As US eyes retreat in Afghanistan, it must listen to Malala

The young Pakistani girl is a model for the global struggle against the anti-women Taliban. With Obama weighing troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, Malala's speech to the UN today gives reasons to finish the job.

AP Photo
Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager shot by the Taliban for promoting education for girls, is applauded by United Nations officials July 12 in honor of what the UN declared as "Malala Day."

As President Obama eyes the option to bring back all American soldiers from Afghanistan next year – the so-called zero option – he might want to take a lesson from Malala Yousafzai.

She is the Pakistani girl who was shot in the head last year by the Taliban for advocating education for every Muslim girl. On Friday, she spoke at the United Nations headquarters in New York and announced that the Taliban had “failed.”

“They shot my friends, too. They thought the bullet would silence us, but they failed. Out of the silence came thousands of voices,” she said.

And that’s from a girl who just turned 16.

Mr. Obama has yet to say plainly whether he will allow the Taliban to succeed in Afghanistan or whether US troops will remain until the country has a stable, democratic government that can ensure women’s rights. His current frustration in forging agreements with President Hamid Karzai has led the White House to weigh a total troop withdrawal earlier than planned.

If that happens, Afghan women might be left with a slow reversal of women’s rights gained since the 2001 US invasion or a Taliban takeover. In neighboring Pakistan, an improved democracy has been able to better confront the Taliban since 2009, especially because of high-profile advocates such as Malala.

Lately Afghanistan’s conservative tribal leaders have begun to erode women’s rights. Several high-profile cases of abuse have highlighted the need for improvement. Enforcement of anti-discrimination laws remains weak. The number of women held in prison for “moral crimes” has risen to 600, the highest since the Taliban ruled in the late 1990s. And Afghan lawmakers are considering a rollback of basic rights for women.

These moves worry foreign donor nations as they review Afghanistan’s progress this week and how it has spent some $16 billion in development aid. Obama remains key, however, to whether the United States stays engaged at a level to keep the Taliban on the run. The attempts by the US to hold peace talks with the Taliban have so far failed. And it is unclear just how much Obama will ensure the sustainability of women’s rights in any negotiated settlement.

One hope is that Fawzia Koofi, a female member of the Afghan parliament, might run in next April’s presidential contest. Even if she comes in second or third, her candidacy would help cement the many gains for women over the past 12 years, such as the opportunity of school for girls.

Girls’ education remains the symbol of progress for both Afghanistan and Pakistan in the challenge posed by militant Islamists such as the Taliban. Malala is now the world’s leading voice for that cause. Her UN speech should not go unnoticed in Washington or other world capitals:

“We realize the importance of light when we see darkness. We realize the importance of our voice when we are silenced,” said Malala. “We realized the importance of pens and books when we saw guns.”

“Let us empower ourselves with the weapon of knowledge,” she said, to a standing ovation.

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