The death last week, at 92, of the former king of Afghanistan, Mohammed Zahir Shah, is yet another sad loss on Afghan soil this year. Mr. Zahir Shah's 40-year reign is remembered for promoting women's rights, bringing democracy in the form of a constitutional monarchy and providing Afghanistan's longest modern period of peace.
But 34 years after he was overthrown in a bloodless coup for allowing these political and social reforms to stall, the heartbreaking fact is that progress is once again stalling in Afghanistan, and a peaceful death of old age is a luxury few Afghans will experience. Although he died at home as the "father of the nation," Mr. Zahir Shah's shortcomings offer a lesson that neither Afghanistan nor the United States can afford to ignore. Just because a nation sets out on a positive path does not mean that freedom and progress are inevitable. Indeed, it is all too easy for political and social gains to slip away, in the absence of a concerted effort to maintain them.
I was back in Kabul this month for my sixth visit, 5 1/2 years after the touted defeat of the Taliban, and - contrary to the popular notion that only the provinces are in peril - the city felt markedly less secure and hopeful than it had during my first trip in June 2002. Then, I had found a country physically destroyed but a people optimistic for the prospects offered by a life newly freed of Taliban oppression. In those first months and years, women took the brave steps of rejoining public life; male and female students returned to newly reopened schools to catch up on education interrupted by Taliban restrictions, economic hardship and refugee life; and everyone dreamed of a reborn Afghanistan and renewed economic opportunities rising from infrastructure, roads and buildings constructed with promised international assistance.
This summer, I traveled regularly over the busy city thoroughfare where a rush-hour Taliban bus bombing days earlier had killed 35 police recruits and civilians. Police and soldiers with automatic weapons now stand in the middle of traffic lanes, scanning for suspicious vehicles, and children - particularly girls - have been removed from schools by fearful parents after 550 schools were destroyed or closed by insurgent violence just this year.
But it's not only Taliban and other radicals who threaten the lives of ordinary Afghans. At the end of June, the Associated Press reported that the 178 civilians killed to that point this year by insurgent attacks were surpassed by the 203 killed by U.S. and NATO forces. Such "carelessness," as President Hamid Karzai termed it, gives the Taliban more ammunition in the battle for Afghan sympathies and makes U.S. "liberation" look like a political game the Bush administration is losing.
Yet military violence isn't the only cause of needless death that Afghan civilians fear. Despite millions of dollars in aid promised by the international community, Afghanistan remains a country in which most people lack access to clean drinking water, proper sanitation, electricity and basic medical care. The unemployment rate is 40 percent, the mean life expectancy is 45, one in five children doesn't live to age 5, and one in nine women dies in pregnancy and childbirth.
Nearly 50 years after Mr. Zahir Shah made veiling voluntary and opened new educational and occupational opportunities to women, being a woman is arguably one of the greatest risk factors in Afghanistan. The U.N. Development Fund for Women calls violence against women there "endemic," and Afghan women largely find no protection from police, the legal or justice systems or even their own families.
The story I heard from a woman I'll call Asima is not unlike those of other Afghan women I've interviewed over the years. Married forcibly at age 16 to a relative stranger who offered a large bride-price to her poor father, Asima spent the next four years being abused by her husband, who would beat her with electrical cords and then pour scalding tea on her wounds. Knowing she would be blamed for causing his violence and that her family would be dishonored if she left the marriage, she withstood his abuse until she was sure the entire community, including her in-laws and father, could not deny his abuse was unjustifiable. But as I talked to her in a Kabul woman's shelter, she feared for her life from her husband, who was free and looking for her. He was released from jail because no one had taken her side when he told the police and a judge that he'd done nothing more than slap her around a bit when the housework wasn't done to his liking.
Just before Mr. Zahir Shah's ouster for not moving his promised reforms forward, Louis Dupree, author of a widely cited text on Afghanistan, incorrectly predicted: "The modernization cannot be stopped, only the direction and rate of the changes ... can be affected by subsequent governments."
Little did he or anyone know at the time what was in store for Afghanistan. But the lesson to be learned is that empty promises, stalled change and inattentiveness can have dire consequences for countries and peoples. Dying peacefully in one's bed of old age should not be a privilege reserved for royalty. In the absence of care, focus and constant effort, progress is not the inevitable course of history.
Anne E. Brodsky is associate professor of psychology and director of the gender and women's studies program at UMBC. Her e-mail is email@example.com.