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Interview: Afghan Civil Society Group Aims To Protect Country’s Gains

Afghan activists hold a rally outside the parliament in Kabul earlier this year in support of a law outlawing violence against women. A new organization hopes to consolidate civil society's burgeoning role in Afghanistan.

Afghan activists hold a rally outside the parliament in Kabul earlier this year in support of a law outlawing violence against women. A new organization hopes to consolidate civil society's burgeoning role in Afghanistan.

A new Afghan civil society advocacy group is hoping to improve Afghanistan's future by expanding the role of civil society in policy making. The Afghan Alliance in Support of the Afghan People (ASAP) has a roster of notable U.S. civil, government, and business leaders supporting its mission to "Preserve and Protect the Gains of the Afghan People." They include former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Admiral James Stavridis, and former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, among others. RFE/RL’s Heather Maher talked to Shafi Sharifi, the group's communication director.

RFE/RL: What is ASAP?

Sharifi: It’s a coalition of Afghan civil society leaders, former United States ambassadors, Afghan experts, writers, journalists, and people who are concerned about Afghanistan. They’ve all come together in this coalition, called the Alliance in Support of the Afghan People.

And the primary purpose of this alliance is to highlight, among many other things...some of the key achievements and gains that Afghanistan has made over the last 12 years. Because right now what you're hearing is that it’s all about war, every day it's about killing, and a lot of people have come to believe that there has been nothing else achieved in Afghanistan but the fact of the matter is...that Afghanistan has achieved a lot, despite the backdrop of an insurgency and the conflict.

RFE/RL: Can you be more specific about who is in the coalition?

​Sharifi: It's Afghan society leaders in Afghanistan. These are journalists, civil society leaders, experts, prominent Afghans -- they are inside Afghanistan, and as well we have an international tier in the [United] States and also from around the world, and at the same time we have other prominent people like former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker and a few other prominent former officials.

RFE/RL: Whose idea was it to form this group?

​Sharifi: This idea was instigated by Afghan civil society [members] in Afghanistan. And it was something that was discussed for some time among all the Afghan -- the new generation, civil society leaders, human rights organizations. Also people who have worked in Afghanistan, aid workers, [who] been involved in development, to come together in this coalition and bring the other side of Afghanistan [to light], the positive developments that have taken place over the last 12 years.

RFE/RL: One of the group's stated goals is to "support a credible political transition" -- how does it plan to do that?

​Sharifi: Afghan civil society right now is very much involved in trying to support and help a smooth political transition through a very transparent and critical election. And by that we believe the upcoming election on April 5, 2014, is a very historical transition period for Afghanistan -- it would mark the first time a smooth transition of power would take place. So it's utterly and absolutely important for the international community to support Afghan society and to ensure that this transition happens peacefully and with credibility and through a transparent process.

RFE/RL: The group says it wants to protect the gains Afghans have made in the last decade and raise awareness -- why is that necessary?

​Sharifi: Because right now the barrage of negative press from Afghanistan focuses on war only [and] has created this mentality in the international community -- and also especially in the United States -- that basically nothing has changed in Afghanistan from where it was back in 2001. But the fact of the matter is that Afghanistan has one of the most free and open press in the region. Twelve years ago we would go to Pakistan just to make a simple phone call, to call our relatives internationally. But today 90 percent of Afghans have access to phones. At the same time all other indicators, such as health indicators, social indicators, have seen a dramatic improvement over the last 12 years. And what we hope is the international community supports Afghan civil society so that these gains and achievements are protected and that we are able to build on them and lead the country towards a fair and open society.

RFE/RL: So in addition to affecting real change on the ground, it seems like ASAP is trying to change how the rest of the world sees Afghanistan after so many years of war.

​Sharifi: Absolutely, absolutely. For the people who support us, for the [U.S.] taxpayers, for the international community to understand the gains and achievements that have been made [with] their money, their investment over the last 12 years.

My own sister 12 years ago was unable to go to school -- we had to send her to Pakistan to do her schooling. Then after 2001 she came back to Afghanistan, she went to medical school and graduated. Today she's a doctor in Kabul and when she graduated from school she made a very simple point. She said that, "Had it not been for the change in 2001, and had it not been for the transition that took place in Afghanistan over the last 12 years, I would be milking cows in our native province instead of being a doctor and supporting hundreds of women every day."

And that happened only because of the international support we got and what we hope is to advocate for the continued aid so that among all this chaos and amid this backdrop -- there’s corruption, of course, that’s a massive problem in Afghanistan -- that despite all these problems, a system has emerged, a new generation is on the rise.

RFE/RL: How do you define "international support" -- is that economic aid, advice, investment...?

​Sharifi: Through investment, through engagement; stay engaged with Afghanistan, do not forget Afghanistan. We remember the last time, in 1992, Afghanistan became a forgotten nation, we saw what happened, the result of it was disastrous, not only for Afghanistan but for the region and the whole world. At the same time, these key civil society organizations that have come about over the last 12 years, with the support of the international community, especially the United States, these [groups] are now playing a very prominent role in protecting the civil rights of Afghans, in fighting for a transparent process in the country, in ensuring the achievements that have taken place are not lost. So we need international engagement for Afghanistan at the same time for Afghanistan not to become another isolated nation run by militancy. The support that we get from the international community -- that aspect is critical.