Dawn broke on May 6 with a horrific crash near Saw Village, Kunar Province. The smoke plume was visible before nearby houses trembled from the shock wave. At the center of the blast lay dead Ghulam Farooq, elder and headmaster of the village school.
He was murdered by TTP militants. TTP stands for Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the Pakistani Taliban. These are a particular band of radical militants, a criminal enterprise masquerading as a religiously-inspired resistance movement against the Pakistani government. They come to the Afghan side of the border in Kunar and Nuristan Provinces for safe haven.
Ghulam Farooq was murdered because he was influential and resisting the TTP.
His life is celebrated and death is mourned by the people of Saw and Kunar. None save a tiny few Americans will ever know he lived, but his story represents one of the legions of sacrifices made by the Afghan people in their struggle for freedom and dignity against oppression and abuse.
I first met Ghulam Farooq in September 2007. He was among a group of elders from Saw village who made an unprecedented visit to my outpost one morning. The elders were bearing close to a hundred thank you notes, written in Pashtu, from their children using the notebooks and pens we had given to them a few days before.
They wanted nothing for themselves, only a school for their children. Militants opposed schools. Ignorance is ever the ally of intolerance.
The story is well captured in Greg Mortenson’s book, Stones into Schools. Soon thereafter, the rocket attacks on my outpost stopped. The elders put aside past grievances and prevented militants from using their valley as a launching pad. The Central Asia Institute built a school in the village, the first of several in Kunar province.
The elders undoubtedly knew that such steps put them at odds with hard-core militants on both sides of the border. Yet they persisted in doing all they could to sustain a school for their children – even at the risk of their own lives. On May 6, Ghulam Farooq paid with his.
His tale, of course, only scratches the surface of the devastating effect of thirty-five continuous years of conflict.
Afghans defeated the Soviets and the Afghan Communist regime in the 1980s, then suffered years of civil war and Taliban oppression. With our help they overthrew the Taliban after September 11th. Their support enabled us to kill Osama bin Laden, dismantle al Qaeda in the region, and thus far prevent their return to a safe haven from which to plan large-scale attacks against us.
To be sure, many Afghans benefit from this effort, too. But the sacrifices of ordinary Afghans have for too long been ignored or misunderstood by Americans and others.
According to Afghanafoundation.org, Afghanistan has 1.5 million widows and 2 million orphans. 600,000 children work and sleep on the streets; 400,000 kids have been maimed by landmines and unexploded ordnance. Roughly 6 million Afghans live as refugees.
Imagine the city of Houston being peopled only by Afghan orphans, the entire city population of Philadelphia consisting of Afghan widows, or Omaha housing only maimed Afghan children. The number of Afghan refugees would double the city population of Chicago.
UNAMA reports 4,853 civilian casualties in the first 6 months of 2014. That is 27 per day; one every hour.
I recently visited an adult women’s school in Kabul, supported by Aid Afghanistan for Education. I was the first American the students had ever met. AAE is led by the intrepid Ms. Hassina Sherjan, who boldly returned to Afghanistan to run underground girls’ schools during the Taliban’s period of mis-rule.
The women spoke of dreams Americans would find familiar: become a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, a teacher. They have all been affected by the war – losing loved ones, moving to Kabul as refugees from violence, bearing obvious physical and hidden psychological wounds. They pursue their dreams not for money, but to meet what they see are critical needs – health care, education, justice, infrastructure, to name a few.
They keep attending school despite it having broken desks, inadequate textbooks and notebooks, no electricity or fresh water or labs. Their teachers have not been paid in fourteen months. The Afghan government has been failing them.
When people ask why, after seven years, I remain committed to Afghanistan and get so frustrated with corruption and incompetence, I need only to remember the roughly two hundred young women I met that day who, against all odds, want to make a difference.
Central Asia Institute schools can rely less on Afghan government vagaries. Their school
for orphans in Kabul is an extraordinary site. So is the vocational training center for widows and refugees. Being there is an inspiration.
During that same trip, I met elders from Kamdesh district. Here the conflict has taken on inter-tribal as well as international dimensions. Jake Tapper’s bestseller, The Outpost, documents the struggles and triumphs of American units there.
The majority of the population that turned against the local Taliban and their al Qaeda supporters in 2008 are still fighting them today – without any American and very little Afghan government support since October 2009.
One elder lost his entire family in the fighting. Another survived a suicide bombing but his wife did not. Still others have lost children due to Taliban bombs and mines. Their homes and crops have been devastated. A recurring Taliban tactic is to close off the road in an effort to starve the population. The Afghan government efforts to address the problems are inadequate.
Americans complain of Afghan President Karzai’s ingratitude. Veterans (of whom I am one) often note that most Americans cannot hope to understand what many of them went through in the wars.
An even more difficult – and often voiceless – plight has been that of the Afghan people.
Eid al-Fitr is upon us; Afghan Independence Day is August 19. Here are three ways we can respect their sacrifices.
- Suggest U.S. and other officials make room in their forthcoming notes and speeches to recognize Afghan sacrifices.
- Press the Afghan government to enact long overdue reforms. Their people deserve better.
- Support NGOs that are doing so much to brighten the future of the Afghan people.