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Afghanistan: U.S. Official 'Marvels' As Afghans Persevere

U.S. Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky at RFE/RL on December 5 (RFE/RL) PRAGUE, December 6, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Five years after the demise of the fundamentalist Taliban regime in Afghanistan, there are still questions about the nature of the society and the institutions that will emerge. U.S. Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky is near the heart of Washington's effort to promote its vision of equality and the rule of law in Afghanistan. Radio Free Afghanistan and RFE/RL recently asked Dobriansky about Afghanistan, and particularly women's roles in that historically patriarchal society.

RFERL: Five years after the fall of the Taliban, there has been significant progress in Afghanistan. But we're seeing a growing and violent Taliban insurgency, illegal opium trade and production, corruption, and also a slow process of reconstruction. What has gone wrong, and how likely is it that Afghanistan will descend into chaos?

Paula Dobriansky: I think that we need to first consider the fact that Afghanistan has truly made very significant progress, and during a period of what was considered very, very difficult circumstances. Afghanistan had been affected by decades of wars, and ravaged by wars. With that backdrop, I think it's rather significant that the Afghan people came together, they've advanced a constitution, they are working with the leadership of President [Hamid] Karzai to institute a rule of law system, to train more as judges both men and women, and really to provide an infrastructure to protect the rights of all.

At the same time, an effort has also been waged to ensure the economic growth of Afghanistan. Having been ravaged by war, many Afghans, unfortunately, have been subjected to the illicit trafficking of drugs. There are very good efforts which are seeking to eradicate the poppy crops and to educate people, and, most significantly, to provide alternative means of income.

"I think what we need to look at is the kind of progress that Afghanistan has made in such a record amount of time. And considering what it -- and its citizens -- had been subjected to for years upon years."

I think what we need to look at is the kind of progress that Afghanistan has made in such a record amount of time. And considering what it -- and its citizens -- had been subjected to for years upon years. They have challenges, such as these challenges [that you mentioned], to deal with, but we are committed -- we the United States. I know that the international community is very committed to helping Afghanistan go forward, to strengthen its economy, to rid itself of narcotics growth and trafficking, and also to ensure that its people are best provided for -- given educational opportunities and employment opportunities. And we are very committed towards that end.

RFE/RL: You said the U.S. remains committed. Five years ago, U.S. officials and also the international community were very vocal in terms of women's rights in Afghanistan. But now we hear that less of those concerns; the interest is not so apparent anymore. To what extent is the U.S. still committed to women's rights in Afghanistan?

Dobriansky: Extremely committed. In fact, just yesterday I was at Georgetown University with First Lady Laura Bush. And we had an event which was featuring the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council and the expansion of the public-private partnership. That is just one example of our commitment. Last year, fiscal year 2006, there were some $69 million devoted specifically to assist women; and the moneys for 2007 which have been proposed are even higher. We want to see Afghan women be able to achieve their goals. There are four areas that we especially concentrate on.

One is education. We are heartened by the fact that young girls have been going back to school -- but more young girls need to go back to school, we know that. And not only in the urban areas, but especially in the rural areas.

We also want to see women have the opportunity to provide for themselves economically. I have to say that I was very heartened to go to Afghanistan a year ago, and when I did, I remember, I met 70 to 90 women -- all who had their own small businesses. And it ranged from dairy, to furniture, to cement, to kites, to handicraft. It's very significant, and I think we need to work that more.

The health area is an area [in which] much still needs to be done. But there have been many clinics that have been built; hospitals are being refurbished. And now there are many hospitals in the United States that are partnering with hospitals in Afghanistan.

"I think it's very striking that many Afghan women, some who've had no [political] involvement -- even at an earlier period, in the 1960s -- ran for office and filled every seat in the respective parliaments."

And then, let me mention, politically. I think it's very striking that many Afghan women, some who've had no [political] involvement -- even at an earlier period, in the 1960s -- ran for office and filled every seat in the respective parliaments. I think that's very significant, because women will have a voice. We want to support them in having a voice. We sponsored a group of women politicians -- parliamentarians -- to the United States, to come and to strategize -- to think about ways and means of advancing their agenda.

I pick these out as examples -- they're good examples. More needs to be done. And I know from speaking to Afghan women [that] they have an agenda; they want to ensure that legal rights and all rights are not only on paper, but in fact are being implemented; they also want to ensure that women not only in urban areas have the benefits of change; but especially [that] women are reached out to and their lives are changed in rural areas.

One more thing, if I may say, we have worked through the U.S.-Afghan Women's Council to build a women's resource center in all 34 provinces. That's very important, because it is essential that women are reached out to at every place, no matter how remote. The Women's [Affairs] Ministry has had as its agenda that such a center would be established, and we are striving to help and to ensure that each center has equipment, and resources which could be accessed by women.

RFE/RL: One of the major problems in today's Afghanistan is the existence of some conservative elements within the Afghan government -- and especially within the Afghan parliament -- who are trying to prevent the empowerment and development of women in Afghanistan. In the course of its efforts for democratization, what will the United States do to solve this problem? And how will the U.S. handle the existing threats within the Afghan government?

Dobriansky: Well, changing attitudes is not something that happens overnight. In discussions especially with Afghan women, which we think is important, we wanted to solicit their views as to what they think are the most effective strategies to bring about change. And I think you'll find that most will say [that], first, it's important for women to become educated, and, second, [it is important] for women to know what their rights are -- that that is essential.

And, in fact, the radio has played an important means of women becoming more aware of what their rights are, because there may be some who are still illiterate in the rural areas, but yet have the ability to hear about what their rights are through the radio. So they have suggested trying to ensure that there are those ways and means of broadcasting.

Thirdly, is the fact that many Afghan women have suggested the importance of working through imams, and through their own communities, and how communities can work together collectively to see that it is in the interest of all -- it's not only about women or men, but it is about the future of Afghanistan.

Those are the kinds of strategies that we are seeking to work with Afghan women; and those are the types of strategies that they have put forward themselves and [that] we want to support them on.

RFE/RL: There is some speculation about the Taliban being on their way back to power in Afghanistan, and could it be possible? If yes, what would it mean for Afghan women, and what would the United States do in order to secure the rights of Afghan women [if] the Taliban are in power?

Dobriansky: Well, right now there is an elected government in Afghanistan, and that's important. It's very important. President Karzai was elected by the people, two parliaments -- the upper house [and] the lower house -- [were] elected by the people. And even despite the kind of attempts -- be it by Taliban or by others -- to try to prevent people from, at the time of the elections, going to the polls and speaking for themselves -- putting their own votes and voices on the line and what they want -- we are committed to helping this elected government in any way that we can to prevent those that want to disrupt or want to try to undermine this government, which is representative of the people. I think that the wishes of the people will prevail.

"In every trip that I have taken to Afghanistan, I have marveled at how not only courageous, but [also] patient [and] steadfast, are the Afghan people."

I have to say that in every trip that I have taken to Afghanistan, I have marveled at how not only courageous, but [also] patient [and] steadfast, are the Afghan people. And toward that end, I feel confident that they will want to see their rights preserved; they will want to see Afghanistan not undermined but go forward and grow in every way -- in which every single Afghan citizen benefits. Toward that end, I have found that many are interested in ensuring that women are also part of that process.

We know that in those societies when women do not have a chance to work, or are marginalized, that society or country will not grow. There have been many development reports that have attested to this. And toward that end, I think that the will of the Afghan people will prevail here [and] that even despite challenges that exist at present, they themselves will be committed to overcome any of these challenges.

We, too, will do our part. We want to see Afghanistan solidify itself as a democracy, to ensure its place, peacefully, in the international community and in its neighborhood, and also for it to grow economically and to really fulfill all of the commitments that we have made toward reconstruction. That's what will make Afghanistan strong, and resist any attempts to undermine it.

RFE/RL: So you don't think there's a danger that the insurgency in the south will spread to other parts of the country?

Dobriansky: I think, as I suggested, that people do not want more conflict. People want to see Afghanistan grow, and to go forward, to advance itself. And I think that not only because of the international community and the NATO forces on the ground, but also because of the desire -- the will -- of the Afghan people, I think that any attempts at spreading violence will in fact be curtailed. And that is what our goal is; and I believe from all the Afghans that I have spoken to, that is what they want to see.

RFE/RL: Where will Afghanistan stand five years from now?

Dobriansky: I think that with the determination and, as I said, the courage, and really the perseverance -- which I marvel at, given the history of Afghanistan, the resiliency of its people -- I feel confident in saying that Afghanistan will move forward, it will establish itself and more roots as a democracy, [and] women will be given greater opportunities. I think, in fact, about the number of women in the two parliaments -- they outnumber, I believe, the number of women in our Congress in the United States. I have no doubt that, economically, Afghans will continue to be extremely resourceful and determine different ways of advancing -- not only their own economic goals and dreams, but also partner with others. There is a great interest, not only in the United States but also in the West, to establish strong economic ties, and these public-private partnerships.

I also think that it's critical for young Afghans -- young boys and young girls -- to be in school, to be educated, and to be the future leaders of Afghanistan and to lead it forward. I think that we will see much more progress in five years, as Afghanistan moves forward.

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