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Michael Soussan

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Afghan Women at a Crossroads

Posted: 08/01/11 01:19 PM ET

KABUL - The mood was tense this Saturday at the Kabul Senerena Hotel, where leading Afghan women gathered to prepare for the daunting challenge that awaits them now that the official countdown to the withdrawal of international forces has begun.

"I am deeply worried," said Samira Hamidi, the leader of the Afghan Women's Network, the umbrella organization for women's rights groups in Afghanistan. This from a jovial-mannered woman who, unlike many of the international diplomats attending the roundtable, hardly flinched, a few minutes later, when the conference room at the highly fortified hotel-compound was suddenly plunged into darkness, for a few seconds, as the electricity generator rebooted.

At a minimum, we want to hold on to the gains we have made to date. And just that will take a lot of work. We are ready to do it. We have volunteers all over the country. But we need to know whether the outside world will stand by us, or whether the departure of the Americans means we're on our own.

On the eve of Ramadan, Kabul is a city on the edge. Following a spike in recent attacks by Taliban forces, against targets like the Intercontinental Hotel, hospitals, and high-level Karzai government officials and family members, few city-dwellers I spoke to to held out much hope for a peaceful holiday season.

The longer-run fear, as expressed by my driver, is that post-2014 Afghanistan may be quickly overrun by the Taliban. The question for the departing coalition, is whether measures can be taken to thwart such a scenario before it is too late.

The US and its allies have helped the Karzai government build up a force of 390,000 army and police officers. But Afghanistan's future ability to resist a Taliban onslaught is dependent on more than its ability to deploy troops in response to terror. It must also answer political extremism with a convincing vision of hope and tolerance.

At a time when western audiences are being fed a steady stream of depressing news about the alleged corruption of the Karzai government, there is a risk that we may lose perspective about the scale of the progress that has been achieved under his administration to date.

As the women at Saturday's roundtable grilled a succession of government ministers about the nature of Afghanistan's future relationship with the United States (most of them seeming in favor of a strong strategic collaboration agreement) there could be no mistaking the importance of the role they have come to play in securing a better future for their country.

"We lack a core funder," Samira explained. "We don't want to seem like beggars. But if we can't offer women we reach out to a sustainable level of assistance, we create more problems for them than solutions."

The same goes for the entire Afghan adventure the international community engaged in following the attacks of 9/11.

At a fraction of what it costs to send even a single platoon to Afghanistan for a year, organizations like the Afghan Women's Network can be endowed with the ability to make good on the promise of democratization in Afghanistan, and help give the local population as a whole something tenable to fight for, when time comes for them to resist the Taliban challenge on their own.

This kind of investment in women's rights should not be seen as a charitable donation to a lost cause, even given the uncertainties we leave behind on the security front in Afghanistan. The correlation between women's rights and economic development, political stability and social progress is statistically unchallengeable. If we don't keep a minimal investment in the advancement of Afghan women after our forces draw down, we would be dishonoring the sacrifice we asked of them to begin with.