"Do you have a Plan B?" I asked the Afghan women diplomats. "For yourself and your families?" After all, they had assumed some risk--even in Kabul--by answering the call to serve in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Suddenly everybody wanted to speak. Voices that had been soft and hesitant climbed in consternation. I had suggested that American forces might not stay in their country more than a few years longer. I reminded them that many Americans want us out. If we can run the Taliban from Kandahar--as surely we will--for the near future, then the President might grab that victory as cover for a face-saving withdrawal.
"One of the main points of Obama's strategy," Fawzia Habib explained to me, "is to make sure the civility [sic] of Afghanistan comes from the Afghan people themselves. And also from my understanding of Obama's strategy, it is that it is not a complete withdrawal in 2011, so the majority of the American soldiers might withdraw from their remote areas and villages and come to the cities and give over [the countryside] to the hands of the Afghan Army. And the Afghan government would like to continue with the building of the country. So this would be like a gradual pull-out, and it's not a complete withdrawal because Obama mentioned that he would be there to help Afghanistan in the longer term."
Really goodness knows what Ms. Habib, Afghan woman diplomat from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in answer to my question. She was speaking Dari, as were her colleagues. The oldest woman among the six--the sternest, the one with an iron grasp of anodyne diplo-speak--was translating. But all the women spoke at least a few words of English, and it was clear from those phrases, from their eagerness to speak to my question and from their urgent tone that they did not want any part of my skepticism.
If the future of Afghanistan is unclear, nevertheless one point on which everyone is agreed is that the establishment of governance and civil society, supported by capable, responsible military and police forces, will take many years. As Ms. Habib's colleague Munira Faizzad said, "We are realistic. We cannot change overnight, things. But we have hopes, we have dreams, we have expectations, we are optimistic for our future."
The room at the Washington, D.C. Homewood Suites reverberated with this sentiment. All the women--Fawzia Habib, Munira Faizzad, Monireh Kazemzadeh, Madina Qasimi, as well as Sohaila Noori and Nazifa Haqpall, whom I had spoken with earlier--agreed. They seemed to be in earnest. This was not what I had expected. I had been prepared for a certain level of cynicism.
They were sure that President Obama would not let them down.
And why would they think otherwise? After all, they were here as guests of the State Department for a four-day intensive training program at the Foreign Service Institute and for meetings with their American peers. "Afghan Women Diplomats Visit Washington." The invitation itself was a confirmation that President Obama would not renege on his promise to "still help our country," as Ms. Faizzad said.
Interviewing the women last Wednesday, shortly before their return to Kabul, quickly I realized that they are not diplomats as we usually define the office. When I asked if any of them had any decision-making power, the younger women laughed and shook their heads. The droll Madina Qasimi rolled her eyes and mimed, "No!" Their jobs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs do not rise far above the level of administrative assistants. Indeed the intensive training they received at the NFATC campus in Arlington was in "consular issues, how to proceed with visas and passports," as well as "counter-terrorism." (The translator said "counter-tourism," but surely that was not what she meant.)
"Capacity building" is a popular Af-Pak catch phrase right now. (Is there a better illustration of the gulf between our military and civilian worlds than the way acronyms, buzz words and catch phrases inspire enthusiasm in one and doubt in the other?) And so several of the women, no matter how rudimentary their English, picked up the phrase "capacity building" while working with USAID in Arlington. "How they will involve the women." Nazifa Haqpall said, "USAID has a small grant for investment and capacity building. For the economic enhancement of women. In order to empower the women. The business woman."
The Afghan women diplomats themselves are examples of capacity building, for they are the seeds of a meritocracy for Afghanistan. Each seems to have followed the same path to government as Sohaila Nouri. "After the fall of Taliban, there was a big demand for women in different government offices and organizations and especially the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I took part in the entrance exam and after passing the entrance exam, I was accepted as a candidate for diplomat. I also passed interviews before I was assigned." (Abdullah Abdullah, Hamid Karzai's chief opponent in the last election, was head of the ministry at the time.)
"We promised [USAID] that we will continue our linkage, our coordination," Ms. Haqpall's colleague Sohaila Noori said, speaking about their work at the ministry.
Promises made. Promises beginning to be implemented. Building. Linking. Coordinating.
"And also we are optimistic because President Obama suggested, also he proposed--military is not the solution to the war--in addition to that what he said he is trying to work for in the long term in Afghanistan is to build the infrastructure of Afghan society," Ms. Kazemzadeh said.
I asked about various long-term solutions, such as a power-sharing agreement or negotiated settlement between the government in Kabul and the insurgencies. "Could you live with that in Kabul?"
Madina Qasimi was now agitated. "Actually, I want to speak in English . . . . If the situation becomes worse, like the past, like the Taliban, it is very difficult for the old people of Afghanistan, mostly, who have nothing at all, people living in Afghanistan, it is very terrible, in reality it is very difficult. It is my individual idea or opinion, as a person, personally, opinion, if the situation becomes worse, like the Taliban, living in Afghanistan is very dangerous for the people, extremely for the women.
"But we hope that it's a big concern for the people of America and mostly when I talk with people in Afghanistan, when we talk [about] U.S. troops and international troops leave Afghanistan, what will be done? What will be done? It is a big concern for our people. We do not want to experience it one times more. In terms of human rights, minority rights, women's rights, we don't want to lose it."
"This is all our individual--" The translator broke in. Several women nodded.
"That's what I was asking," I said.
"Our individual ideas--"
"Do you have a Plan B?"
"Most of the people of Afghanistan are very poor, so--"
"You're not poor," I pointed out. It seemed logical to me that a woman who was stepping forward on behalf of the promise of women's rights in Afghanistan would have a personal Plan B.
The translator interrupted, with some fierceness. "No, we do not have any specific plan, because we hope"--her voice rising--"we are optimistic, something won't be done like this [an American withdrawal]. We don't want, we are afraid, we don't want to experience one times more." Her tone said PERIOD. "Thank. You."
She did not have to tell me to move on to a different topic.
Yesterday here at The Huffington Post Robert Greenwald lent his name to a BraveNewFoundation argument for our pull-out from Afghanistan. On Sunday Arianna Huffington argued the same on ABC's "This Week." Recently, Democratic Senator Russ Feingold and Representative Jim McGovern have suggested power-sharing agreements in Afghanistan as a way to facilitate a timetable for our withdrawal. For more on the Afghan women diplomats, including photos, go to my blog at www.mayhillfowler.com.