There is a common misconception that America somehow imposed democracy on Afghanistan. In reality, Afghans welcomed the opportunity to live in a more liberal country after the Taleban was forced out in 2001. Today, an entire generation of young people have been brought up on western liberal democratic values — a substantial group in a country where over three in four people are under 25 years old. They are prime targets for the Taleban, which is going after politicians, intellectuals and anyone else regarded as having a liberal ‘westernised’ identity.
I’ve watched my home country transform drastically over the past two decades. There have been a series of fundamental changes in the psyche of the Afghan people. In early 2002, my jaw dropped when, for the first time, I watched a man criticise the then-president Hamid Karzai on television. It was a moment of elation mixed with a chilling fear of what my father said happened under previous regimes when outspoken critics ‘disappeared with their families’. But nothing happened after that interview. On the contrary, the Afghan media has fearlessly reported on everything from Taleban brutality to political corruption, giving young people and women a voice that had long been denied.
The life of my relative Amina, now 38, was revolutionised as restrictions on work and study were eased in her hometown of Kabul. The fall of the Taleban allowed her to finish school and, having worked with the Turkish embassy, she received a scholarship to study in Turkey. Amina now teaches English at a private college in Afghanistan. Her earnings support her family. In a recent telephone call, she told me that: ‘during the Taleban government before 2001, women were not involved in decision making. Now women are even working in the security forces, an incredible improvement. And who could have imagined that as a woman, I could be the breadwinner of my family?’
Today, 40 per cent of school students in Afghanistan are girls. They attend university, play sports and get jobs — which means millions of parents also approve of female education. Women serve in the highest rungs of Afghan politics, too — making up over a quarter of the House of the People and the House of the Elders (a higher proportion of national parliament seats held by women than in the United States).
The fact that Afghan women and girls are allowed to live their lives somewhat freely is a testament to the country’s changing attitudes over the past two decades. Prior to 2001, Afghan women weren’t allowed out of the house without a man accompanying them, regardless of whether they were attending school or work.
On a recent trip to Afghanistan I visited Kabul University where a young female student told me that: ‘since 2002, Afghan women have found a chance to start getting an education and work outside of their houses once again. We are very grateful for western ways in Afghanistan. Today, we need to live as global citizens not as villagers.’ Another young student, who graduated from John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, stated that: ‘many of us learnt English… and got scholarships which we would never have had access to without the international presence in Afghanistan. We were raised on liberal, western values such as human rights, women’s rights and freedom of the press.’
In November 2001, the Taleban fled Kabul, forced out by US airstrikes and Afghanistan’s militia forces on the ground. Women were filmed celebrating as they threw off the burka. Now, the head-to-toe garments are commonplace once more, and there are reports from Taleban controlled regions that they are beating women who venture outside unaccompanied. And only a few days ago, they shot a 21-year-old for being outside without a male relative and wearing ‘tight’ clothes.
It is wrong to assume that Afghanistan’s society is reluctant to embrace democratic reforms. Before 2001, the people of Afghanistan were caught in the crossfire between the modernity that accompanies democracy and the traditional values that are still practised throughout the country. But as older cohorts die, so will these traditional values. This will take time. After all, the United States took two centuries to achieve universal suffrage. The struggle between change and the forces of reversion will continue, perhaps forever, but what has been irreversibly internalised by the young is an increasing sense of freedom.
The cities of Kandahar and Herat are now under siege by the Taleban and tens of thousands of Afghans are fleeing the group’s looming repression. For the West to abandon Afghanistan now — to force them to protect western values on their own — is a sad state of affairs.
The decision to withdraw US and Nato forces has been a major strategic mistake. At the time that the decision was made, there were 10,000 Nato troops stationed in the country — 2,500 of them American and fewer than 1,000 British. These are very small numbers: The United Kingdom has more soldiers on operation in places like Cyprus and the United States has more soldiers guarding its own Capitol.
Western values — human rights, particularly women’s rights, and the rights to education, freedom of speech and the press — are all imperfect in Afghanistan. But they are a vastly better state of affairs than if the Taleban reinstates its medieval Islamist regime. There is still time to prevent civil war — if necessary, without the United States. The UK should retain a 5,000 strong coalition force, enough to support Afghanistan’s forces and deter the Taleban. Otherwise, the country may once again become a failed state.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.