What about the Malalas left behind in Afghanistan?

Malala Yousefzai, the Pakistani teenager shot in 2012 for supporting girls’ education has continued to captivate the Western world.  Now recovered in England, she has the protection of international recognition and support.  But what about the safety and well-being of the many Afghan men and women in Afghanistan who work for the international community, who are fighting for democracy and women’s rights, who want change, but ironically, are not as well protected as Malala? 

The Afghan men and women working for foreigners in Afghanistan are amongst the most vulnerable to insurgent activities.  They are easy targets due to visibility, accessibility and lack of protection.  Some have borne threats, physical injury and even death for their international connections.  Even so, foreigners have not always shown a desire to protect these people.  As the U.S.’ exit from Afghanistan begins and its quest for stability in that region continues, does it have an obligation and or national interest in safeguarding these people?

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In the past few years while working on a U.S. government-funded rule of law program in Afghanistan, I encountered incidents that showed how crucial the local staff was and how protecting their welfare was closely tied to the success of our mission. 

In December 2011 a huge bomb exploded in Kunduz town, severely injuring and killing many people.  It occurred right before the Afghan employees who worked in our Kunduz compound were leaving for the day.  As usual the foreigners who lived and worked inside the camp were all informed immediately but also as usual, no one told the local staff who were mostly commuters.  Remembering that they would have to pass through town on the way home, I apprised them of the explosion asking them to be careful.  Shocked and concerned they rushed off to find their families.  For the next several months none of them said anything about the incident.  But one day to my surprise, while visiting an Afghan official in town whom I had never met before, he revealed he was an old school friend of one of our local employees.  In a deeply moving voice, he expressed gratitude that I alerted his friend of the explosion and in his appreciation, he readily agreed to support and cooperate with our mission. 

On a different occasion we were exiting the compound and going into Kunduz center.  Ideally when traveling by surface, everyone would ride in bulletproof cars.  Yet on this occasion and more often than not, the Americans ran out of such vehicles.  Whenever this happened the Afghan translators and subject matter experts were re-routed to non bulletproof transportation.  Though there were many justifications for this arrangement, there was a clear negative message sent.  In this instance I saw the unhappy expressions on our local staff’s faces as they saw again that we valued their lives less.  Few of us foreigners recognized that should anything happen to them the mission would never succeed as we did not speak Dari nor had the connections with the local officials like they had. 

What the U.S. and the international community in Afghanistan often forget is a major component to the success of their programs is the preservation of the Afghans who work for them.   The safety and well-being of these local counterparts are absolutely vital. This group, often trained and professionally bolstered at international expense, is key to the transition when foreigners began to reduce their presence and strong Afghan leadership is needed.  Unlike development work in third world countries at peace, the sustainability of programs here involve more than financial and material self-sufficiency:  it hinges on the viability of egalitarian beliefs and the staying power of those who champion them.  

Still, it is impossible for the U.S. to perpetually safeguard these people after it leaves nor does it have a legal obligation to.  Unlike the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees who were resettled in America after the fall of Saigon in 1975, it is doubtful that such an asylum will be offered to the Afghans in great numbers.  Moreover, American interests in Afghanistan are better served if these people remain behind and continue to promote the values, knowledge and skills the West has imbued.  This is why it is essential that foreigners in-country do what they can now to nurture and protect this group of Afghans.  Sadly and inevitably, some will pay the ultimate price.  But in the end, it is up to the men and women of Afghanistan to develop a system of government that encompasses their customs, values and religion while including some aspects of democracy.  Hopefully their justice rendering institutions, which the international community has retrained and strengthened, will step forward, protect and deliver some form of justice for all Afghans especially these Malalas. 

Wu is a former rule of law adviser in Afghanistan.  A Washington D.C. lawyer, she has worked on development assignments in Iraq, Kosovo, Philippines, Germany and Malawi.