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Afghanistan is on the brink

A worsening security situation is undermining a burgeoning civil society and commitment to democracy

February 11, 2016 2:00AM ET

Afghanistan is worse off today than it was before the 2001 U.S. invasion, according to a report released last month by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).

The Taliban now controls about 30 percent of Afghanistan — more than it controlled at any other time since 2001. Public confidence in the Afghan national unity government is waning because of continued attacks in Kabul and the threat of violence from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The economy is in free fall. The partial withdrawal of foreign military infrastructure means that hundreds of thousands of people are now unemployed or soon will be. Corruption among government leaders remains rampant.

In Kabul people don’t need a 230-page report to understand the deteriorating security situation. On Feb. 1 a Taliban suicide bomber killed at least 20 police officers in an attack near a police complex, wounding 29 others. It was the latest in a series of assaults in the Afghan capital this year and yet more proof that the U.S.-led “war on terrorism” is not working.

A more effective way to combat violent extremism is to offer something in its place, and I don’t mean weapons. Every time a suicide bomber detonates his charge in Kabul, I am reminded that Afghanistan must do a better job on the battlefield of ideas. That is the only war in which we stand a chance of winning.

Young people in Afghanistan are looking for opportunities, hope and inspiration. And if they can’t find those things, they will leave. They are already fleeing the country in unprecedented numbers. “Afghans accounted for 20 percent of the million-plus migrants to the European Union in 2015, second only to Syrians fleeing their own civil war,” the SIGAR report said. Afghanistan issued more than 2,000 passports a day in Kabul last year, a sixfold increase over 2014, mostly to men and women under the age of 30, according to SIGAR. And last fall Afghanistan’s Refugees and Repatriations Ministry launched a social media campaign in an effort to stop the exodus of young people.

“Don’t go,” the ads implored. “Stay with me. There might be no return!”

But many Afghans would rather take their chances in another country than stay in or return to their homeland, where the odds are stacked against them. If 14 years of foreign intervention and billions of dollars in international aid have taught us anything, it is that answers to Afghanistan’s problems are not going to come from abroad. If we are to build a lasting and sustainable democracy, we will have to do it ourselves.

Afghanistan is on the brink. In some ways, the country has made great progress. Under Taliban rule, it had almost no independent media, and women were confined to their homes, deprived of the right to go to school, work or move about without a male companion. Today 28 percent of the Afghan parliament is made up of women. There are four female ministers in the unity government. And robust and diverse media are striving to hold leaders accountable. 

Despite Afghanistan’s worsening security situation, I remain optimistic about its prospects for peace and stability. I have no choice. This is my home.

But many of these achievements are under constant threat. Last month the Taliban bombed a bus carrying workers of Tolo TV, the country’s largest private broadcaster. Women’s political representation in urban areas has not improved the lot of rural women in conflict zones, who still struggle to earn a living wage or to access health care and education.

Afghanistan must restore its tradition of pluralism. It is a culturally, ethnically and linguistically diverse nation with a long history of tolerance. Afghanistan’s strong Sufi tradition emphasizes acceptance of other Islamic sects and religions. In fact, Afghanistan was home to a substantial Jewish population as well as Hindus and Sikhs for years before the civil war. Because of constant international intervention, Afghans have been coopted and mobilized to defend a political Islam that leaves little room for interpretation. But that is not who we are.

Afghans who believe in an open society, freedom of expression and political pluralism must do a better job of engaging with the public. A call for a return to our roots cannot come from above or from outside the country.  Afghanistan’s current leaders and their international supporters can’t be trusted to do the job.

We see the potential for this movement in civil society’s increasingly active role in daily life. Afghans overwhelmingly participated in the first round of 2014 elections despite security threats, illustrating their commitment to the democratic process. We stand with our free media in the face of Taliban attacks. And Afghan youths enthusiastically offer political criticism and commentary on social media, displaying their interest in politics and the future of their country. Afghans have the resources to counter radicalization, but the voices are currently scattered and fragmented. We must strengthen them by investing in better education and broadening support for civil society and political parties and movements.

In November we proved we can do this work. Thousands of people took part in a spontaneously organized march to protest the beheadings of seven innocent civilians, all ethnic Hazaras. The march was organized by youth and civil society leaders who did not make ethnic distinctions in their calls to participate on social media. Religious scholars and secular activists, city dwellers and rural residents, men, women — the only identity we concerned ourselves with that day was our Afghan identity, and the main rallying cries were against radicalization and terrorism and for peace and democracy. The march was one event, a spark, but it was a glimpse of the potential the new Afghanistan has for a broader public alliance for tolerance and pluralism.

It’s easy to quantify the effect of a suicide bomb by tallying bodies and body parts. But from my work as a women’s rights and rule-of-law campaigner, I know that it’s much harder to measure the results of advocacy. It may take generations for Afghanistan to embrace the democratic process, to learn how to disagree without resorting to violence and to protect the space for people to express their opinions freely without fear of repercussions or backlash.

Despite Afghanistan’s worsening security situation, I remain optimistic about its prospects for peace and stability. I have no choice. This is my home. 

Shaharzad Akbar is the director of Open Society Afghanistan and a co-founder of Afghanistan 1400, a group dedicated to bringing young Afghans into the political process for a democratic and pluralistic Afghanistan.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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