Afghanistan Does Matter

Afghans walk in a road in Kabul, Afghanistan, Manday, Jan, 2, 2012. (AP Photo/Ahmad Jamshid)
Afghans walk in a road in Kabul, Afghanistan, Manday, Jan, 2, 2012. (AP Photo/Ahmad Jamshid)

Eleven years ago at this time, my days and nights under the Taliban rule in Kabul were filled with fear and hope. Fear because some alleged that the U.S. would bomb Afghanistan back to the Stone Age after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Hope because the expected attacks by the United States and the international coalition on Afghanistan would create the only window which could bring a ray of light to the darkness of tyranny and oppression that had covered Afghanistan.

A few days after the military operation started, the fear dissipated and it was replaced by hope. It was because the assumptions about bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age was removed when people saw that the international coalition forces were targeting the Taliban and al Qaeda camps and military installations and there was little collateral damage. The military operations finally drove the Taliban out of Kabul almost five weeks after the beginning of the attacks. For me and millions of other Afghans, the 15th of November 2001, which was the day that the Taliban left Kabul, marked our first moments of life when everything seemed possible for the first time. The possibility of a happy future captured our veins. After almost two decades of struggling for survival, I experienced what the pleasure of a life filled with hope meant. It was also the day that changed the long-running expression among the youths, bekash khoda, which literally means " get yourself out of the country" in Dari, one of the two official languages of the country).

However, this elated mood did not last long. After a couple of years of excitement, once again the cloud of disappointment started casting its shadows. Violence began manifesting its ugly face from different corners of the country and continued eroding Afghans' confidence in their future.

The growing sense of hopelessness was exacerbated by the West's weakening position towards their stated mission in Afghanistan and, above all, by all the talk of withdrawal. This is because for most Afghans, justifiably or not, hope for a peaceful future is tied with the presence of the international community and their forces in the country.

The turning point was the announcement that troops would leave in the summer of 2014. That day dashed the optimism of majority of Afghans, particularly the youth, and increased fear of a civil war or the return of the Taliban.

Today, many Afghans experience almost the same level of disappointment for the future as during the Taliban. The expression bekash khoda is once again becoming a common phrase, as most young people want to leave the country. This is a disaster for our country's future since it is the young people who have the most chance of bringing change here.

The biggest achievement of the last decade has been the emergence of a new generation of Afghans with the biggest desire and motive for a progressive country. If we lose them, the prospects for an Afghanistan that is peaceful and progressive, not a troublemaker to the international community, will become grim.

Personally, my fear about the West's mishandling of Afghanistan is even bigger. It stems from the fact that leaving Afghanistan's mission incomplete will be interpreted by many in Afghanistan and the region as a direct victory for the extremists and their ideology, which is the biggest threat to peace and security of this region and the world.

Many in the international community underestimate the cost of failure. They do so by reducing the implications to a simple loss of Afghanistan. In fact, any failure will leave catastrophic consequences on the entire region and beyond. It will greatly inspire Jihadis and Jihadist ideology throughout the world. It will embolden them to think about expanding their mission beyond Afghanistan. The heavily ideological force will attribute their victory to God's will and help against the infidels and push for creating and expanding an Islamic caliphate. This will motivate Islamic extremists all over the world to come with fresh momentum and capital to Afghanistan and wage Jihad against the West by dwelling on the failure of the West in Afghanistan.

It is understandable that the economic times are tough. But to safeguard the security and peace of the world and protect human values, the West, mainly the United States, needs to understand the profound consequences of mishandling Afghanistan's future. Judicious realization of the grave consequences of a hasty and irresponsible departure by the West coupled with a wise redefinition of its approach towards the matter is likely to prevent possibly the equivalent of another 9/11 whose human and financial cost will far exceed the spending on the completion of the mission.

The West's weak and hasty policies in accomplishing the mission has disheartened and demoralized many of us who are considered their local allies. This is critical because it is only the local forces that have the legitimacy to counter violent extremists' ideologies and promote alternative worldviews that uphold tolerance, co-existence and peace.

If the West would reassure us that they are not abandoning us, this would have a powerful effect on boosting the morale and confidence of their local allies and would undermine the violent extremists' narrative that it is defeating a great superpower. This is, after all, a war of perceptions for the most part.

On the other hand, if the West does not take Afghanistan's mission seriously, not only can Afghanistan risk losing its decade-long democratic achievements, but also the region's young pro-democracy currents will start doubting the genuine commitment of the West to freedom, democracy and human rights. This is likely to turn the tide against the popular democratic aspirations at a time when the Arab Awakening has provided a unique window of opportunity for the entire region to rid itself of totalitarian and extremist regimes.

Najib Sharifi is director of Afghanistan New Generation Organization -- a nonprofit youth empowerment entity based in Kabul, Afghanistan.