Near the end of the September Republican debate in Tampa, Florida, Sahar Hekmati, an Afghan-American woman, posed a difficult question to the presidential aspirants gathered onstage: “As the next president of the United States, what will you do to secure safety and protection for the women and children of Afghanistan from the radicals?” CNN’s Wolf Blitzer called on two candidates, ostensibly representing opposite wings of the GOP, to respond. First up was Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor eager to claim the mantle of moderation. “We are ten years into this war, Sahar,” Huntsman said in a grave voice. “But the time has come for us to get out of Afghanistan.”
The live audience erupted in wild applause.
Meanwhile, in a typically rambling commentary, Texas governor and sometime Tea Party favorite Rick Perry agreed that the US troops should be pulled out “as soon and obviously as safely as possible” but also made a vague call “for us to continue to have a presence there.”
These cramped and resigned attitudes stand in stark contrast with the soaring rhetoric of yesteryear. Recall how, during the first days of the initial invasion, Laura Bush was assigned her husband’s weekly radio spot—the first time a first lady had given the full address alone—to decry “the plight of women and children in Afghanistan,” which was “a matter of deliberate human cruelty, carried out by those who seek to intimidate and control.” In Afghanistan, she said, “the fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.”
Today, the notion that liberalization and counterterrorism are, or should be, complementary aims in Afghanistan sounds like sweet nostalgia. Even as President Obama, to his credit, ushered in a thus far successful troop surge in Afghanistan, the administration has studiously avoided that dreaded neoconservative concept, “democracy,” when discussing the country.
So what has changed over the course of a decade? Ask any journalist or analyst in Washington, and the answer is likely to sound something like this: NATO has done all it can for Afghanistan. If little progress has been made, well, that’s because the Afghan people, divided by myriad tribal and ethnic loyalties, are fundamentally incapable of building a coherent Afghan nation. Islamic radicalism, some would add, is the blood in Afghan veins. You might even hear trite historical ruminations about Afghanistan as the “graveyard of empires”—a wild country neither Alexander the Great, nor the British imperialists, nor even the Red Army could tame.
Ask the Canadian writer Terry Glavin, however, and you will get a very different response. The country that we are rushing to abandon, Glavin argues in his powerful new book of first-person reportage from Afghanistan, is an “Absurdistan” of our own construction—“an apparatus sustained only by the suspension of disbelief, a contrivance wholly impervious to the objective realities of the world in which Afghanistan actually exists.” To be sure, Afghanistan is a land devastated by more than three decades of conflict and civil strife and driven to unimaginable cruelty and backwardness by the obscurantist zeal of the Talibs. But, as Glavin shows, that’s only part of the story. There is another Afghanistan, a “womb of empires,” where, under the protection of NATO forces and thanks to the tireless efforts of countless Afghans, a vibrant and once tolerant civilization is being reborn.
This other country is populated by the likes of Sharifa Ahmadzai, a septuagenarian dressmaker with no formal education, who has spent a lifetime teaching other women how to read and write—including during the terror reign of the Taliban. It’s home to Mohammed Yousef and Mahboob Shah, two courageous anti-poverty activists who have singlehandedly lifted thousands of their fellow citizens out of destitution by helping them meet their basic needs and fostering entrepreneurship among the young. It’s a country led by bold female politicians like the MP and presidential candidate Fawzia Koofi, who has continued her outspoken advocacy on behalf of Afghan women despite a vicious Taliban attack on a convoy she was traveling in (her driver was injured and two Afghan police died in the ensuing shootout). Where the Taliban once required house windows to be painted black to hide the sight of women, today there are female soccer players and female boxers.
If we don’t see or read much about this other Afghanistan existing in the shadow of “Absurdistan,” it’s in part because myopic Western media have cropped it out of the picture so as to frame the intervention as a costly quagmire. “Try to imagine what you would think about the United States of America,” Glavin writes, “if all you heard, saw or read came from the multimedia dispatches of three or four reporters riding around for years at night in the back of a police cruiser, through the most blighted and violent alleys of Detroit.” Yet that is precisely the sort of unbalanced impression of Afghanistan Western audiences have been receiving from journalists who rarely report on the country’s many stable provinces.
The many economic and cultural steps forward Afghans have taken have also been largely ignored. Afghanistan’s economy, for example, has been growing at a stunning twelve percent or so per year. Every year since the invasion, hundreds of thousands of girls have entered schools for the first time; fully a quarter of Afghan parliamentarians are women. Thousands of new medical facilities and thousands of miles of new roads have been built. No wonder, then, that a 2006 PIPA poll found Afghans to be “the most optimistic people in the world.” Fed a steady diet of headlines about insurgent assaults and IED explosions, however, Western publics have lost a sense of balance and perspective—and faith—regarding our mission there.
Glavin, a cofounder of the Canada-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee and a veteran of the Canadian left, addresses most of his arguments to his compatriots, particularly those in Canada’s antiwar movement who have come to view the intervention as a colonial enterprise and the Taliban as a sort of national liberation force. Glavin’s central thesis is that these liberal clichés—not to mention the despairing discourse of the right—have a profound impact on a country slowly reemerging from the darkness. As the troops-out-now camp becomes ever more vociferous in Washington, Brussels, and Toronto, Glavin contends, Afghans grow disheartened in the face of the very real challenges they face, jeopardizing the country’s hard-fought progress. To make this case, Glavin marshals the voices of dozens of Afghan democrats, foreign NGO activists, and even Canadian troops, all of whom suggest, in so many words, that both the antiwar left and the new isolationist right are dangerously mistaken. “People who say the foreign soldiers should go away, they do not know what they are saying,” Mahboob Shah tells Glavin. “Yes, it should be Afghans who decide, but we decided that the world should come to us, as a brother.”
For Glavin, it is precisely the spirit of brotherhood and solidarity that should animate the West’s engagement with Afghanistan. His is an appeal based on the recognition that, after the attacks of September 11th, the fate of the West and that of the Afghan people have become inextricably intertwined. To immediately abandon Afghanistan, as a growing bipartisan consensus now urges, would be to traumatically sever these links and to abdicate a responsibility the West promised to shoulder. Afghanistan has made significant gains in the face of enormous challenges and, as MP Sabrina Saqib tells Glavin, “the people do not want to go back.” At the very least, the decision to rush out of Afghanistan should be based on a more sympathetic and holistic accounting of both the country’s post-intervention development and the human costs of withdrawal. In our haste to get out, are we willing to let the Afghans go back?
If that cruel debate night in Tampa is any indication, the answer is, likely, yes. When the CNN camera briefly cut to questioner Hekmati’s face reacting to Huntsman and Perry’s remarks, her pain showed. In the months and years ahead, many more Afghans, both inside the country and across the diaspora, will be listening to our conversations about their homeland, seeking cues about the seriousness of our commitments. Perhaps we should listen more closely to theirs.