It’s often said that the war in Afghanistan is more a war of perception than anything else.
This reference is sometimes made in relation to the Taliban’s capacity to use propaganda strategically as compared to NATO, and sometimes to the Afghan government’s need to win greater legitimacy by doing a better job of rooting out the corruption that too often consumes it.
But most frequently, the reference refers to the waning public support in the West for our governments’ ongoing investments in a war routinely written off as a lost cause.
The popular perception is that the war is being lost, or at least not being won, because the Taliban continue to wage their campaign of suicide bombings, assassinations and intimidation within Afghanistan. Recently, a video surfaced of a public killing of a married Afghan woman who was accused of running off with another man.
Lives are indeed lost daily at the hands of the insurgents. The Afghan government is under persistent assault, while the Taliban produces gloating (and much exaggerated) statements of their glorious martyrdom.
But while there is never any shortage of pessimism, we’re actually winning in Afghanistan.
The Taliban are not fighting the threat of progress, modernization, individual rights and civil society, but their actual existence.
It’s these changes, above all else, that should form the basis of our assessment of whether we’re winning or losing. This is not a war for land, for resources, or for power. It’s a war against fascism and for democracy, and for the right to live free from fear.
Afghanistan has been utterly transformed from what it was a decade ago. It is now a country where young people, the majority of the population, battle out ideas in classrooms, on blogs and on TV talk shows, rather than with Kalashnikovs.
It is now a country of thousands of civil society organizations — from village co-operatives of women farmers to independent electoral monitoring organizations, to think-tanks and research institutes.
It is now a country of courageous women who have staked out their turf in parliament, with no plans to retreat.
As a result, where 10 years ago women were publicly executed for “moral crimes”:
* There are now laws criminalizing violence against women;
* Women work, go to university and are in business;
* There is 55 per cent primary school attendance;
* There is improved access to water and sanitation;
* In 2009, the GDP real growth rate was an astounding 21 per cent;
* There is a thriving independent media;
* New universities have opened, and others reopened;
* Health care coverage is spreading, and
* Surveys show unequivocally that the majority of Afghans believe in democracy, support women’s rights and think their country is moving forward.
But acknowledging the progress does not diminish the significant challenges still facing Afghanistan.
It’s true that 45 per cent of primary school age kids aren’t in school in Afghanistan. But in 2001, the public school system essentially did not exist. Girls were shut out of education and a pitiful minority of boys studied in schools with a largely unregulated religious curriculum.
While in Canada, women make up only one in five parliamentarians, Afghan women represent 28 per cent of the parliamentary seats, and that within only a decade of when they were stripped of all of their rights.
Afghans have accomplished all this despite the violence they live in. And like a kicked hornets’ nest, the Taliban are raving mad about it.
It’s not wishful thinking to suggest that there is something worth fighting for in this beleaguered country. But it is most definitely wishful thinking to assume that we can give up on Afghanistan without it being a colossal betrayal to those people fighting to grasp what we already have: liberty.
Lauryn Oates is a Canadian aid worker managing education projects in Afghanistan. She is projects director at Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan. Distributed by Troy Media.
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