Listening to the Women of Afghanistan

[We have many things to be thankful for as we approach Thanksgiving, and one of them is that most of us in this country have never experienced the horror and utter devastation of war.  As President Obama deliberates sending yet more troops to Afghanistan, he would do well to listen to the citizens of that country – especially the women. They are quite clear on what war is doing to their homeland, and they’ve had enough. The following article is printed in the current November issue of the Takoma Park/Silver Spring Voice.]

It’s often said that if women ran the world, there would be no war.

Until that happy day arrives, it would be helpful if current leaders at least listened to women before making decisions on war, but as President Obama continues his deliberations on troop deployments in Afghanistan, his war council is, predictably, dominated by men.

Women play an infinitely more significant role in a U.S peace movement that opposes this war, and every once in a while one of them breaks through the barricades to that inner circle, as when Jodie Evans, co-founder of the ubiquitous women’s anti-war group Code Pink, got into a recent fundraiser and was able to make her case directly, if briefly, to Mr. Obama.

But listening to women first and foremost means listening to those most affected by war. And who, during this prolonged debate over our strategy, is listening to the women of Afghanistan?

One group of Afghan women whose voice needs to be heard is the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan. Founded in 1977, RAWA (www.rawa.org)  is both a humanitarian and a political organization, operating schools and mobile health care centers at the same time they fight for secular democracy in their country, which has meant fighting against the Soviet occupation, the Taliban, and now also the U.S. occupation. It is remarkable that an organization of secular women could survive so long in a country controlled by violent anti-woman Islamic fundamentalists – RAWA’s founder and many key activists have been killed –  and that alone should be reason enough to hear them out.

Zoya, a leader of RAWA, has been on a speaking tour of the U.S. coinciding with the 8 year anniversary of the war, and listening to her speak is a startling revelation.  The daily reality for most women in this desperately poor, war-torn nation is beyond what most of us can even imagine.  Scarce drinkable water, no electricity, and little food are compounded by a society where girls and women are still regularly beaten, raped and killed with impunity.

When asked what the U.S. and the world community can do to help, Zoya presents a clear-headed (if challenging) alternative to our current policy, one that includes disarmament of the fundamentalist groups, withdrawing support from the war criminals and drug lords who now sit in Afghanistan’s Parliament and positions of local power, and giving support – and funding – to local democratic organizations, or civil society.

And Zoya is quite clear on one other point: get the U.S. troops out, now.

This last point is not universally held, even among women. Some U.S. women activists returning from a recent trip to Afghanistan caused a minor controversy in the movement by suggesting a U.S. withdrawal should be “responsible,” an ill-defined descriptive which means, if nothing else, slower. They are saying this because of the fear expressed to them, by some in Afghanistan, of the violence that might follow the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

This is completely understandable. Yet to Afghan women such as Zoya, it is not persuasive, and she rebuts these calls for a slower withdrawal with a bracing critique of U.S. failure in Afghanistan, one that should be familiar even to those who know little more than what the U.S. mainstream media tells us. As Zoya notes:

* The Taliban already controls or heavily influences about 80% of Afghanistan outside of Kabul. (Indeed, that’s why it’s not safe to travel outside the capital.)

* The U.S./NATO occupation has not demonstrated, in 8 years, that it can give Afghanistan any measure of security, and it’s insulting to Afghanis to insist they endure continued occupation in pursuit of this illusion. Zoya heavily sites continued U.S. and NATO bombings, general lawlessness and lack of any justice system, coupled with the utter corruption of the current government.

* The U.S. is already talking with Taliban leaders in hopes of reaching some deal  (even while our forces continue to arrest or kill their young foot soldiers in the name of the war on terror).

These last two points speak directly to the types of “leaders” we’ve been setting up to follow our occupation of Afghanistan, and it’s not a pretty picture. Afghan President Hamid Karzai just oversaw a clearly fraudulent election, yet will be rewarded with another term in office. Corruption is rampant (Afghanistan regularly scores at the top of global corruption measures), and Karzai’s own brother is widely known to be a leading figure in the country’s massive opium trade – as well as being on the CIA payroll, according to the NY Times.

The opposition doesn’t get any better. Abdulah Abdulah, the man who just declined to participate in the run-off election against Karzai, is the former Foreign Minister of Afghanistan during the post-Soviet rule of the Northern Alliance (1992-1994), a period so brutal it’s what Afghanis refer to as their civil war. In the eyes of RAWA and others the Northern Alliance are war criminals themselves – they simply shave their beards and wear Western clothes. And they hold major positions in the Karzai government, and in Parliament.

Zoya goes so far as to assert that the Northern Alliance is happy to keep their old enemies the Taliban around, since their presence guarantees continued funding and support from the U.S. government.

Of  course, the twisted logic of pitting violent local thugs against each other and fueling the conflict with weapons is hardly a new idea in U.S. foreign policy. It’s why we propped up a corrupt and unpopular South Vietnamese government in the 1960s, why we aided Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran, and why we have supported Sunni tribal leaders (delightfully rebranded “The Awakening”)  with guns and cash during the current Iraq war. It’s also why our CIA supported Osama bin Laden against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and why we supported the Northern Alliance when we attacked the Taliban.

Unfortunately, such an arrangement almost always works out badly for the people on the ground. Particularly women. And particularly in Afghanistan.

It’s so bad that, in Zoya’s opinion, a civil war wouldn’t be much worse.  And when pressed by a reporter, Zoya said she’d rather die in a civil war than in a U.S. bombing . At least she would know she died fighting against the corrupt, fundamentalist forces who oppose a moderate, secular democracy in Afghanistan – and not at the hands of an occupying army that supports many of those same forces.

The key to any positive change for Zoya is disarmament. Human rights, women’s rights and democracy will never grow let alone flourish in a country overrun by heavily armed fundamentalists. She would even tolerate the presence of U.S. forces for another year in her country if they would focus their efforts on disarmament and the prosecution of war criminals, but barring that, she wants them to get out, and now.

Because one thing Zoya and the women of RAWA know from experience is that more men with guns will not solve their problems in Afghanistan. And it doesn’t matter if they are Taliban, Northern Alliance, or 40,000 more U.S. troops.

Here’s a prayer that someone at the White House hears this wise counsel from the women of Afghanistan.

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