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Tuesday, Oct 09 2012 11:00 PM

Two young heroes, two distinct lives

By The Bakersfield Californian

Sometimes, when the tragic monotony of the decade-long Afghan war prompts us to again ask ourselves what good we hope to do in that part of the world, it's instructive to break things down into individual case studies. Today, we offer two.

The U.S. attacked Afghanistan 11 years ago this week, primarily for the purpose of capturing Osama bin Laden and decimating his violent network of al-Qaida operatives. Bin Laden is dead and al-Qaida is considerably less functional, but regional security and the transfer of military authority are still major issues.

Into this troublesome fray America sends soldiers -- like 1st Lt. Samuel Van Kopp, a Bakersfield native, West Point graduate and leader of men -- who want only to act as patriots and instruments of justice. Van Kopp, one of Bakersfield's best and brightest, was critically wounded in Afghanistan last month when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive vest, sending a single ball bearing into Van Kopp's skull. Miraculously, Van Kopp, 24, survived, although reparative surgery (if it is even possible) will be delicate and recovery tedious. The injury to Van Kopp, who remains at Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., brings the total number of wounded among coalition forces closer yet to 24,000. More than 3,000 others have been killed over the past 11 years.

In the midst of this long, ongoing tumult, many Americans have been alarmed to learn about the grotesque treatment of Muslim girls and women, particularly by the Taliban in Afghanistan and western Pakistan -- the same religious zealots who fight the Americans. Tales of mistreatment and outright atrocity are not uncommon; members of the Taliban are especially cruel toward girls who seek what most American girls take for granted: schooling.

Now those girls have a new reason to respect a young hero in their midst: ninth-grader Malala Yousafzai, an internationally acclaimed Pakistani girl who for nearly four years has been encouraging others of her age and gender to seize an education. On Tuesday, the 14-year-old was shot and seriously wounded on her way home from school in the Swat valley, and the Pakistani Taliban have claimed credit. Yousafzai was flown to a military hospital in Peshawar, but Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said she would be sent out of the country for medical attention. A bullet is lodged near her spine.

Yousafzai, too, is one of her country's best and brightest, a girl of conscience and courage who speaks for what she knows is right.

What should be America's role is helping to resolve domestic issues like the one that has inspired Yousafzai to speak out -- inequities deeply ingrained in conservative Islamic culture? Little or none. As the U.S. and other foreign occupiers have learned time and again, cultures we might view as backward or abusive to their own people cannot be "fixed" with outside help. Not over the course of a few short years, at least.

But responsible governments can be stabilized to the point where they can fend off damaging influences -- influences such as the Taliban. Could it happen within Yousafzai's lifetime? It will be difficult. But if some semblance of social equity is to ever come to Afghanistan and western Pakistan, it will be because the Sam Van Kopps of the world will have served courageously, and as their leaders see fit, to root out those virulent elements.

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