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Myths about 'unwinnable' Afghanistan

By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Special to CNN
  • Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: Assumptions about Afghanistan wrong; shouldn't influence policy
  • It's believed Afghanistan was never a state, but it has been since 1761, she writes
  • Women have enjoyed rights, contrary to conventional wisdom, Lemmon says
  • Afghanistan not corrupt, she says; other nations propped up discredited strongmen

Editor's note: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the upcoming nonfiction book "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana," out March 15 from HarperCollins. She writes about women entrepreneurs in war zones, including Afghanistan, Bosnia and Rwanda.

(CNN) -- The future of the war in Afghanistan is hotly debated around Washington. Hearings are promised -- the latest from Sen. John Kerry's Foreign Relations Committee -- as a growing number of reporters, lawmakers and activists wonder why we are in Afghanistan and what the United States can gain by remaining at war in this remote, conflict-scarred and presumably ungovernable nation.

Look more closely at the conventional wisdom on Afghanistan, however, and it is clear that some facts have been left out of the well-trod arguments about the "unwinnable" battle that has become America's longest war:

1) Afghanistan was never a state, and it will never function like one.

In reality, Afghanistan has functioned as a nation-state for more than two centuries, and its army and bureaucracy reach back to the 19th century. The country survived the strategic face-off between the United Kingdom and Russia, known as "The Great Game," as a nation-state and, in more recent memory, suffered through a bloody four-year civil war in the early 1990s precisely because each of the country's ethnic groups wanted the prize of the land: control of its capital, Kabul.

Even the Taliban was not happy to have roughly 90 percent of the country when it took power in the 1990s, fighting until 2001 to wrest control of the remaining northern sliver in order to lay claim to the entire Afghan nation.

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As journalist and longtime Afghanistan observer Ahmed Rashid noted in the Financial Times, "Afghanistan has been a nation-state since 1761 -- a good deal longer than four of its immediate neighbours (Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan).

"Even though Afghanistan has suffered severe internal wars and coups, falling victim to the entire gambit of 20th-century ideologies, the country and its people have shown remarkable resilience."

2) Women have never enjoyed any rights in Afghanistan, and Americans cannot impose their Western values on Afghanistan's mothers, daughters, sisters and wives.

Yet in 1923, King Amanullah's sister argued publicly that "knowledge is not man's monopoly. Women also deserve to be knowledgeable." Three years later, Queen Soraya urged her countrymen, "Do not think ... that our nation needs only men to serve it. Women should also take part as they did in the early years of Islam. ... We must all contribute to the development of our nation."

From that time through the 1950s, Afghan women served as medical professionals, educators and administrators, even winning "equal rights and obligations under the law" from their 1964 constitution. In the following decades, women entered the business arena and became parliamentarians, journalists, judges, factory workers, engineers and diplomats. This evolution continued during the decades of conflict launched by the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

By the time the Taliban took Kabul in 1996, women accounted for nearly half of the capital's civil servants and teachers. Despite the significant restrictions of the Taliban years, women continued to work, launching businesses, running underground schools, staffing international NGOs and starting community organizations that worked on women's behalf.

And this was hardly a Kabul-only phenomenon: In the late 1990s, the U.N.-Habitat Women's Community Forum program was active even in Kandahar, the seat of the Taliban, with women providing desperately needed work opportunities and educational and health services to other women. Today, more women are working in Afghanistan than at any point in the nation's history, with a vibrant group of 20- and 30-somethings leading the way as entrepreneurs, teachers, midwives, doctors and professors. Their battle is to protect their gains and to win a substantive seat at the table in any future Taliban negotiations. They are continuing their nation's fight for women's rights, not inventing it.

3) Afghanistan and its people are corrupt by their very nature, and the U.S. will never change that.

Afghanistan today is not simply the product of a population that can't keep its hands out of the cookie jar; instead, it is a man-made disaster created by the international community's short-sighted policies that focused on standing up long-discredited strongmen mistrusted by their own people.

In fact, warlords received dollar-backing long before any serious investment in rebuilding and developing the country ever got under way. As the International Crisis Group said recently, "selecting some of the most violent and corrupt people in the country, stoking them up with suitcases of cash and promises of more to come and then putting them in charge was never a recipe for stability, never mind institution building."

Ordinary Afghans desperate for better governance ask reporters often and openly why the U.S. has backed those who are so obviously corrupt.

In a December report from the British think tank Chatham House, authors Kate Clark and Stephen Carter say "there is an increasingly common argument that Afghan policy has failed because it has been a hubristic and unrealistic attempt at nation-building, but the truth is closer to the opposite.

"The irony is that it is supposed realpolitik which has proved to be an unaffordable indulgence, at the expense of ordinary Afghans who have suffered the consequences of both injustice and insecurity," they write.

This lack of justice has left Afghans eager for a system that is, at the very least, less corrupt and wondering whether they will ever enjoy public institutions that are not predatory.

The United States will not be in Afghanistan forever. Neither can it be seen to pull out precipitously without jeopardizing the gains that Afghans who are working hard every day to create a more secure nation have achieved.

Too many precious lives have been lost and limited American resources have been invested in this war for a shaky hold of the facts to shape our debate. Before we look ahead at ending the war, we must acknowledge how we got here -- and whether or not it is too late to do something about that.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gayle Tzemach Lemmon.