The news from Afghanistan lately goes from bad to worse. On September 20, Burhanuddin Rabbani, the main coordinator of peace negotiations with the Taliban was murdered.
Then General Stanley McCrystal went on record with a less than glowing assessment of US involvement. The US understanding of the country was “frighteningly simplistic.” In terms of ending the conflict, “we didn’t know enough and we still don’t know enough” he said. Despite the fact that Afghanistan is a staple of our weekly news headlines, most of us don’t know enough either.
Hillary Clinton just visited the country as part of a “diplomatic surge” to pressure Afghans to continue pursuing a peace deal with the Taliban, on a tight schedule. Despite whatever deal Ms. Clinton will eventually announce, it hardly sounds like victory to be leaving the country with the Taliban involved in some sort of power-sharing deal with the government. Getting them out of government was one of the goals of the international intervention, and while “moderation” may have entered our descriptions of them, the change is primarily on our side.
As Michael Rubin points out, there is nothing new about the notion of talking to the Taliban. Americans tried to broker peace deals with them even before 9/11, and repeatedly, peace talks were merely an opportunity for the Taliban to re-group and renew the fighting. Still, in defiance of history, this is the policy that we hope will bring an end to the conflict — or at least, our involvement in it.
There is another story, though — one which rarely makes the headlines. This is the story of the men and women who have been struggling to rebuild a country which has one of the world’s worst landmine infestations.
They are young women, like Roya Shams, who continue to go to school and teach other girls, despite the many security risks. Roya’s father, a police chief in Kandahar, was murdered, and she regularly receives death threats from the Taliban. They are the Afghans like Saad Mohseni at Tolo TV, who have opened up debate on social and political issues, challenging traditional customs in a country where TV was forbidden and radio limited to Taliban broadcasting.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, is one of the voices telling the other story, reminding us that from the vast increase in trained midwives to the birth of an independent news media, much has changed for the better since 2001.
While these gains are tangible, they remain fragile. A recent ACBAR survey of Afghans across 14 provinces revealed fear that even the modest and imperfect institutions that have been built may be abandoned by international donors when the ISAF military commitment ends.
Fawzia Koofi, a female MP, second deputy speaker of Parliament and aspiring presidential candidate, is evidence of the new Afghanistan in the making. Her hopes for her country, along with those of many other Afghans, are recorded in Come from the Shadows: the long and lonely struggle for peace in Afghanistan by Terry Glavin. A veteran Canadian journalist, Glavin visited Afghanistan in the spring of 2010, and this book tells the story of what he found there. I asked him why he decided to write this book.
“I’ve always been interested in stories that betray a deep chasm between the way the story occurs in the real world and the way it is reported in the media," said Glavin. "I have never come across a story where the chasm is so wide.”
Glavin noticed that the opinions of Afghan-Canadians on Canada’s role in their country were sharply different from those of the general public, which tended to see the Canadian mission as misguided and useless. The Afghans supported it. His travels to Afghanistan from 2008 to 2010 revealed that most people had a deep hunger for democracy and change, and saw the ISAF mission as providing crucial space which allowed them to begin rebuilding their country.
While many Canadians see the glass as half empty, Afghans focus on the dramatic changes of the past decade— from a time when there was no government, no currency, and no country really to speak of.
The situation in Afghanistan is still incredibly fluid. Much depends on when and under what conditions ISAF countries— including Canada — make their exit. In making that decision, it is critical that we hear the other voices from Afghanistan.
Terry Glavin will be at the Tommy Douglas library in Burnaby at 2pm on Sunday, October 23rd to discuss his book. See the website for more details.