Meet one of Afghanistan’s most influential women

Fatima Gailani says "foreign troops should leave Afghanistan—but not yet"

Fatima Gailani, president of the Afghan Red Crescent Society, remembers the last time Afghanistan was abandoned. She was a young activist in exile and spokesperson for the anti-Soviet mujahideen during the Russian occupation. Her father, Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani, founded the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan, a political party that helped funnel CIA-funded weapons to Afghans fighting the Soviets.

“During the Cold War, Afghanistan was the star of the stars,” she tells Maclean’s during a recent visit to Ottawa. “Then, as soon as the last Russian soldiers got out of Afghanistan, we looked left and right, and we didn’t see anyone around to help us. Only a few NGOs.”

The September 11th attacks and the subsequent American-led overthrow of the Taliban refocused the world’s attention on Afghanistan, and, despite the frustrations that have come with the Taliban’s resurgence and the ongoing war, Gailani says Afghans have benefited from it.

“For the people of Afghanistan, this is still better than what they had,” she says. “When I talk to my colleagues [about their lives before Western intervention], they say they virtually didn’t have a tomorrow. They didn’t know if a rocket would land on their house, if the school would be standing tomorrow, how many people in the house would be alive. If they compare today with what they had 10 years ago, they are still happy. You would be surprised.”

Gailani is now one of Afghanistan’s most influential women. She attended the Bonne Conference on Afghanistan in 2001, was a delegate to the 2002 Loya Jirga, and took part in drafting the 2004 constitution. Most recently, she was invited to join the “peace jirga” conference President Hamid Karzai convened this month to seek support for his efforts to negotiate an end to the Taliban’s insurgency.

The Taliban have so far shown little interest in a deal. They rocketed the conference and say they won’t talk until all foreign troops leave. Karzai, however, is committed to reconciliation with the Taliban—motivated, surely, by the inability of his government and its foreign backers to defeat them militarily.

Gailani worries what political accommodation with the Taliban will mean for Afghan women, who, during Taliban rule, were forbidden to work, attend school, or leave the house wearing anything other than an all-concealing burqa.

“We, the women of Afghanistan, are the most vulnerable people in this situation,” she says. “When you go to the negotiating table, I would like to know if my future is your bargaining chip. Are you going to compromise on my future, on the schooling of my daughters, my work, freedom of the press, things that are so valuable to me? We have achieved a lot. I don’t want to lose it.”

Gailani says foreign troops should leave Afghanistan—but not yet. The police, the military and civil society are still in “shambles,” she says. If foreign troops go now, the country risks collapse. Foreigners, however, can’t fight for Afghanistan forever, she says. “We will never have a safe Afghanistan unless our forces are capable of guarding their own country. The army of Afghanistan needs to be rebuilt. It needs to be trained. Not just how to fight and how to protect, but the ethics of soldiering. We have to learn to be human with the people in our hands.”