Don’t Give Up on Afghanistan

Every time I step before a podium, someone will inevitably raise his hand, and say, "So, Mr. Hosseini, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of Afghanistan?" The first thing I do is remind the audience that I am a novelist. If I have any expertise, it is in the inner lives of the characters I have created in my books—which makes me spectacularly underqualified to answer a question of such magnitude. But even as I say these words—and they are true—I know that I am stalling because I do not have a ready answer. So I do give an answer, but one that in the end amounts to the verbal version of a shrug.

To say you are optimistic about Afghanistan opens you to charges of being hopelessly naive. I can hear the retorts in my head: Do you need reminding that there is a raging Taliban insurgency in the south that has taken nearly 6,000 lives this year? Don't you know that your country produces 93 percent of the world's opium? Are you not aware of the corruption in the government, the still-powerful warlords, the rampant poverty in the provinces, the illiteracy rate, the persistent oppression of women, the suicide bombings that kill children?

Yes, I am aware of these things. I traveled to Afghanistan this past September with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and I saw for myself the high blast walls on the streets of Kabul, aimed at protecting against suicide attacks. Those walls did not exist the last time I was in Kabul, in the spring of 2003, and I didn't feel then the unease I did this time when I walked through crowded streets and bazaars. I saw thousands of young people in Kabul living in slums without work, without direction. In the north, I met homeless families of 20 or more who had spent the past two winters cooped up in holes they had dug underground. In village after village between Kunduz and Mazar-e Sharif, I met people who had no access to clean water, to a school for their children, to a clinic for their sick; families who lived on less than $1 per day—that is, if they could find work—and who received little or no help from a central government still struggling to meet the basic needs of its people.

Perhaps, then, I should be pessimistic about the future of Afghanistan. But that hardly takes an intellectual leap. And besides, what about the positive developments that have taken place over the past six years? When I visited Kabul in 2003, it looked like a war zone, a grim landscape of jagged debris, flattened buildings and roofless walls. The Kabul I saw in September is dramatically improved. Many of its neighborhoods have been rebuilt. I was happily surprised to visit cultural landmarks, like the famed gardens of Babur, and find them successfully renovated. In many towns, I saw children in uniform walking to school. School enrollment, in fact, has increased to more than 5 million children over the past five years. Land mines are being cleared, the press is relatively free (if under attack by religious conservatives) and telecommunication is booming. (Even in the poorest, most remote villages, I had the surreal experience of seeing old men in tattered clothes speaking on cell phones.) The rebuilt roads I traveled in northern Afghanistan were in excellent shape, and traffic on them was brisk, boding well for commerce.

And what message does relentless skepticism send to all the people—both Afghan nationals and expatriates—who are risking their lives trying to rebuild the beleaguered country? People like Dawood Salimi, an Afghan UNHCR worker I met in Kunduz, who has decided to remain in Afghanistan and help refugees even though a suicide blast in July barely missed his 3-year-old son. Or the countless rural teachers who refuse to leave their classrooms despite death threats from the Taliban.

Pessimistic or optimistic? Maybe it is too early—a handful of years after 9/11—to ask such a question about a country that is still recovering from nearly 30 years of war, famine, drought, extremism, lawlessness and massive displacement. Or maybe I, and even legitimate experts on Afghanistan, are the wrong ones to ask. Maybe someone should ask the Afghans.

Earlier this year the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission conducted a survey in 32 out of 34 provinces in Afghanistan, and found that nearly 80 percent of Afghans polled said that they felt optimistic about the future. Nearly 80 percent. I find this to be an extraordinary statistic (I suspect far fewer of us here in America would say the same about our own future). This finding isn't proof of a dramatic improvement in Afghan standards of living. Rather, it reflects the constitutional ability of Afghans to remain hopeful and optimistic in the face of overwhelming hardship. Which, to me, makes it a moral imperative that we in the West not give up on a people who have not given up on themselves.

The only certain thing about Afghanistan is this: without a genuine and sustained long-term commitment on the part of the United States and its allies, Afghanistan is doomed. Though Afghans take pride in their sovereignty, polls have repeatedly shown that the majority of Afghans view the foreign presence in their country favorably. They know that a weakened Western resolve will mean that the gains made so painstakingly will vanish swiftly. I suppose that then, if someone were to raise his hand and ask me about the future of Afghanistan, I would have a ready answer. For now, I will settle for the shrug.

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