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Don't abandon Afghans

Pullout by the West would betray so much progress

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Women in Kabul marked Valentine's Day with a protest to end violence against women.

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Women in Kabul marked Valentine's Day with a protest to end violence against women.

VANCOUVER -- For 10 years now, I've been travelling back and forth between Canada and Afghanistan. It's been a period marked by incredible change and upheaval in Afghanistan, from the initial euphoria of the end of the Taliban, to several pivotal political events such as the Bonn Agreement that established a transitional government and the blueprints for democratic governance, and a new Constitution in 2004.

It's also a period where old tensions between hardline Islamist conservatives and Afghan liberals who want a more secular society, and one where individual freedoms are respected, re-emerged to expose well-worn fault lines.

But while traditionalists have resisted some of the developments of the last decade, the change has been fast and furious, and more often than not has overtaken those clinging to the status quo.

The social transformations underway are aided by the fact the country is one of the demographically youngest in the world, with 68 per cent of Afghans under age 25, according to the UN. These youth have grown up in the Facebook generation. They tweet, blog and stay connected to their cousins in Toronto, Berlin, or London, exposed to the web of Afghan diaspora that has fanned out across the world. They watch shows such as Afghan Star, a homegrown version of the televised pop talent competitions in vogue around the world. It is broadcast on Tolo TV, one of dozens of independent media stations that have emerged in a thriving, diverse media sector.

At the same time, Afghans have been reconnecting to the parts of their past they are most proud of. Hereditary classical musicians, chased out of their ancient haunt of the Karabat neighbourhood of Kabul by the Taliban, have returned and are training young apprentices in the enchanting sounds of the rubab, sarod and tabla. The breathtaking Babur's Garden in Kabul, home of the tomb of the founder of the Mughal empire, has been beautifully and faithfully restored, a green oasis where families picnic, young couples flirt and children race around the rose bushes.

It is the strides made by women that are most compelling. Women took the guarantees of their Constitution's Article 22, that there shall be no discrimination on the basis of sex, and the promises of the international community at their word, seizing the new opportunities for rights and freedoms. Millions of girls are back in the classrooms the Taliban shut them out of. There are more female parliamentarians in Afghanistan than in Canada or the United States. Shelters have opened across the country and a law has been passed criminalizing violence against women. Women are thriving in business, running small handicraft enterprises to large companies. They are journalists, soap opera stars, soccer players and boxers.

These dramatic gains occurred in a short time, and the degree of change is incomparable to similar changes that took generations to evolve in our own society. That is due to the courage and hard work of Afghan civil society and its women's movements and to the substantial support of the international community over this past decade. But these gains are vulnerable because the international community, led by the United States, is poised to disengage from Afghanistan, with the Taliban still leering from the shadows.

This disengagement is in large part prompted by the skewed narrative of Afghanistan prevalent in the West, which has led to chronic Afghanistan fatigue among publics in the countries financing Afghanistan's rescue from the grips of Taliban violence. It's a narrative that portrays intervention in Afghanistan as a failure, when it is in fact a success story. It has been easier to show yet another bomb blast by insurgents than to tell the more nuanced story of a country coming back from the edge.

Afghanistan is a place where sweeping change, and gains that have come at a great cost in human and financial terms, are worth protecting.

That's why countries such as Canada should commit to backing a credible political transition in Afghanistan, emphasizing free and fair elections, the protection of human rights and gender equality, and peace-building efforts based on justice. Afghanistan needs effective and accountable international assistance and more engagement in the years to come, not less.

I appeal to Canadians to learn about this country's progress, and to defend the rights of Afghans to enjoy the benefits of democracy and of peace, benefits we too often take for granted.

Lauryn Oates is projects director with Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 30, 2013 A11

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