Afghanistan: Fallen Soldier's Mother Asks the Right Question

To be sure, Afghanistan still has a long way to go. But Afghanistan has started from such a low base that progress is substantial to locals who have experienced improvements in their lives.
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Over the Easter weekend, parents of fallen Canadian soldiers attended a ceremony in Kandahar, Afghanistan that commemorated nine soldiers who have lost their lives in that country. The parents urged Prime Minister Harper not to withdraw Canadian troops from Afghanistan.

They reasoned that Canada should get the job done and show the world that they "haven't really abandoned this mission." But one reason not frequently heard in the war debates in Canada and elsewhere was eloquently stated by the mother of one of the fallen soldiers:

"...if everybody pulled out, are things [in Afghanistan] going to go back to the way they were before? It would make me feel extremely sad, for all the people that are left here, for all the women, for all the children."

Western focus on the immediate costs of the war has shifted attention from the dramatic improvement many Afghans now see in their lives compared to nine years ago when the Taliban regime was in power.

To be sure, Afghanistan still has a long way to go. Corruption, poverty, violence, a deficient justice system and women's rights are some of the biggest issues. But Afghanistan has started from such a low base that progress -- although imperceptible to outsiders amid reports of violence -- is substantial to locals who have experienced improvements in their lives.

A recent ABC News/BBC/ARD poll showed that 70% of the people think that "living conditions overall" are better now than in 2001 when the Taliban were in power. The same poll also revealed strong optimism among Afghans -- 70% said they expected "things overall" in their lives to improve over the next year. Progress over the last nine years gives them reason to hope.

Of the 4.8 million children going to school in grades one through six, 37% are girls. In 2001, that percentage was close to zero because Taliban had banned the education of women. The percentage of women in schools now is the highest in Afghanistan's history, in fact.

According to the San Francisco based Asia Foundation, more than 40% of Afghanistan's population subscribes to cellular service; more than half of those users listen to radio (primarily music) on their cell phones. Just nine years ago, under the Taliban, music and entertainment were banned and cell phone use was almost nonexistent.

That is undeniable progress. And most of it has occurred in provinces where insurgents don't destroy phone towers, burn schools or intimidate female students. Effective international troop presence can help maintain an atmosphere where progress can occur. In Uruzgan province, for example, a delegation of local leaders petitioned Dutch soldiers not to leave, citing the building and restoration of "bridges, schools and medical centers" as indicators of progress. The petition stated that:

The economic and social progress would not have been achieved without military protection...by the Dutch PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team). Afghan security forces are not yet capable for ensuring security and stability in Uruzgan alone by themselves.

Like this delegation, Afghans realize that foreign troops cannot stay indefinitely, and that Afghanistan will have to eventually fight its own battles. However, they also realize that nine years is not enough to create an army from scratch and expect it to fight against an insurgency that is often better trained, better equipped and better paid.

The hope among the Afghan people and Afghanistan's achievements so far indicate that international troop presence has made a real difference in the lives of the people. The fear of the Canadian mother about the reversal of Afghanistan's progress is still a definite possibility, especially if the fledgling Afghan army is left to fend for itself.

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