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US legacy in Afghanistan: What 11 years of war has accomplished

The lives of four Afghans provide a lens on how America's longest conflict has changed a nation – and the divisions and dangers that persist.

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To help gauge what has been accomplished, the Monitor followed four people from different dimensions of Afghan society – a female university student making her place in the business world, a militant supporter fighting the presence of foreign troops, an Afghan bureaucrat struggling with corruption, and an Afghan Army officer fighting internal ethnic divisions.

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Don't try to tell Yalda Samih that nothing has improved since the Taliban left. As a young university student, studying business at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul, she doesn't need to wear a head-to-toe burqa when she goes out on the streets of the capital city, as she did as a young girl growing up in Kandahar. While she is religiously conservative, refusing to shake a male stranger's hand, she rejects the narrow-mindedness of the Taliban, who refused to let her and other Afghan girls go to any school except a religious madrasa to learn the Holy Quran.

Secretly, her mother taught little Yalda at home, a risky step that prepared her well for when the Taliban government fell.

"I think we have a bright future," says Ms. Samih, a vivacious sophomore, speaking in clear American-accented English, which she polished as a yearlong exchange student in Fremont, Calif. "We should try our best so we can do more to change our country."

Few Afghans have seen their lives change over the past decade more dramatically than women. Once denied the right of education, Afghan girls now make up 35 percent of all the 8 million children enrolled in school. Once discouraged from leaving their homes, they now take up jobs in schools, government agencies, and aid organizations, and some even serve as members of parliament.

Social custom once made it difficult for male doctors to treat female patients – to even be in the same room with a woman who wasn't a personal relation – which helped give Afghanistan one of the highest mortality rates for mothers in childbirth in the world: 1,600 deaths for every 100,000 births. Though still high, that rate has dropped to 327 per 100,000 births.

As dramatic as these changes are, women's rights advocates say they could all be reversed if the government of President Karzai falls to the Taliban. They could even be reversed before that, some prominent Afghan women say, if Karzai makes social compromises to lure Taliban militants to peace talks, or to join a coalition government.

As a possible sop to Taliban conservatives, Karzai welcomed a March 2012 ruling by the country's Ulema Council – its top religious scholars – that women should not work in the same offices as men or travel alone without a male companion.

"This is a green light to the Taliban to return," says Fawzia Koofi, a prominent female member of parliament, who has survived two assassination attempts by the Taliban. "We can't give up now. We have to struggle. If we give up, then we will watch this country fall."

Masooda Jalal, a popular presidential candidate in the 2004 elections, applauds the support that Americans and other international donor nations have given to advance women's civic rights. But she warns that true gender equality is still a long way off.


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