Malala Yousafzai and The Next Generation
By Adam Cohen on 10/12/2012 @ 11:07 AM
Fourteen year old Pakistani Malala Yousafzai challenged the exclusion of girls in the classroom. For that “offense” the Taliban shot her twice at close range. Her fellow Pakistanis came to her side as she remains in critical condition. They are publicly demonstrating their support for her and her vision, and they are condemning the movement and ideology of her attackers.
This tragedy is a grim reminder of the failure of the U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan. After eleven years of fighting against the most modern army in the world, the Taliban remains powerful. Not only does the group exercise autonomy in large parts of Afghanistan, but, clearly, it exerts strong influence over the border in Pakistan. The U.S. intends to withdraw all of its troops by 2014, but recently stated that it is no longer actively seeking a political settlement before it leaves. While removing our troops is certainly a good thing, abandoning efforts to build a long-term, regional diplomatic framework would be disastrous. Without such an agreement, the specter of civil war, the collapse of the Karzai regime and the rise of unfettered Taliban rule in Afghanistan is a grim but no longer unfathomable reality. As this episode shows, rising Taliban influence in the region comes with the return of its violent, repressive interpretation of Islamic laws and values.
But there is something of value to be taken from this tragedy as well. Her sacrifice is a powerful symbol of all that remains at stake in the region. It reminds us of what we have to lose if we continue with militant policies and simply leave Afghanistan to crumble. If we do that, we turn our backs on people like Malala and we turn our backs on a better future for us all.
For over thirty years, Afghanistan and its surrounding regions have been caught in a vicious cycle of violence, despair and radicalization. This pattern began with the Soviet invasion, followed by the importation of militant extremism during the jihad. Then there was a devastating civil war and the rise of the Taliban. Most recently, the United States' militant response to the attacks of September 11, 2001 reignited religious, political and ethnic tensions. Today, the future of Afghanistan remains bleak.
These experiences have consistently hurt one group more than all the others – children. With every renewed round of conflict children face the loss of their loved ones and support systems and the destruction of their communities and schools. It has now been several generations since the children of this part of the world have had any reason to hope for a prosperous tomorrow. Their inability to break the yoke of destructive international interference and responsive domestic radicalization not only darkens their future but bodes ill for the entire world.
Yet in spite of this heavy reality, Malala spoke out for change. It is only through voices such as Malala Yousafzai’s calling out for better practices, locally inspired and administered reforms, improved education and the invigoration of civil society that this part of the world will know peace in the coming generations.
The U.S. ought to follow her example and get serious about playing a constructive role in the region. It must acknowledge the counterproductive nature of its military presence. President Barack Obama needs to recognize that if an attack on one smart girl can bring out this much disdain from the public, the presence of foreign troops and the constant fear of drone strikes must be doing far more damage. The US needs to revive its efforts to engage the region diplomatically. If the Taliban are going to be a fixture of Afghanistan once the US withdraws in 2014, then the U.S. must act now to talk with it and do what it takes to bring them to the table and broker a deal to protect our true allies. With emotions high in Pakistan, perhaps now is the best time to engage in needed regional discussions about ending the country's reliance on extremists and finally working towards long-term peace and safety for our truest allies and our greatest hope, the next generation.
If Malala can speak out for peace, then so should we.