Americans are beginning to understand that the struggle against Islamic extremists hinges heavily on the fate of Afghanistan.
That country got shortchanged by our focus on Iraq and is slipping back under Taliban control. But Afghans can push back if they get the right kind of aid from the United States and the international community.
That's the message I got from Suraya Pakzad, a brave Afghan activist for women's rights. She was on her way to Washington to receive the State Department's International Women of Courage award from Secretary Condoleezza Rice and to meet President Bush.
Pakzad, a university graduate and mother of six, started helping Afghan women in 1998, at a time when the Taliban had closed all girls' schools and confined women to their homes. She and her friends set up 10 underground girls' schools in Kabul, at great risk to themselves. Then they started at-home income-generating projects for the girls' mothers.
After the Taliban fell, Pakzad established the Voice of Women Organization and moved it to Herat in western Afghanistan, where services for women lagged far behind those in Kabul.
Women's gains since the Taliban's fall have been mainly symbolic, she says, especially in rural areas. Poverty is rising, and few jobs are available. She recalled seeing women working 11 hours a day for $2 in terrible conditions cleaning goat hair for pashmina scarves.
Although girls' schools are now permitted, many families are afraid to send their children because security is deteriorating. In some areas, girls are being killed to discourage female education.
So Pakzad's organization is trying to provide job training for women and help them market products they make themselves. "If you help the mother find work, then the child can go to school and the woman can find her own position in the family," she says.
Her group also works to provide legal and social protections for women. They run a safe house in Herat - one of only five such houses in the whole country - that takes in victims of domestic violence, enforced marriage, and those released from jail whose families have rejected them.
In a traditional society, such women are often rejected by their families, and are at risk of being murdered by family members. VWO aims to give them job skills, which may make it possible for some to be reaccepted by relatives.
But the demand for such services far outstrips capacity. Pakzad's group can shelter only 25 women on a long-term basis and has reintegrated 235 with their families in Herat since 2006.
The NGO staff are also putting themselves at risk. The family of one woman who escaped a brutal husband threatened by cell phone to kidnap Pakzad's 11-year-old son. For weeks she made him come to her unair-conditioned office every day after school. City police protection was available for only a day, she said, if she herself paid the police.
I asked Pakzad what kind of U.S. aid she thought could best address Afghanistan's problems. Her answer was swift.
First, she said money to create new job opportunities should go through Afghan nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). "Money that goes through the (central Afghan) government goes through a long bureaucratic process. Afghan NGOs know the priorities in each province."
Such funds could help, for example, to create small factories, open small businesses, or help Afghans build capacity in areas such as animal husbandry, rather than import food. Micro-credit loans to rural women would also help, allowing them to buy a cow or chickens that could produce income.
Right now, she says, villagers help the Taliban, and grow poppies, "because they think they will get security and food." The Taliban pay better than the Afghan government pays the police.
That could change if jobs were created in rural areas. "The community will not support the Taliban if they have alternatives," she says flatly.
When it comes to security, she goes on, economic aid is much more effective than bombing raids on Taliban sites that kill many innocent victims: "When bombs hit civilians they create a wall between the government and the people, and the people start helping the Taliban."
Pakzad would also like to see more money go to Afghan NGOs to educate men about women's rights. She says that when she goes to villages and explains that educating women can increase family income and improve life for children, many elders are convinced.
The type of high-impact help Pakzad proposes would go directly to village people, rather than via foreign contractors or corrupt Afghan officials who take a substantial cut. Seems like a no-brainer. As Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., points out, what we've spent on six years of Afghan reconstruction equals "what we spend every three weeks on military operations in Iraq."
Let's hope Rice and Bush get the message: It's time to start helping courageous Afghans help themselves.