By Trudy Rubin
KABUL, Afghanistan – It was one of the most emotional moments in Sunday’s handoff ceremony, as Gen. John Allen passed command of U.S. troops in Afghanistan over to Gen. Joe Dunford. To loud applause, Allen recognized two Afghan students sitting in the front row, saying they were like his children, and they represented the future for which U.S. and Afghan troops fought.
Allen was correct. The fate of Mustafa and Somaya, two orphans who attend the extraordinary Marefat School in Kabul, will reveal much about the gains (or lack thereof) from more than a decade of fighting. Especially now that President Obama has pledged in his State of the Union address Tuesday to bring home half the remaining 68,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan within the next year, and to end “our war” there by the end of 2014.
Mustafa and Somaya’s school was founded by an Afghan visionary whose own education was cut short when he fled the Soviet invasion of his country. Aziz Royesh educated himself and returned to Kabul after the Taliban’s fall to pursue his dream of building a school that taught civic responsibility and human rights.
A member of Afghanistan’s Hazara Shiite minority, who were severely repressed under the Taliban, Royesh rallied fellow Hazaras in the dusty slum of Dasht–e Barchi to contribute land, money and sweat equity to build the school, room by room.
He wanted boys and girls to study together, but was forced by Afghan law to build a separate building for girls. When I visited the school in 2010, I met brave girls who had demonstrated against a bill that would have put Taliban–style limits on Shiite women.
In 2010, the National Constitution Center brought Royesh and some Marefat students to Philadelphia, where they mounted a photo exhibit, together with students from Philly’s Constitution High School, in a joint project on the meaning of freedom to minority groups.
So when Mustafa and Somaya stood up at the handoff ceremony, they represented the struggle by many Afghans – not just the elite, but also poor people, minorities, and women – for education and dignity.
Both would be in extreme jeopardy if the Taliban made a comeback after the U.S. withdrawal, as minorities, seekers of education, and, in Somaya’s case, a young woman of determination.
To avoid such an outcome, NATO nations must continue to train, advise and resource Afghan security forces before and after 2014. In an interview with a small group of journalists, Gen. Allen referenced the history of Afghan forces after the Soviet withdrawal, which kept fighting strongly so long as Moscow “invested in … advisers and … the resources.” When the Soviet Union imploded and the support stopped coming, the Afghan forces collapsed.
Yet, as Allen noted, the international community has made a strong commitment – at a NATO meeting in Chicago, and a donor’s conference in Tokyo – to support Afghanistan over the next decade.
Allen warned that this support could be undercut by an Afghan government failure to, finally, confront massive corruption, or to hold transparent and inclusive presidential elections in 2014 for a successor to Hamid Karzai.
There lies the rub. If the Karzai government continues to stonewall corruption reforms, or blocks fair elections, the international community’s “strategic patience” with Kabul may run out, especially in an age of Western austerity.
Obama has yet to reveal how many U.S. troops he’s willing to leave behind after 2014 as advisers to Afghan forces. And Gen. Dunford reportedly worries that the pace of withdrawal will be too swift to maintain needed support for those forces in the short term.
Youngsters like Mustafa and Somaya can only hope a premature collapse of American patience won’t doom their future. In recognition that they represent Afghanistan’s best hopes, Allen personally donated money for 25 scholarships for new Marefat students. Let’s hope the school, and what it stands for, survive the coming years.
TRUDY RUBIN is a columnist and editorial–board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at trubinphillynews.com.