Eight years after the first US attack on Taliban positions in their country, Afghans are waiting to see what the Americans will decide when it comes to facing a resurgent Taliban ready to retake parts of the country and perhaps its capital once more. Among those watching most closely are an emerging group of women leaders I have had the privilege of visiting with during research and reporting trips to Afghanistan these last four years.
When the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996, they quickly turned the capital into an idealized version of their vision of Islam. Contrary to the view that the Taliban was simply a throwback to an earlier time, the Taliban created in the city a period that had never been and returned women to a utopian past they had never before known. In the decades since King Amanullah's wife shocked the nation by appearing without her veil during a 1959 public ceremony, women in the capital gained access to schools and universities, offices and city hall, and their work kept families afloat during decades of political upheaval and, later, war.
Since 2001, women have capitalized on the opportunities created by the international community's presence. No one knows how much money has been spent on women's programs in Afghanistan, but that number is surely in the billions. Mistakes have been made and women's projects have often favored the short-sighted and the quick hit over the long-term investment and skills building. But even with these problems, women have registered significant gains, building a small but growing network of businesswomen and community advocates who now stand ready to contribute to their families and their communities' political and economic future.
Women in Afghanistan do not ask the United States to stay for the simple or sentimental reason of safeguarding their rights. They are the first ones to say that this is not enough of a reason for the world's remaining superpower to remain in their country. Nor do they favor an extended version of a long-term occupation: Afghans want to be able to govern and to provide for their own nation.
But they say over and over again that an Afghanistan left to fend for itself before it can stand on its own after eight years of an under-resourced reconstruction effort and alongside an increasingly bold insurgency will not long remain an isolated problem. It is certain to become the world's concern once more, they say, the only question is when. That, in many women's view, is the lesson of history, not the misapplied lesson of the Russian invasion. The majority of Afghans do not see the Americans as foreign occupiers who must be defeated. Instead, they are hungry for the Americans to step up and help them make their country safer, their government cleaner and their economy stronger. They are disappointed because the international community has done too little, not too much.
Women do not ask for protection of their rights simply because they are women; they seek assistance for their country simply because the stakes are too high -- for them and for the American public. Afghanistan's mothers and sisters and daughters are eager to build upon the gains that strengthened security, a weakened insurgency and a functioning state make possible; they want the Americans to help them get there, not just for their own children's sake, but because they know a return to the failed state of Taliban-governed Afghanistan will not end in peace. If the Taliban return to play host once more to forces like Al Qaeda, who use their country as a training camp and staging ground, they know the chances for Afghanistan's next generation will be lost. And that, they say, would be a tragic failure not just for their own nation, but for the world, which will once again be forced to come in, clean up and root out instead of getting the job done now, while there is still a chance of a more peaceful ending, despite all the problems.
"You cannot expect so much change in one or two or even five years," says Dr. Noorkhanoom, a female doctor who has overseen maternal health programs for the Swiss NGO Terre des Hommes since the Taliban took Kabul in 1996. "I hope the international community will continue to support us; they left us once and they saw the negative results. If this country is secure, the region will be secure. If they leave this country again, it will be a crime."
Follow Gayle Tzemach Lemmon on Twitter: www.twitter.com/gaylelemmon