11.11.09

Don't Abandon Us, Obama

One group in Afghanistan is particularly on edge as Obama makes his final call on the troop surge—women. Gayle Lemmon talks to female leaders about their fears of a Taliban resurgence.

While Afghans wait to hear whether President Obama will indeed decide to send more troops to their soil, one group is watching especially closely: the nation’s women leaders, who worry about what comes next—and whether they will be able to hold on to the gains they have made since the international community flooded Afghanistan with dollars and development programs seven years ago. While they are not certain that additional boots on the ground are the answer to the grave problems facing their nation, these women say they are eager to see the Americans renew - rather than retreat from - their commitment to Afghanistan.

Uncertainty has marked the months since the Afghan campaign season began this past summer. Business investment has plunged and foreign donor decisions have been placed on hold until the security situation improves. From aid organizations deciding on next year’s priorities to Afghans reluctant to spend cash they might need if the country sinks into chaos once more, everyone seems to be waiting to see what shape events will take.

“Women are in danger already; if the troops go, the people who will be most affected will be women and children.”

“Everyone thought that this election would bring change and a chance for the improvement and the development of the country, but the situation has made us hopeless,” said Leeda Yacoubi, deputy director of Afghan Women’s Network, an umbrella organization of women’s groups which counts 65 members nationwide. “Before, donors were supporting long-term projects, but now they are three-month, four-month, six- month projects; they do not fully trust the situation in Afghanistan and they don’t want to invest.”

This, say Yacoubi and others, is a mistake. Despite the admittedly grave problems of corruption and insecurity plaguing their impoverished country, women leaders say Afghanistan has made real progress during the past eight years thanks to the presence of international troops.

“Before 2001, Afghanistan was like a strainer: Anything you put in it fell to the bottom and right through the cracks,” said Aziza, an entrepreneur with her own soccer ball manufacturing company. Aziza, who asked that we use only her first name for security reasons, shared her views while waiting for NATO staff to pick up an order for 3,000 soccer balls. “Now we are building something, we are creating a foundation for this country.”

Nuria, the principal of a Kabul girls' high school whose 5,000 students attend class in three shifts a day, agrees, noting that more than a third of her seniors went on to university last year. She also asked that we use only her first name.

“Everything has changed,” Nuria said during a break in her 12-hour day which begins at 5:30 a.m., six days a week. “Teachers, students, our students’ abilities, all of these have improved.”

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Even while some political activists and pundits in Washington and London sound the call for a full troop withdrawal, women here argue that a complete pullback would only exacerbate the battery of formidable problems plaguing their struggling nation. Though nearly all say the international community could have done a far better job in securing a teetering Afghanistan, where practically every citizen can now rattle off a personal tale of corruption, few women say they believe foreign forces should go. In a series of conversations with a dozen women leaders spanning a range of sectors, from health care to business to politics, some of whom rarely speak to journalists, the consensus was that existing troops must stay for now—if only because things would be far worse were they to leave. Insecurity would rise, the Taliban would gain power, and women and girls would immediately lose ground.

“Pull out, get out, give up is not the way to solve Afghanistan’s problems,” Afghan parliamentarian Shukria Barakzai told The Daily Beast. She and several other women leaders say that while they are not convinced Afghanistan needs more American soldiers, there is no question the future of their country depends on those forces already there.

“We want the troops here,” said Huma Safi, a program manager with Women for Afghan Women, which runs women’s shelters and family counseling centers in three provinces of Afghanistan. “Women are in danger already; if the troops go, the people who will be most affected will be women and children.”

Aziza, the soccer-ball entrepreneur, echoes this concern.

“We could not be here if the troops were not here,” she said, referring to the growing number of Afghan businesswomen, educators, and activists who have taken on more visible roles in support of their communities since 2001. “We need troops here until we can sustain our own military.”

And that, say many Afghan women, is the key: International troops won’t be needed forever, just long enough to help Afghanistan’s army and its police forces stand on their own. While development is absolutely critical to their country’s future, they say, it cannot happen amid the rising threat of attack from an increasingly emboldened—and innovative—insurgency.

“Development and security go in parallel,” said Pashtoon Azfar, head of the Afghan Midwives Association, which now runs accredited midwifery programs in more than 32 provinces. “If you don’t have security, how can development be done?”

Women for Afghan Women’s Huma Safi agrees and cites as an example the case of now-empty new classrooms in the northeastern province of Kapisa, where violence has surged in recent months.

“You can build schools and hold an opening ceremony, and then tomorrow they will come and burn it,” she said, referring to the Taliban. “If there is no security, no one will send their girls to school.”

In the end, the women say, it is up to the Americans alone to decide whether more troops are critical to their revised strategy. Many women are skeptical that they are. But they are also surprised to hear that restive publics in America and Europe are clamoring for all their soldiers in Afghanistan to come home. And they wonder if Westerners have forgotten why their forces came to the long-troubled country in the first place.

“If they leave this country, al Qaeda will come again and the same mistakes will be repeated,” said Nuria, the high-school principal. “The Afghan people can’t fight al Qaeda by themselves.”

Get Involved: The Afghan Women’s Network is the umbrella group for organizations working against sex discrimination. Women for Afghan Women raises money for educational and health services for women and children.

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Gayle Tzemach Lemmon covered presidential politics as a producer at ABC News in Washington. Since 2005, she has been reporting on women entrepreneurs starting  businesses in post-conflict economies such as Afghanistan, Bosnia and Rwanda. She is working on a book scheduled for 2010 publication by HarperCollins about a young Afghan entrepreneur whose business supported her family and community during the Taliban years.