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A focus on positives in Afghanistan

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a March 21 column by Cornelia Janke incorrectly stated that there were riots recently at the Bagram prison in Afghanistan. The riots occurred at the Policharki prison in Kabul.)

A LOT OF BAD NEWS has come out of Afghanistan lately. There are reports of increasing insurgent activity in the country's southern provinces, including Kandahar and Helmand. Schools in these provinces are being burned, teachers shot, and students threatened. In Kabul, a city with a strong military presence, suicide bombings have increased over the last two years. Poppy production has grown dramatically since the start of the Karzai government in 2002. Earlier this month, there were riots at Bagram Prison, dubbed by some as ''Son of Guantanamo" for the reportedly poor living and human rights conditions of its detainees.

In the face of such discouraging news, it is tempting to assume that Afghanistan is too volatile and dangerous, and Afghans too beleaguered, for any positive changes to take hold.

This assumption is incorrect. Despite its precariousness, Afghanistan is progressing. Despite their insecurity, many Afghans are hopeful.

For example, school enrollment has grown from 900,000 in 2001 to nearly 5 million today, with girls comprising nearly 50 percent of the total. Millions of children are being immunized. According to the United Nations Development Programme, Afghanistan has virtually eradicated polio just five years after the disease caused more disability than did land mines. And, thanks to the government-supported National Solidarity Programme, thousands of Afghans are creating democratically elected Community Development Councils, implementing community initiatives (such as village wells or bridges or electrification), starting small businesses, and, above all, steadily ushering in positive change.

Such change is not easy and does not happen overnight. It requires courage and commitment on the part of Afghan citizens. The majority of Afghans must confront a host of daily challenges, including the lack of potable water and heat, high infant and maternal mortality rates, an average illiteracy rate of 70 percent, and poor access to roads, markets, and economic resources.

Despite these obstacles, Afghans are determined to make their lives, communities, and homeland better. But they can not do it alone. Decades of war, political instability, and poverty have left the country in desperate need of human and financial resources.

US, European, and other donors, as well as private investors, recognize this and are supporting many initiatives to rebuild Afghanistan's physical and social infrastructure. The USAID-supported Literacy and Community Empowerment Program, building on the successes of the National Solidarity Program, works in nearly 200 rural communities to develop village-level governance, encourage savings and credit activity, support micro-enterprise, and build literacy and numeracy skills among women and youths.

However, more assistance at the local levels is critical if Afghans' determination and optimism are to find fertile soil. Such aid might take the form of micro-enterprise development, support for schools and health clinics, or support for local government. But whatever form it takes, it must give Afghans the tools to help them build a better future for themselves.

Finally, Afghans -- and the world at large -- need some good news. They need to learn about the positive changes that are happening. Not only will increased pubic attention to progress yield a more accurate picture of today's Afghanistan, it will also encourage lawmakers and investors to create more and better avenues for international support.

Of course, the presence of international military forces plays an important role in containing the insurgency in parts of Afghanistan. But it is obvious that much of the struggle for the direction of Afghanistan will be carried out by ordinary villagers, in Kandahar and elsewhere, who know that the future is not with the Taliban but in their own, increasingly capable hands.

Cornelia Janke, of Education Development Center Inc. in Newton, recently returned from Afghanistan, where she manages the Literacy and Community Empowerment Program.

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