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For the Women of Afghanistan, the War Isn’t Over

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I know, I know. It’s the last thing you want to hear about. Twenty years of American carnage in Afghanistan was plenty for you, I’m sure, and there are so many other things to worry about in an America at the edge of… well, who knows what? But for me, it’s different. I went to Afghanistan in 2002, already angry about this country’s misbegotten war on that poor land, to offer what help I could to Afghan women. And little as I may have been able to do in those years, Afghanistan left a deep and lasting impression on me.

So, while this country has fled its shameful Afghan War, I, in some sense, am still there. That’s partly because I’ve kept in touch with Afghan women friends and colleagues, some living through the nightmare of the Taliban back again and others improbably here in America, confined in military barracks to await resettlement in the very country that so thoroughly wrecked their own. And after all these years, I’d at least like to offer some thoughts on the subject, starting with a little history that most Americans know nothing about.

So be patient with me. War is never over when it‘s over. And it would be wrong to simply leave Afghanistan and its people in the dust of our disastrous departure. For me, at least, some thoughts are in order.

A Little History

News about America’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan was swift, ugly, and then all over and largely forgotten. The news cycle moved on to the next sensation. But consider me behind the times. I’m still lost in remembrance of the years I spent in Afghanistan and the tales I was told of earlier days in a proud and peaceful land. Afghan history is so much longer and more complex than we know. But let me take you back for a moment to what may still prove to have been the last best days of Afghanistan.

Muhammad Zahir Shah, the final king of that country, ascended to the throne in 1933. He was only 19, but already planning Afghanistan’s future. He didn’t want the country to be communist—or capitalist. He didn’t want Afghanistan to become a servant of the Soviet Union or of any of the other large, overbearing countries in its vicinity. He wanted it to take its place in the world as a modern social democracy and so proposed a new constitution, an elected parliament, egalitarian civil rights for men and women alike, and universal suffrage to sustain just such a democratic state. He even enrolled Afghanistan in the international League of Nations.

British India, France, and Germany had already built and staffed modern-language high schools in Kabul, including one established in 1921 for girls. King Zahir Shah then built a modern university with faculties of medicine, law, science, and letters. After 1960, when the entire university became coeducational, American universities helped it establish yet more fields of study, including agriculture, education, and engineering. Photographs exist of its young students, women and men alike, clad in modern European garb, seated together on the campus lawn.

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