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Afghan women leave a class after studying in a new literacy program that also uses mobile phones to help them learn in Kabul on November 3, 2012. Afghanistan has launched a new literacy program that enables Afghan women mostly deprived from basic education during decades of war to learn to read and write using a mobile phone. (Jawad Jalali/AFP/Getty)

Turning Point

Afghan Panelists See Stability, Progress, but Hold Fears About U.S. Withdrawal

Three participants in the Women in the World Summit—Saad Mohseni, Fawzia Koofi, and Rina Amiri—are optimistic about the future, but agree that 2014 will be their nation’s most critical year.

The future of Afghanistan is bright, and the country is on a path toward political stability, security, and economic growth—so long as the international community stays the course. That surprisingly upbeat assessment came during the final panel on the first day of the Women in the World Summit.

The progress is real, but reversible, the panelists said, suggesting that 2014 will be the critical year. That’s when U.S. troops are set to withdraw and Afghanistan will hold its first national election since 2009. The panelists’ optimism was tempered by concerns that the U.S. and other Western powers, in a rush for the exits, will cut deals with the Taliban that could threaten the country’s gains. 

In a way, the makeup of the WITW panel itself (moderated by NBC's Andrea Mitchell) is a testament to the dramatic improvements Afghanistan has seen in the last decade. Among them was Fawzia Koofi, a 37-year-old politician and advocate for women’s rights. Koofi was one of 19 children in a traditional polygamous family. When she was born, her mother, distraught that she couldn’t please her husband with a son, left Fawzia to die in the blazing sun. She was discovered and returned to her mother, who, overcome with guilt, vowed to give he as good a life as possible. Koofi became the first girl in her family to go to school. Now she is a prominent member of the Afghan Parliament and is running for president.

Under the Taliban, there was no free press. Televisions were banned, and radio, controlled by the mullahs, was devoted almost entirely to the call for prayer or other religious programming. Today, panelist Saad Mohseni is known as the Rupert Murdoch of Afghanistan. As chairman and CEO of the MOBY Group, his television, radio, and Internet outlets are transforming the country. His news programs have exposed corruption and government incompetence. His entertainment programming may be having an even more profound social impact.

Panelist Rina Amiri fled the country in 1973 during a time of great political turmoil after the king was overthrown. She returned in 2002 and has worked as a United Nations mediation expert devoted to bringing peace and reconciliation to her country. While Amiri is also optimistic about Afghanistan’s future, she said much rides on the success of next year’s election and the international community’s commitment to shepherding a fair process. “What is important is that the international community sticks by its principles,” she said. 

For his part, Mohseni rattled off statistics to support the proposition that Afghanistan was on an upward trajectory. Literacy rates have increased from 10 percent to 35 percent in the last decade and were projected to reach 55 to 60 percent in the next decade. Internet penetration has increased from zero to 20 percent. Cellphones are proliferating, bringing the information revolution to the most remote and primitive areas of the country.

For Koofi, the evidence of progress was perhaps more intangible, but no less real. She cited the extraordinary resilience of young Afghans girls and the generational transformation that has taken place in their country. “Social changes are not measurable, but I can see the transformation of Afghanistan,” she said. Koofi cited the fact that school attendance among girls has remained steady, even in the face of acid and poison attacks on female students perpetrated by the Taliban. 

But perhaps the best evidence of Afghanistan’s robust democratic future: after the WITW panel, Koofi was rushing back to Afghanistan to participate in an important vote—the impeachment of several members of the ruling cabinet.

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