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Was Afghanistan worth it? For Afghans, absolutely

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An Afghan teacher, right, teaches a girl how to read the Qur'an, Islam's holy book, at a local Madrassa, or seminary, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Dec. 23, 2013. Islamic seminaries in Afghanistan are generally considered a source of education for poor families and children whose families could not afford expensive fees of formal schools.

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An Afghan teacher, right, teaches a girl how to read the Qur'an, Islam's holy book, at a local Madrassa, or seminary, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Dec. 23, 2013. Islamic seminaries in Afghanistan are generally considered a source of education for poor families and children whose families could not afford expensive fees of formal schools.

VANCOUVER -- Was it worth it?

As Canada's mission in Afghanistan comes to an end, that question is most often asked from the perspective of Canadian self-interest. We look at the number of dead and the cost in taxpayer dollars and conclude this was an expensive mission in a place far removed from our everyday lives.

Afghanistan is far away from us -- in fact, it is exactly on the other side of the world from Canada's most westerly points -- and much of what was accomplished there gets lost because of the distance between our two countries.

But the perspective of Afghanistan as far removed from our everyday lives and as an inherently backward, irreconcilable backwater is not shared by the thousands of Canadian soldiers who served in Afghanistan -- or their families, or the aid workers who worked there or the journalists who covered the war -- and became familiar with the country and its people.

It is also not shared by those Canadian companies, investors and employees of private businesses that staked their interests and not insubstantial capital in Afghanistan's emerging economy.

But despite all that, Afghanistan is still poorly understood within Canada. As the last Canadian soldiers leave this month, I regret that we failed to move beyond polarized views of our mission in Afghanistan and of Afghan society.

Canadian coverage of Afghanistan often fell into a vortex of misinformation, myths and memes that stripped the mission of a more nuanced public understanding, focusing instead on the extremes, perhaps a more interesting and easily digestible narrative.

Afghanistan is a land of extremes: the most hospitable people to ever walk the Earth juxtaposed with the brutality of the Taliban and of tribal customs that are often antithetical to human dignity; millions of children back in school -- the highest enrolment rates in Afghan history -- with millions more not in school, many of them engaged in child labour; seven-year-old girls married against their will and 14-year-olds dying during childbirth, with university-educated married couples who fell in love as adults and have happy, healthy relationships.

You will also find the greatest misogynists to ever walk the Earth: for instance, Taliban founder Mullah Omar, who comes from the same region in southern Afghanistan as Ehsan Ehsanullah, founder of the Kandahar Institute of Modern Studies and one of the most enlightened human beings I've ever encountered. And while conservative forces in the Afghan parliament sabotage legal progress for the protection of women's rights, heroic individuals are working to advance gender equality, the rule of law, education, freedom of expression, human rights and democracy.

But in all the soul-searching and analyses expected in the aftermath of Canada's military involvement in Afghanistan, I hope at least some attention will fall on the more important question: Was it worth it for Afghanistan? When that question is asked, the answer is a resounding yes.

Because, at the end of the day -- or the end of the mission -- life in Afghanistan is infinitely better now than it was under Taliban rule.

According to the Washington Times, 900,000 Afghan children were enrolled in school in 2001, virtually none of them girls.

Today, the number is approaching eight million, and about one-third are girls. During the same period, life expectancy has risen from 42 years to 62. The child mortality rate has fallen from 172 to 97 per 1,000 live births. Electricity now reaches 18 per cent of Afghans. Land-line and cellphone towers provide phone service to 90 per cent of the population. The telecom industry provides about 100,000 local jobs."

These changes are tangible, real, and I believe they will last come what may in the days, months and years following the departure of the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan. And that was worth it.

 

Lauryn Oates manages 12 education projects in Afghanistan, including a teacher training program that recently graduated its 1,500th teacher. She has worked to promote the rights of Afghan women since 1996 and is a PhD candidate in literacy education at the University of British Columbia.

 

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 18, 2014 A9

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