An Army of One
How Malala can lead where America could not.
Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan achieved the near impossible over the weekend. In fact, he did it twice in a single statement. First, he actually made it possible to sympathize for at least one fleeting moment with Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai. Second, with a single ham-fisted grab at publicity, he distracted from the remarkable story of the reaction of both his country and the world to the Taliban’s craven attempt to murder 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai, the courageous young activist who had the courage to speak out against Taliban efforts to repress education for girls.
Following a visit to the hospital in which Malala was clinging to life — a clear attempt to tap into the widespread concern throughout Pakistan for the girl’s fate — Khan used the occasion to justify the Taliban’s activities in Afghanistan as a legitimate "jihad."
"Whoever is fighting for their freedom is fighting a jihad," the Guardian quotes Khan saying in what is apparently a line from the Quran. "The people who are fighting in Afghanistan against the foreign occupation are fighting a jihad."
The Afghan Foreign Ministry immediately condemned the comments. Why Khan would choose that particular moment to defend Taliban activities raises profound questions about the judgment of this man who clearly harbors ambitions to lead his country someday. Worse, it resonates in uncomfortable ways with his prior refusal to cite the Taliban by name as Malala’s attackers, allegedly for fear that to do so would put his supporters at risk.
Elsewhere, Malala’s plight has produced a stunning worldwide reaction that culminated this weekend in an effort involving cooperation between the Pakistani, , British, and UAE governments to have her transferred to a specialized care facility in England. Tens of thousands of Pakistanis rallied Sunday in Karachi to protest her shooting and to show their support for Malala and her cause. Local clerics declared the attack on her as "un-Islamic."
"The attempt on Malala’s life was not only an attack on a defenseless child, it was an attack on her and every girl’s right to a future unlimited by prejudice and oppression. Her assailants must be universally denounced and brought to justice. Malala bravely confronted extremists in their attempts to ban girls from attending school. We must all stand with Malala in promoting tolerance and respect," said Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in a press release issued by his government.
In an article in the Daily Beast, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, leading a global effort to promote education for girls, wrote, "The words ‘I am Malala’ — seen on T-shirts, placards, and websites — have been adopted by young people everywhere, boldly challenging the Taliban and affirming the right of every single girl to education."
A Pakistani journalist named Owais Tohid offered a glimpse into why Malala has become such a galvanizing figure in an article in the Christian Science Monitor late last week. He met with her to discuss her protests against the Taliban efforts to suppress girls’ education in the Swat Valley as well as her (at the time) anonymous blog postings about the violence she was seeing all around her. "I wanted to scream," she told him, "shout and tell the whole world what we were going through. But it was not possible. The Taliban would have killed me, my father, my whole family. I would have died without leaving any mark. So I chose to write with a different name. And it worked as my valley has been freed."
Inadvertently, of course, Khan’s reprehensible remarks underscored Malala’s power and the wave of support she is triggering. "Whoever is fighting for their freedom is fighting a jihad" clearly applies more directly to the young woman in intensive care than it does to the Taliban thugs who have twisted Islam to justify violence and repression — whether in the Swat Valley or Afghanistan.
It also resonates uncomfortably with the discussion of America’s involvement in the region that resurfaced again during last week’s vice presidential debate. Whatever the strengths of his impassioned performance, Vice President Joe Biden underscored the tragic emptiness of America’s involvement in Afghanistan when he emphasized that the United States would be leaving by 2014 no matter what. It seemed to say that the U.S. goal there was to get out regardless of the consequences. No matter that the government America leaves behind is weak and corrupt, and the Afghan forces we have trained are unlikely to vouchsafe any true security to that country: We are going, despite more than 2,000 lives lost and hundreds of billions of dollars spent — and with little to show for the effort beyond the heads of Osama bin Laden and a few of his henchmen. The Taliban know this and are just biding their time. Although their resurgence will be a bad development for Afghanistan, it will almost certainly be much worse for its women.
Leaving is not our mistake. The U.S. military should have left long ago. We should only have gone in to seek out and kill the perpetrators and enablers of the 9/11 attacks. We should not have gotten sucked into the hopeless job of nation-building in a mountainous, land-locked country thousands of miles away. But we did, and so the bigger question in Afghanistan and Pakistan and throughout the greater Middle East is "What now?" What should America’s policies be in the wake of our failures in this fractured, unsettled part of the world? What should our policies be if we have no more appetite for wars?
Strangely, these questions have yet to arise in the debates. Instead we have a simplistic, dueling-bumper sticker conversation about how to be stronger and tougher and which way we can kill more bad guys, fly our flag higher. From Tunisia to Pakistan, this a region in the midst of the most profound kind of upheaval, and yet we have no new thinking, no coherent policy that can be communicated to the American people or the world. As one Arab diplomat observed to me last week, other than National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, he wouldn’t know who to call if he wanted to reach someone senior in the U.S. government who wakes up each day with the sole responsibility of addressing these complex, interlinked problems.
But perhaps there is an answer in that. Of course, the United States will have to be involved. We will continue to have to strike out against bad actors that threaten us periodically, and we should certainly seek to use our economic and diplomatic clout as best we can to support those in the region who share our goals. But perhaps the lesson of Malala and the response to her is much like the lesson of Neda, the symbolic martyr of Iran’s Green Revolution, much like the lesson of the youth leaders in Tahrir Square — and yes, despite often very different political agendas and philosophies, much like the lessons of the UAE leaders sending that airborne ambulance to Pakistan or the Gulf countries acting together with Turkey against Assad in Syria.
Perhaps the answer to that Arab diplomat’s question is: Why are you calling us? Maybe it’s time to realize that the answers to the problems of these interconnected states, regions, and peoples will and can only be written by them. These won’t be exactly the transformations we might have hoped for, or even the ones the people of the region need most. They won’t be tidy. And they will contain big reversals. But only homegrown changes will ever take root. And despite all the evidence that entrenched forces of corruption, intolerance, and violence remain widely in place, we also have to acknowledge that the Malalas are proliferating, gaining strength, and shaping the debate in ways that hitherto we would have thought would be impossible.
We in the West can support them. Even as our troops leave Afghanistan it is critical we do not shirk such responsibilities. Indeed, the highest honor we can pay our troops is to do what we can to support efforts on behalf of the women of the region, on behalf of education, on behalf of tolerance, on behalf of the creation of real, home-grown opportunity for all. And, we must acknowledge that there are some ways in which even our well-intentioned support or intervention might set matters back. We will have to be strategic, patient, and tolerant of the uneven nature of the progress involved. We must find trusted allies among activists and the more moderate leaders of the region and weave together a new alliance not led by foreign powers, but supported by them.
But we also must acknowledge that Malala and Neda and the thousands in Tahrir or in Karachi Sunday have done more to change this part of the world for the better than our trillions and our sacrifices and the collective armed forces of our various alliances could hope to muster. If we take away that lesson, then not only will our efforts not entirely have been in vain, but the future of this troubled region may be just a little brighter than before.