effectively denying 50 per cent of the population any medical care whatsoever. In my view that was as good as attempted murder of a gender. Those who claimed to men of God had no respect for one of God’s greatest creations – women. By allowing the Taliban back as a legitimate force in government we would undo all of those gains and it would be a betrayal of Afghan women.
The problems of my nation are vast, but they are not insurmountable. In my view we need to continue to support the fragile democratic gains and structures of recent years, not give up on them. We need continued Western support. In time we will be ready to go it alone—but not yet. Plunging us back into the darkness of Taliban rule is not the answer.