“Principal of a girls’ elementary school beheaded by Taliban militants”– that’s the type of headline about Afghanistan that tends to make the papers. The New York Times ran an article on that particular brutal murder in early January, the latest in a series of attacks against people who dare to teach girls in Afghanistan. The month continued with stories about terrorist bombings and Afghanistan’s struggling economy.
These are, of course, important stories. Americans need to understand that Afghanistan faces many high hurdles as it strives for economic and political stability, including the continued campaign by radical Islamists against equality for women. But Americans also should hear the good news about progress in Afghanistan.
One story the New York Times didn’t cover was the first nationwide poll in Afghanistan. This survey revealed that Afghans are overwhelmingly optimistic about their country’s future. Two out of three Afghans expect their lives to improve in the year ahead and more than three in four say their country is headed in the right direction. They are grateful that the United States overthrew the Taliban, with 87 percent calling America’s actions good for their country.
The antiwar Left often claims that America’s military forces are viewed as occupiers or imperialists by most Iraqis and Afghans. Yet this poll revealed that an overwhelming majority of Afghans welcome the U.S. military presence. Sixty-five percent say they want American forces to stay until “security is restored” compared to just eight percent who want an immediate withdrawal.
Afghans’ optimism thrives despite almost unimaginable hardships. The survey showed that nearly six out of ten have no electricity in their homes and only three percent have it all day. Afghans still face poverty and a government that struggles with corruption. Yet more than nine out of ten say they prefer the current government to the Taliban regime.
The survey also revealed that those hostile to decent treatment for Afghan women are a minority. Nine out of ten support education for girls and a similar percentage say women should be able to vote; three-quarters support women holding jobs outside the home and two-thirds would allow women to serve in government.
Women had a long history of progress in Afghanistan before the Taliban seized power. In the 1920s, Afghan women gained the right to vote and the 1964 Afghan constitution guaranteed equality for women. Before the Taliban ascended in 1994, women were active participants in Afghan society, working as schoolteachers, bureaucrats, doctors, and lawyers. Many earned university-level educations. The severe repression of women under the Taliban regime was a perversion– today’s movement to grant greater inclusion in society is a return to Afghan traditions.
Thanks to help from the United States, the U.K., Australia, Poland, and other allies, women in Afghanistan are making great strides. They are, most notably, actively participating in the country’s new government. In the first democratic presidential elections in October 2004, Masooda Jalal, a 41-year-old mother of three, was the first Afghan woman ever to run for president. She came in sixth, receiving more votes than 13 of the male candidates. Two female ministers hold government portfolios. Central Bamiyan boasts Afghanistan’s first woman governor, Habiba Sorabi, who took the oath of office in 2005. Moqadasa Sidiqi, a 19-year-old female refugee, cast the first vote in Afghanistan’s first presidential election. She was followed by roughly four million of her countrywomen.
Afghanistan still has a long way to go before it will be a “normal” democracy. No doubt there will be a steady stream of violence, and newspapers like the New York Times will cover the country’s setbacks in excruciating detail. But Americans should know that there is another side to these stories. The majority of Afghanistan’s citizens are laboring against long odds and evil men to build a better future. If these proud people are optimistic, then we should be too.