We began a journey in Afghanistan seven years ago with the war that ousted the Taliban from power. Much has been accomplished along the way, for Afghanistan and for the world.
In less than 45 days in 2001, we Afghans were freed from the menace of terrorism and the Taliban. Back then, Afghanistan’s people held great hopes for an immediately wonderful future. Some of those hopes were fulfilled. Our children are back in school. Roughly 85 percent of Afghans now have access to some health care, up from 9 percent before 2001. Child mortality — among the worst in the world in 2001 — has dropped by 25 percent. Democracy, a free press, economic gains and better livelihoods — all of that is there.
But, sadly, we are still fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda. What is it that we have not done right that makes us — and the rest of the world — less secure?
After the liberation in 2001, the international community concentrated on Afghanistan alone as the place to fight extremism and terrorism, while we Afghans argued that our country was not the right place to fight. The war on terrorism cannot be fought in Afghan villages. Instead, a regional approach was and is needed. It must be concentrated on the sanctuaries of those who train, equip and motivate the extremists and send them out to hurt us all.
But we were not heard. Regardless of whether that was the result of a lack of knowledge or a lack of will, events have proven us right. Unfortunately, for the past two years, Pakistan has been suffering as much or perhaps more than Afghanistan has suffered. Almost the entire tribal belt along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border is suffering.
Just as schools were burned in Afghanistan from 2004 onwards, for the past year schools — especially for girls — schools have been burned there, leaving 80,000 children without facilities. Bridges have been blown up, soldiers and police killed. Bombs have exploded from Karachi to Lahore to Islamabad. The violence has spread to India as well, with bombings in Gujarat, Bangalore and Delhi.
So the problem is regional and it concerns institutional support for extremism that incites terrorism. Unless we collectively address the roots of the problem by ending that support, as well as financial support for radicalism in all forms, we will not defeat terrorism.
This has not been properly understood in the West, which has been fighting the symptoms of terrorism, but has failed to attack its underlying causes. Fortunately, today I see signs of recognition of this malaise. And democratic change in Pakistan is good news for Afghans, Pakistanis and, by extension, many others around the world.
Pakistan’s new president, Asif Ali Zardari, has suffered from terrorism as we have suffered. His wife, Benazir Bhutto, was killed by terrorists. I visited Pakistan for President Zardari’s inauguration, and for the first time I saw a dim ray of hope. If we can all work together — Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, the US and our allies — I see a possibility of moving beyond the days when a government thinks it needs extremism as an instrument of policy. When all governments in the region reject extremism, there will be no place for extremists, and terrorism will wither away.
But this also requires helping those people who out of desperation have fallen prey to extremist forces. Last year, I pardoned a 14-year-old boy from the Pakistan tribal area in Waziristan who had come to Afghanistan to blow himself up as a suicide bomber. Only utter hopelessness can drive so young a man to such an act. We must rescue these people by giving them a better future, which only more education and new opportunities can bring.
Desperation and poverty are the tools used by evil forces to raise their terrorist cadres. But that environment will not change if political will is lacking, and if there is no action by the US and the governments of the region to get our economies to create jobs that offer hope.
Moreover, in order to deny terrorists institutional support, we must bring institutional strength to Afghanistan. We must enable Afghans to look after themselves and defend their country, to have a future in Afghanistan, to have hope of raising their children in Afghanistan.
Recently, I spoke to an Afghan man very close to me. He has a son who works in the Afghan Foreign Office. That young man was born in the US but returned to Afghanistan four years ago.
The father asked, “Do you think I should take my son back to the US?”
I said, “Why? Let him live here, let him work here, let him be an Afghan.”
He said, “Yes, but will he have a future?”
A viable future means security as well as bread. We have started to bring hope by educating young Afghans, but we have not yet succeeded in bringing them a secure life, free from the danger of bombs and aerial bombardment. Only when that happens will Afghanistan be secure.
And if the two other conditions are fulfilled — removal of political backing for radicalism and help for the desperate — we will have a safer life not only in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan, India and the rest of the world.
Hamid Karzai is president of Afghanistan.
COPYRIGHT: PROJECT SYNDICATE/ASIA SOCIETY
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