- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 18, 2005

KABUL, Afghanistan.

Today, the new Afghan National Assembly meets, fulfilling the third and final step of the Bonn process and giving Afghans their first elected assembly since 1973.

The majority of Afghans are too young to remember the former legislature and virtually no current members have legislative experience. In many ways, the Afghans are starting from scratch, much as our own Congress did in 1789, or the French did later that same year.

Already there have been some pleasant surprises, however. With 87 women members — 68 in the lower house and 19 in the upper — the Afghan Assembly has a far higher female-to-male ratio than the U.S. Congress, and many of the women appear exceptionally talented and well prepared.

Further, special parliamentary training funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development through the State University of New York has been well attended by members from all walks of life and political orientations.

Still, Americans should know better than anyone that democracy can be difficult. Ours took generations before slavery was abolished and women won the vote. The French took even longer to find a system that fulfilled the promise of liberty, fraternity and equality.

The United States is doing much of the heavy lifting on democracy and governance here, as in public health, education, agriculture, economic growth, women’s rights and many other sectors. We have not been perfect: The challenges here are enormous and the learning curve is steep. But after 22 years of war, the American-led coalition is giving the Afghans their first real chance to rise above a feudal and violent past.

Sad to say, you won’t learn much about that from reading most of our newspapers these days.

Let’s look back to December 2001. Imagine a land of stark and stunning beauty, dominated by some of the world’s most forbidding mountains. Three-quarters of the people are farmers, working the country’s streams and floodplains in 20,000 isolated villages. Few have roads or electricity or sanitation systems. Drought and war have devastated the country’s agriculture. Where it existed, much of the infrastructure is ruined. There is no government and thus no services.

Most schools are closed and girls are forbidden to attend. Women cannot work. The literacy rate has dropped below 20 percent. A woman dies in childbirth every 30 minutes. Only 1 in 20 babies are delivered by a trained attendant. Twenty percent will die before age 5.

Imagine trying to address all these problems at once, in the midst of an active insurgency fueled by a terrorist network with a pre-medieval philosophy and 21st-century weapons.

Yet this is what the United States is trying to do.

In just four years, the United States and our coalition partners have brought a sense of normalcy to Afghan life. Yes, there are dangerous areas, but contrary to what is generally portrayed in the media, large parts of the country are safe and stable. This is why more than 3.5 million refugees have returned home from 20 years of exile in Pakistan and Iran.

Over the last four years, USAID has trained 100,000 teachers, built or refurbished hundreds of schools and printed some 50 million textbooks. Five million children are in school — up from 900,000 in 2001 — and girls’ attendance is soaring: in Herat, for example, there are more girls in school now than boys.

USAID has also helped the Afghans double their agricultural output in just four years. We’re training nurses and midwives and built hundreds of new health clinics. We’ve rebuilt bridges, paved new roads, opened computer centers and helped almost every ministry in President Karzai’s Cabinet begin providing Afghans the services that deserve but have long lacked.

Not bad in just four years. At least that’s what Afghans seem to think. A recent ABC poll showed three-quarters of the Afghan people believe their country is headed in the right direction. So should the American people.

Alonzo Fulgham is mission director of the U.S. Agency for International Development in Kabul, Afghanistan.



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