Why Afghanistan Needs Its Own Mandela

08/06/2013 03:32 pm ET | Updated Oct 06, 2013

The future looks bleak -- a corrupt government, the Taliban itching to regain power, and almost no profitable industries besides opium and foreign aid. This amidst an increase in civilian death and violence. It's almost like there is no hope left in Afghanistan.

But if you believe in people and believe in the power of good, then you know that hope always exists. And that hope comes in the form of individuals -- Afghans -- fighting for a better tomorrow, inspiring a country, and inspiring the world. The problem is: we don't often hear about these individuals. We hear about the bloodshed and the destruction, the pain and the suffering. But the power of just one person to instill hope in a nation, to make that nation a better place, can be astounding.

Take a man whose accomplishments have been recounted in weeks past: Nelson Mandela. The history of South Africa was forever changed by Mandela's negotiations to end apartheid and his subsequent ascension to the presidency. Mandela not only worked tirelessly to end racial segregation in South Africa; he also inspired a generation of people to believe that doing good was more important than doing well. And he did this while facing criticism from all sides.

Think Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, whose history today is much like Mandela's--a period of political imprisonment followed by her release in 2010. She has since become the leader of the Burmese opposition party. And, even as she is criticized for working with the corrupt government and ignoring Muslim minorities, she plans to seek the presidency in 2015 on a platform of democratic transition and human rights.

And it's not just political leaders who inspire us. Mother Theresa championed the plight of the poor in India. Yao Ming inspired a generation of Chinese to dream big and give back. We all have people who inspire us. And they inspire us in infinite different ways and for infinite different reasons. But they all stand for something greater than themselves. What's more, these individuals are not saints, nor infallible leaders sent by God. They are individuals who make mistakes but want to make the world a better place.

The problem is that Afghanistan's reserves of well known and inspiring individuals is running dry. Of course Afghanistan is filled with inspiring people and uplifting stories, but the country lacks the sort of nationally known and unifying figure to mediate the intense sectarian and tribal violence that plagues the corrupt nation. Can you name any? Not President Karzai, who presides over one of the most corrupt governments in the world. Nor the leaders of the Taliban, who ground their faith and values in the Stone Age. And so many other potential moral leaders have fled Afghanistan for schooling and a better life abroad, creating one of the worst brain drains on the planet.

But there are some, people like Malalai Joya. A former member of the National Assembly, Joya was suspended in 2007 for accusing the Afghan government of being filled with warlords, a characterization that many of the warlords in the Afghan government thoroughly resented. Joya has since written a book, A Woman Among Warlords, and continues to travel the world advocating on behalf of Afghanistan. Joya opposes the NATO/US occupation in Afghanistan and is an outspoken critic of the human and women's rights abuses happening in Afghanistan today.

You may think that, even with someone promising like Joya, Afghanistan's problems are too big to face. This ignores the history of virtuous and gifted individuals accomplishing the impossible, as well as the facts on the ground. More Afghan children are in school than ever before, including girls. More people own cell phones, have access to health care, and 60% think the country is moving in the right direction. Perhaps most exciting is the 20% annual economic growth and newly discovered mineral deposits that could be worth trillions of dollars.

And yet Joya does not have the recognition or support necessary to lead Afghanistan forward, at least not yet. And the history of Afghanistan is a graveyard of such squandered potential, men like Ahmad Shah Massoud, the former vice president of Afghanistan and a leader in the fight against the Soviets and the Taliban; a man who was assassinated just two days before September 11th, 2001. A man who championed humanitarianism and democracy and is now considered a national hero to Afghanistan.

Today, few Afghans exist who are both hungry for change and nationally or internationally known and respected. Thus, NGOs, the international community, and the international media have a duty to find those Afghans who have built trust in their community and who have plans for the future of Afghanistan. We need to find the Malalai Joyas, the Ahmad Shah Massouds, and the yet unknown individuals, so we can tell their stories and fund their projects before the world loses the Afghans most capable of saving Afghanistan. Finding someone who can inspire hope in a nation is just one step towards a better world, but, as history has shown us, it can be integral to the success of a country where hope is in short supply.