02/11/2013 05:23 pm ET Updated Apr 13, 2013

Afghan Women Face Grim Future

The thin, blue burkas hanging on pegs in a sad little row indicated the diminished status of women in the northern Afghan city of Faisabad.

About 200 Afghan girls and boys who had completed the local high school were trying to learn computers and English at this private school endowed by an Afghan diplomat. But to walk through the frozen, grimy streets of this mainly ethnic Tajik city near the Tajikistan border, the girls had to walk a gauntlet of male lust.

After all, no Afghan men had the chance to simply socialize with young women. They were kept apart by tradition and also by the fear that grips the women and has forced them to put on the burka.

And now we will be leaving these girls to their fate -- to be bought and sold, to be seized and kidnapped, to be wrested from their families by the lure of cash or the fear of the gun. We -- the U.S. and the wider international military, diplomatic and aid community -- have already failed these girls.

Before the U.S. invasion in 2001, young women rarely wore the burka in this ethnic Tajik region. And the Taliban, mainly ethnic Pashtuns who force their women to wear the burka, never conquered this region. It remained under control of Shah Ahmed Masood, the Lion of Panjsher, and girls could enjoy much more freedom than other Afghans. They walked unveiled in their towns and villages, perhaps covering only their hair with a scarf. They enjoyed a small but important measure of freedom.

But just two days before the 9/11 attacks in the United States, Masood was assassinated by suicide bombers sent by Al Qaeda. Since then, the Taliban have been pushed away to the Pakistan border and to the southern Pashtun region near Kandahar. That allowed the return from Pakistani refugee camps of the old Mujahideen fighters and commanders who have formed a parallel power next to the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai.

Today, if a girl walks to school unveiled, a 50 year-old former commander sees her pretty face and may send a note to her father, offering money for the girl. And if the money is not enough he sends a warning, a bullet. So the father has no choice but to give his daughter to be the third or fourth wife to a smelly, illiterate old man more than twice her age. School? Forget about it. She'll have to start pumping out the babies. Wash, clean and cook. Work in the field and milk the cow if he has one.

Afghanistan was always a tragedy for the women. Back in 1967 when I first visited the country, I traveled from the Iranian border to Heart, Kandahar and Kabul. After a couple of months in Kabul I went up north through the Salang Tunnel built by the Soviets up at 11,000 feet.

I went down to Mazar-i-Sharif and ancient Balkh, where Alexander was greeted by the same kind of guerrilla warfare that drove out the British in the 1800 and the Soviets in the 1900s and is effectively driving us out in the 2000s. Alexander made the same mistake everyone else did. He tried to impose his culture on the Afghans.

Back in the fourth century BC he found that the Afghans left their dead in the street to be consumed by dogs. The Greek leader was horrified. In Greece the dead were interred in formal tombs. So he tried to force the Afghans -- this is 1,000 years before Islam was created and entered the picture -- to adopt the Greek burial system.

The result was that each time he took his army away to conquer more of central and south Asia, the Afghans (called Bactrians at the time) came out of the hills and slaughtered every Greek soldier left behind and all the locals who had collaborated with them.

Now the same fate is likely to befall our Afghan allies when we leave at the end of next year.
Those girl students in the blue Burkas will have to hide the fact that they know computers and speak English and have maybe had an internship or job with an NGO (non-governmental organization) or foreign company.

I think of the class I visited in Faisabad where young Afghan women were taking an 18 month midwife class. These girls came from villages with the world's highest rate of maternal mortality. With U.S. and other donors providing training, the new midwives had cut the death rate by a huge number. And the child mortality rate had fallen by 25 percent since 2002 according to a survey by Johns Hopkins University.

Does anyone remember the Khmer Rouge? When they took over Cambodia in 1975 after the United States left, anyone with an education had to lie and pretend he was just an illiterate laborer. The Khmer Rouge killed those with eyeglasses, the monks, the university graduates.
This could be the fate of the Afghans who believed that the United States would not leave them in the lurch, to be shoved back into a 10th century morality of stonings and beheadings promised by the Taliban -- backed by Pakistan.

We need to be sure this does not happen on our watch. We must leave enough of a military force to protect those women and girls. We need to respond swiftly and strongly to any such degradation of the rights of women to read, chose their husbands, work where they want and to have access to media and knowledge.

At one small village on the road north from Kabul to Mazar, during my first visit to Afghanistan, we stopped our car at a roadside tea shop. We were two American guys and Susan, a lovely American woman from California with blond hair falling over her bare shoulders and wearing blue jeans. This will be interesting, I thought as we walked into the shop, which was full of bearded men.

The tea shop owner came out and opened his hand in the universal question of "what's up?"
"Chai?" I asked.

He immediately showed us a low table to sit around and went to prepare the tea. The men in the shop watched the whole interchange. As soon as we were seated, they went back to their conversations. Red woven carpets covered the walls and through the open window the Hindu Kush Mountains rolled away towards Pakistan and Tajikistan.

These people were willing to show us respect as strangers, in part because we behaved with respect towards their culture. They allowed Susan to wear what she wanted because she was a guest.

Somehow, men who could grant such liberty to Susan can learn to grant the same liberty to their own daughters. But it may take more years and even centuries for such change to overcome the weight of the ancient Afghan culture. Probably commerce and media and travel will move things along more quickly than projects by foreign aid groups propped up by foreign soldiers. Offering an escape from the prison of traditional Afghan attitudes towards women would be the most important thing that we could leave behind as we pull out our troops.