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Afghan Activists Hope For Larger Say In Country's Future

MELISSA BLOCK: Leaders of the new Afghan government are on their way to London. They'll meet with leaders from Western countries that are effectively propping up Afghanistan's economy. Civil society activists from Afghanistan have already been in the U.K. for days honing the message they plan to deliver to the Afghan leaders and to the international community. NPR's Ari Shapiro met up with some of them this afternoon.

ARI SHAPIRO: Women's rights activist Sajia Begham has never been to London before. In the last few days here, she has not bought a single souvenir or visited one tourist attraction. Her days are packed with briefings, workshops and strategy sessions.

SAJIA BEGHAM: I think if we have a better situation in Afghanistan, we will have the opportunity to do shopping and sightseeing and all of this, but for the moment, I think we need to work on so that what should be change in Afghanistan.

SHAPIRO: Afghanistan is in a moment of transition. There are reasons for optimism. A couple of months ago, a new government was sworn in. On the other hand, most American troops are leaving and Kabul just had its bloodiest week all year. Activists like Begham feel hopeful and also anxious.

BEGHAM: We hope that things will go to the better, but what we have gotten scared of - that maybe if the international committee, especially American and other soldiers leave, what we achieved so far in 13 or 12 years, we will lose that.

SHAPIRO: These activists represent a wide range of causes - education, health, government transparency, women's rights. The Afghan government and the international community have made promises to them in the past.

NAEEM AYUBZADA: Last time, there were commitments, but the commitments were not met.

SHAPIRO: Naeem Ayubzada directs the Transparency Foundation of Afghanistan. The commitments he's talking about came two years ago when Tokyo hosted a conference much like this week's gathering in London. In Tokyo, everyone appeared to be on the same page. People like Ayubzada were optimist and then they were disappointed.

AYUBZADA: The security got worse. The corruptions got worse. Nothing is stable - economy, political, security. Nothing is stable in Afghanistan.

SHAPIRO: Afghans want reassurance and Western countries plan to give it to them at this conference. Daniel Feldman is the State Department's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He spoke to reporters in a phone briefing.


DANIEL FELDMAN: This conference coming at this moment gives an opportunity for the U.S. and other international partners to reinforce that we remain committed partners to Afghanistan.

SHAPIRO: And it's also an opportunity for Afghanistan's new president to describe his vision of what comes next. That vision requires money - hundreds of millions of dollars from Western countries.

MICHAEL KEATING: It is a hard sell, you know, saying we should continue to provide resources for a distant country which has already absorbed so many resources.

SHAPIRO: Michael Keating, of the Chatham House think tank, used to work for the U.N. in Afghanistan. He says if you want the argument for continuing to invest in the country, just look to Iraq.

KEATING: And if you don't take the time to help countries strengthen their own ability to build accountable institutions and functional security forces and all the rest of it, you will pay a price

SHAPIRO: Or, as Afghan women's rights activist Frozan Mashal puts it...

FROZAN MASHAL: They better know that how they have a problem in Afghanistan affect them because the experiences that had passed.

SHAPIRO: Of course, she's referring to 9/11, which she describes as a lesson learned for everybody. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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