New Afghan Law Comes as No Surprise: Women’s Rights Have Always Been Traded for Political Power

published in Commondreams.org on April 6, 2009

The proposed new Afghan law requiring (among other things), women to have sex with their husbands on demand and not leave home unescorted, has shocked the West. But for women in Afghanistan whose rights have always been bargaining chips to be given or taken away for political gain, it comes as no surprise. Despite the rhetoric from the Bush Administration in 2001 that “to fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women (Laura Bush),” Bush’s own military strategy set the stage for the new Taliban-like law today. In hiring the fundamentalist warlords of the Northern Alliance to defeat the Taliban, the US knowingly sacrificed women’s rights for political gain.

The Northern Alliance warlords were notorious misogynists, criticized harshly by women’s rights groups like the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). In statement made days after the fall of the Taliban, RAWA urgently declared that “[t]he people of the world need to know that in terms of widespread raping of girls and women from ages seven to seventy, the track record of the Taliban can in no way stand up against that of [the] ‘Northern Alliance’.” It was a warning that went ignored to the detriment of all Afghan people, but especially women, who time and again have been promised liberation by (mostly male) warlords, foreign and domestic.

A Brief History of “Saving” Afghan Women

In 1979 the USSR invaded its Southern neighbor in part, it was said, to free women from the tyranny of Afghan fundamentalists. To that end, the Soviets even instituted some reformist laws during their brutal decade-long occupation granting city-dwelling women greater access to employment and education than before.

In response to the occupation and its reforms, extremist “Mujahadeen” leaders, taking advantage of the popular sentiment against the Soviet occupation, and of the billions of dollars of weapons and training from the US, waged a fierce war, again partly to “save” Afghan women from the “Godless communists.” After the Soviets left, these fundamentalist warlords turned their weapons on their own people, particularly women. According to Amnesty International, rape was “condoned as a means of terrorizing conquered populations and of rewarding soldiers.”

When the Taliban emerged in the mid-90s, sponsored by Afghanistan’s southern neighbor, Pakistan, they quickly swept into power, taking over the majority of the country. As expected, part of their mission was to “save” Afghan women from the violence of the Mujahadeen. They “fulfilled” their promise by being much better at enforcing many of the same harsh anti-woman edicts that were instigated by their Mujahadeen predecessors.

Enter Bush in October 2001, fresh from the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, ready to wage a “war on terror” to, (you guessed it) “save” Afghan women from the medieval-minded Taliban.

This pattern continues to the present with the Obama Administration making the same claims. At the March 2009 International Conference on Afghanistan, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it clear that “women’s rights are a central part of American foreign policy.”

Women’s Rights Systematically Eroded During US Occupation

Every step of the way, instead of being liberated, Afghan women have suffered: from the devastation of war and foreign occupation, to nation-wide oppression by indigenous and regionally imported fundamentalists. The past seven years have been no different since the launch of the US war in October 2001. Granted, at first many women were encouraged to start reentering civil society. But any progress made on the rights of women and girls was mostly on paper and has since been dramatically eroded. This regression began when the Northern Alliance warlords were rewarded for their role in the war with top posts in the new government in 2001/02. With their political power, these warlords began strengthening their militias, and repeating their crimes against women. In 2002 then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld personally met the notorious warlord of Western Afghanistan Ismail Khan, referring to him in the press as “an appealing man.” Khan preserved Taliban-style edicts against women from 2002-2005 in Herat, arresting women for driving cars, appearing outdoors without a burqa, and speaking to journalists. Under his rule, local police even ordered hospital “chastity tests” on unescorted women.

Also in 2002 the US-backed then-interim president Hamid Karzai appointed a fundamentalist chief-justice, Faisal Ahmad Shinwari, who began interpreting Islamic law in a Taliban-like manner. Shinwari moved to reinstate the Taliban’s infamous Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice under a new name: the Ministry for Haj and Religious Affairs. As a result women were systematically denied justice, particularly when it involved so-called “honor” crimes, as documented by Amnesty International in a 2003 report, “No-one listens to us and no-one treats us as human beings.” More recently, there have been reports of women being imprisoned for being victims of rape. The Independent (UK) reported in August 2008 of rape victims serving 20 year sentences for the “crime” of “illegal sexual relations.”

In 2004 while women were buoyed by the declaration of their equality to men in the new Afghan Constitution, at the last moment their joy was marred by the inclusion of an all-encompassing clause that made all laws of the land subordinate to Sharia law. This clause was an obvious gesture to the fundamentalist power structure that was reinforced, not weakened, by the US intervention. A Human Rights Watch report “Women Under Attack for Asserting Rights,” detailed the constant intimidation facing women’s democratic participation by both the anti-government Taliban and the warlords.

While a token minority of women is allowed to serve in Parliament due to quotas, those who have spoken out about the domination of fundamentalists have learned the hard way that democratic representation is just a façade. Malalai Joya, the popular young representative from Farah province, is the only MP who has dared to openly criticize the warlords. She has survived 4 assassination attempts, been publicly threatened with rape, and ultimately kicked out of Parliament for her views. Afghans across the country demonstrated against her suspension.

Violence against women and girls has surged as fundamentalism has spread. Sexual assault, rape, domestic violence, and forced marriages to women and young girls, were denounced publicly in 2005 by the Special Rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights on Violence against Women, its Causes and Consequences. Last December, the UN Population Fund conducted a survey that concluded that 1 in 4 Afghan women face sexual violence. The violence has led to unprecedented numbers of women, particularly in the Western province of Herat, to literally burn themselves to death. Doctors had never before witnessed such large numbers of self-immolation by women.

Even though after the fall of the Taliban government, many girls across the country began attending school, over the past several years a majority of schools have been systematically burned down or shut down out of fear of being burned down. In the south of Afghanistan, over 600 schools were shut down in the first few months of 2009. In recent months a group of girls in Kandahar was attacked by Taliban with battery acid on their way to school. According to UNICEF, fifty percent of Afghan children do not attend school.

All Afghans, including women, suffer from grinding poverty. While Afghanistan has been impoverished for decades now, over the last 7 years the situation has worsened to the point where 1 in 3 Afghans now suffer from severe poverty, according to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. The poverty is marked by a severe lack of adequate healthcare, particularly for women. Afghanistan suffers from one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world (1 in 55), second only to Sierra Leone.

Trading Women’s Rights for Political Power

Most of these widely reported heinous abuses and overall oppression of Afghan women during the US/NATO occupation have failed to incite outrage from the West. It is no wonder then that President Hamid Karzai seemed taken aback by the righteous shock aimed at him by Western leaders for signing the new law reviving Taliban-like edicts against women. Karzai is simply continuing to implement a policy set down for him by his guides in Washington: appease misogynist fundamentalists to obtain “stability.” In 2002 then-US-Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad declared: “The question really is how to balance the requirements of peace, which sometimes necessitates difficult compromises, and the requirements of justice, which requires accountability.”

Karzai has clearly forsaken justice, but along the way has lost the peace as well. He has earned the ire of his people for subjugating their interests to those of the warlords’. Recently he has also fallen out of favor with his US/NATO benefactors, whose bombs have exacted a terrible civilian toll that he has publicly criticized. Thus, he has turned to his only power-base, the mostly Shia warlords in Parliament, in exchange for their support in this summer’s election. It is for these men that the new “family law” circumscribing women’s rights was quickly pushed through Parliament and signed.

Karzai’s actions are a direct result of the past seven years of Western policy. He is only doing what many others have done before him: trading Afghan women’s rights for political gain. For those of us who have seen this dirty game played many times over, it comes as no surprise.

Sonali Kolhatkar is Co-Director of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a US-based non-profit that supports women’s rights activists in Afghanistan. Sonali is also co-author of “Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence.” She is the host and producer of Uprising, a nationally syndicated radio program with the Pacifica Network.

Killing Afghan Civilians: A Little Context

Much attention has been paid to the numbers of US troops being killed in Afghanistan this year – surpassing the numbers killed in Iraq despite there being about a third as many troops in Afghanistan as in Iraq. But what of the Afghans killed?

The Taliban and the US/NATO forces were competing with one another this year for who could kill more civilians. Members of the Taliban use suicide bombers as weapons, while US/NATO forces use bombs, and in some cases, snipers and grenades. Wikipedia, using a variety of reliable sources (Associated Press, United Nations, Human Rights Watch, etc), has tallied that since the start of the war, “insurgent actions” have resulted in 2,016 – 2,449 direct deaths, while “US-led military actions” have led to 3,922 – 4,841 direct deaths.

As analyst and Afghanistan expert Conn Hallinan pointed out in an interview I did with him this morning on Uprising, all those killed by the Taliban who are not US/NATO troops are assumed to be civilians. While those killed by US/NATO forces are always assumed to be “insurgents” unless proven otherwise. This implies that the civilian death toll at US/NATO hands is likely a vast underestimate.

Still, it is worth it to extrapolate the number of deaths caused by the US and NATO to numbers that Americans can relate to. Using the low end of the range mentioned above – 3,922 deaths at the hands of US-led military efforts – that number is proportionally equivalent to a foreign-led military operation killing about 37,000 civilians in a country the size of the US over the past seven years.

Another aspect of the tally above is that the US-led military actions have led to twice as many deaths as the Taliban over seven years! Using deaths alone as a measurement of the impact of the two occupations – a Taliban occupation is less dangerous for the average Afghan. If accounting for the fact that the Taliban’s killings are in response to the US/NATO occupation, that’s nearly 8000 Afghans killed directly or indirectly as a result of a Western occupation for the past seven years.

However, the Taliban are no friends of Afghanistan (and neither are the warlords in parliament for that matter). While they may enjoy some popular support that is increasing, their rule in the 1990s was among the worst periods for Afghan people. If more Afghans are choosing the Taliban today, it is as the lesser of two evils, rather than a desire to see this fundamentalist extremist regime in power – the nation-wide jubilation at the Taliban’s defeat in 2001 is a testament to their real unpopularity.

Still, it is worth it to examine the impact of the US/NATO occupation, to counter the myth that “we aren’t doing enough in Afghanistan.” We’re doing enough alright – in fact, we’re doing far too much. And it’s time we stopped.

Feds Try Afghan Drug Lord, Former US Ally

noorzaiA suspected Afghan druglord went on trial this week in New York for attempting to smuggle tens of millions of dollars worth of heroin from Afghanistan into the US. Afghanistan is currently the world’s most prolific producer of heroin. Not coincidentally, Afghanistan’s drug trade has gone hand-in-hand with US policy in that country.

In the 1980s, the US backed and financed, along with its Saudi allies, a massive holy war on Afghan soil against the Soviet occupation. It was at that time that heroin production in Afghanistan peaked globally. Narcotics were the untraceable currency which paid for weapons on the black market. These weapons eventually ended the Soviet occupation and helped the US win the Cold War. Nearly two decades later, under a US/NATO occupation, Afghanistan has earned the distinction of world’s greatest heroin producer for the second time.

Ironically heroin production under the Taliban slowed drastically as that regime responded to UN sanctions. My partner-in-crime, James Ingalls, wrote all about it in December 2000 in an article called Smart Sanctions on Afghanistan: The Real Target is Peace, as Afghans Suffer. But those sanctions were hypocritical – they only sought to curb drug production by the Taliban, not our allies, the Northern Alliance (or, as they used to be called: The United Front). The Northern Alliance (NA) warlords have hideous pasts as war criminals and jihadi drug lords, and were the very same men who led the drug-financed operation against the Soviets in the 1980s followed by massacres of ordinary Afghans in the early 1990s. Fast forward to a year after the UN sanctions were in place: after the 9-11 attacks, the NA helped the US defeat the Taliban and, as a reward, were given high positions in government. As an added bonus, there was a tacit understanding that their poppy farms would be overlooked.

Seven years later, Haji Bashir Noorzai is in New York, facing life imprisonment for drug smuggling into the US. In fact he is a minor player in Afghanistan’s landscape of corruption, crime, and political intimidation and is distinguished by not being a member of the central government. Warlords far more powerful and even more clearly linked to crimes hold power in Afghanistan’s parliament, part of the central government supported by the US. Men like Yunus Qanooni, Barhanuddin Rabbani, Mohammad Mohaqiq, and Abdul Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf, whose crimes are documented by Human Rights Watch, wear a mantle of democracy in today’s Afghanistan. Additionally, Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s own brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, is linked to serious drug smuggling. And, worse, Izzatullah Wasifi, the current head of the Afghan government’s anti-corruption authority, once spent more than three years in a Nevada prison for selling heroin in Las Vegas.

While Noorzai fought in the US-financed jihad against the Soviets, he eventually allied himself with the Taliban, hoping that they would stabilize Afghanistan during the bloody 90s. As is the case with most of the corrupt militia leaders in Afghanistan that the US has worked with, Noorzai went the way the wind seemed to be blowing and once more changed his allegiance back to the US in 2001 when he helped defeat and disarm the Taliban. Now, he is puzzled as to why the Americans would treat an ally with such disrespect and has offered to share information about the notorious Taliban leader Mullah Omar in exchange for leniency in his case.

According to the New York Times (9/8/08), the US government is accusing Noorzai of aiding the Taliban:

He also provided weapons and manpower to the Taliban, the indictment says. In exchange, the indictment says, the Taliban provided him with protection for his opium crops, heroin laboratories and drug-transportation routes.

At the time of his arrest, Karen Tandy, then chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said the operation had “removed one of the world’s top drug traffickers,” and someone, she added, who “for too long, devastated the country of Afghanistan.”

Not surprisingly, Tandy takes no responsibility for the US encouragement of Afghan heroin sales when it has been beneficial to Washington. An excellent history lesson on the US role in the Afghan drug trade can be found in Alfred McCoy’s 2003 book, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade.

Further in the same New York Times article, Noorzai’s version of the story is found through the words of his defense lawyer, Ivan Fisher and his own affidavit:

Mr. Fisher wrote that Mr. Noorzai was an ardent supporter of the United States-supported government in Afghanistan, and cooperated with American military and intelligence agencies in the years before and after the 2001 terror attacks.

Mr. Noorzai, in his own affidavit, said that in 1982 he began to lead a small force that grew to 1,000 mujahedeen fighters in the war between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union.

In 1990, he said, he used his network of tribal contacts to help the C.I.A. recover Stinger missiles that the United States had provided to the Afghan rebels. He eventually turned over about 12 missiles, he said.

While Noorzai maintains that he was not paid by the US for his help in defeating and disarming the Taliban, he was likely the exception. The majority of Afghan drug lords and warlords were hired with financial and political incentives to help defeat the Taliban. In an October 2003 article I published in Foreign Policy in Focus, I detailed some of the financial ties:

The cooperation of warlords such as Fahim and Qanooni was central to U.S. Operation Enduring Freedom and in fact they were paid off by the United States and Britain in return for supporting Karzai and fighting against the Taliban. In July 2002, the UK Observer “learnt that ‘bin bags’ full of U.S. dollars have been flown into Afghanistan, sometimes on RAF planes, to be given to key regional power brokers who could cause trouble for Prime Minister Hamid Karzai’s administration. Paying the warlords for their services has triggered clashes among groups eager to win patronage from the United States. In some areas commanders have been told they will receive a top-of-the-range $40,000 pick-up truck–a local status symbol–if they can prove they have killed Taliban or al Qaeda elements.”

So why would the US go out of its way to lure an Afghan drug lord to the US and put him on trial now? Is it possible that the war/druglords have abused their illegitimate power in Afghanistan so seriously over the past 7 years that they are jeopardizing the central government’s credibility and, by extension, the US government’s credibility? Is it possible that the US hopes to make an example of Noorzai, both to scare his colleagues in Kabul, and to appear as though it is doing something, anything, about a drug trade that has flourished under its troops’ noses?

Regardless of what happens to Bashir Noorzai, what will likely remain unchanged is the ages-old American policy in Afghanistan of this government selfishly pursuing its own interests at the expense of everything and everyone else.

There is a slim chance that the trial may have the unintended consequence of actually revealing the US’s moral compromises in Afghanistan. A Reuters article hints at the possibility:

Besides focusing on Afghanistan’s drug trade, the case may explore U.S. dealings with drug smugglers for political or security purposes.

Stick With the Taliban?

bush bin ladenThis morning I was a guest on a Grit TV with Laura Flanders, alongside a number of other Afghanistan experts – we were discussing the proposed increase in US troops in that country and Flanders (who, by the way, is one of my favorite radio/TV hosts!) asked the question, “Is this the right war?” as many Americans across the political spectrum often proclaim. I said what I’ve said publicly before: that a military solution to Afghanistan is not the answer, that US/NATO troops are doing more harm than good, that Afghans have turned against the occupation, and that the occupation should end. I added several more details to what should happen instead but you can get all the gory details by watching the show here.

And then tonight I received a cute little email, I’m assuming in response to the interview, which I’ve pasted below:

——– Original Message ——–
Subject: Stick with the Taliban.
Date: Thu, 11 Sep 2008 10:29:36 -0500
From: Go Isolationist!!!!! (mike@whydowesupporttheworld.com)

Since you are so incensed at the US killing civilians, then why are you here in the US? You seem to have liked life when the Taliban Ruled in Afghanistan, correct? We are just looking for the head ring guy Bin Laden. You bring us him, and we\’ll leave your country and you can welcome the Taliban back with open arms. Is that a deal?

——————–
REMOTE IP : 75.45.166.228
DATE/TIME : 2008-09-11 10:29:36

It always makes me smile to receive such messages – they speak for themselves. It affirms my increasing suspicion that those who blindly support war and in fact, well, not so bright.

But maybe I should humor Mike. So Mike, if you manage to read this, perhaps you could respond to the following questions that struck me while reading your email:

Q. Is the US searching for bin Laden or defeating the Taliban? Because you see those are two separate goals and bin Laden sure must be one smart guy to elude so many US troops for so long.

Q. How does killing thousands of civilians, including women and children, help us get closer to finding bin Laden?

Q. If the US hates bin Laden so much, why did the CIA work with him in the 1980s to help recruit jihadi fighters to Afghanistan against the Soviet occupation?

Q. If the US hates the Taliban so much, why did we not speak up when three of our key allies and weapons buyers recognized the Taliban as legitimate rulers of Afghanistan in 1996 (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the U.A.E.)?

Q. What if the Taliban offered bin Laden to Bush and he turned them down?

Q. Why do you assume I’m from Afghanistan?

Thanks Mike!

Obama Intends to Swap One Failed War for Another

Published on Friday, February 29, 2008 by CommonDreams.org

by Sonali Kolhatkar

Lately, in spite of my better judgment, I’ve found myself inflicted with a major case of “Obamania.” I cannot help but be excited at the prospect of a brilliant, younger-than-average, black president who could unite this polarized country against the failed policies of George W Bush. But each time I get optimistic that we are finally on the verge of entering a saner era, Obama makes a terribly foolish statement about the US occupation of Afghanistan.

His latest quip is a prime example: in retaliating against McCain’s attacks on his position on the Iraq war, Obama responded: “I intend to bring [the Iraq war] to an end so that we can actually start going after al Qaeda in Afghanistan and in the hills of Pakistan like we should have been doing in the first place.”

He simply wants to swap one failed war for another: out of Iraq and into Afghanistan.

Obama, who openly says he is a “strong supporter of the war in Afghanistan,” is counting on American ignorance of the fact that since 2001 we have carried out a smaller scale version of the Iraq war in Afghanistan. In fact, in some respects Afghanistan was the testing ground for Iraq. Broaden the war in Afghanistan and you simply export the Iraq debacle to the middle of Asia.

While the scale of the two operations are vastly different, US policies in Afghanistan have shown eerily similar results to Iraq. After what seemed to be a brief period of positive change in the post-Taliban era, Afghanistan has plunged into despair once more. There has been a huge jump in suicide bombings, greater political power for fundamentalist forces, increased oppression of women, an unprecedented boom in opium production, and greater civilian deaths at US/NATO hands.

If Obama intends on pursuing a more constructive policy in Afghanistan than the current one, I’m all for it. Having studied the war in Afghanistan from its inception, I can make several recommendations including: generous funding of indigenous grassroots health, educational, and employment efforts; disarmament of US-backed criminal warlords and a war crimes tribunal to help national healing; protection of journalists and independent members of Parliament, especially women; viable and lucrative alternatives to poppy farming for local poor farmers; and of course the most important one of all: an immediate withdrawal of US/NATO combat troops with a corresponding increase in transitional UN peace-keeping forces (to remain in the country for purely security purposes until a democratic Afghanistan is ready to kick them out too).

These recommendations are not sure-fire but stand a good chance at actually helping ordinary Afghans, ending the reign of impunity enjoyed by the warlords, undermining any base of popular support enjoyed by the Taliban and/or Al Qaeda, and driving fewer people to resort to suicide bombings as a way to end a foreign occupation. Best of all, they can give real democracy a chance – the best antidote to terrorism.

Obama has not suggested any of these types of policies. He has not come even close. Instead he wants to take “the fight to the terrorists in Afghanistan” by increasing the troop presence – a change that is already taking place under the Bush administration (3,200 additional troops are headed to Afghanistan this summer).

I’m not saying Americans should not vote for Obama (assuming he ends up winning the Democratic nomination). On the contrary, he and the movement that supports him represents perhaps the most viable hope of ending the Iraq war on the horizon today. What I am suggesting is that Obama’s antiwar supporters ought to be prepared for the sleight-of-hand war-swapping he has planned. They can do that best by starting right now, to hold Obama accountable for his extremely mis-guided position on Afghanistan. They can do that by guiding him firmly toward the more constructive goal of ending that war too, which in the long term will do far more to actually end terrorism.

Sonali Kolhatkar is host of Uprising, a nationally syndicated radio program and co-Director of Afghan Women’s Mission. She is co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence (Seven Stories, 2006).
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Enemies of Happiness (Film Review)

Enemies of HappinessEnemies of Happiness is not The Beauty Academy of Kabul. It is not about a Western woman traveling to a war-torn country to save brown women. It is about an Afghan woman, Malalai Joya, who has chosen to risk her life to fight for her own people.

Eva Mulvad’s award-winning film opens with footage of Joya’s dramatic public denunciation of the criminal warlords who dominated the 2004 loya jirga (constitutional convention) in Afghanistan. This was the fateful moment when ordinary Afghans discovered their most dedicated spokesperson—a twenty-six-year-old woman who was willing to risk her life to give voice to her people. It was also the moment that cast Joya into international fame, and into the crosshairs of the most notorious Afghan criminals—the “enemies of happiness.”

The loya jirga incident was the impetus for Joya’s bid for a parliamentary seat, and her election campaign is the focus of the rest of the film. It is Joya’s unconventional method of winning over the voters of rural Farah Province that makes this film utterly fascinating.

Joya does give an inspiring campaign speech or two to women who have never voted and cannot read or write. But the poor residents of Farah are more impressed by her dedication to solving the myriad social and political problems that plague their society. A drug addict who abuses his wife and threatens to leave his family receives a stern lecture from Joya. A warlord who is intent on forcibly marrying a young girl is reported by the girl’s family to the police at Joya’s urging.

Enemies of HappinessAnother reason why her people love and trust her is that she is quite literally one of them. Eva Mulvad’s skillful and unobtrusive camera work captures the impoverished lifestyle that is unfamiliar to Joya’s Western supporters. We see her cooking a modest meal, squatting on her haunches as she washes her clothes, and sleeping within a ramshackle hut. Mulvad’s decision to forgo a narrator gives the film a rare intimacy and authenticity. Malalai and other Afghans speak for themselves, allowing the film to avoid the paternalism that affects most Western-made documentaries about “Third World” nations.

Throughout the campaign Joya remains stoic, knowing that if elected, her intent to expose the warlords will bring her even closer to death. Many Afghans have been brutally murdered for doing and saying far less. But in one meeting with a close friend, the immense gravity of her actions becomes apparent and she breaks down, begging Mulvad to turn the camera off.

Enemies of Happiness leaves off where Malalai Joya’s contentious career in Parliament begins. The film’s only flaw is that its triumphant ending obscures the greater danger that lies ahead: in May 2007, Joya was suspended for “insulting” her fellow MPs and ordered to face a court of law.

Still, this remarkable story of how one woman has risked everything for her people is devastatingly compelling. It is a lesson in deep democracy that elected representatives in the United States could stand to learn.

—Sonali Kolhatkar

This article was originally published in the spring/summer 2007-08 issue of make/shift magazine (www.makeshiftmag.com).

Find out more about the film at www.enemiesofhappiness.com, and about Malalai Joya at www.malalaijoya.com

Ending the “Good War”

Published in Foreign Policy In Focus on June 13, 2007

by James Ingalls and Sonali Kolhatkar
Editor: John Feffer

With primary election season in full swing, Democratic Party candidates have begun trying to distinguish themselves from each other and from the Republicans. The Iraq War has been one such dividing issue. Liberal groups like MoveOn.org praised both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for “showing real leadership” because they “stood up and did the right thing” by voting against the recent Iraq/Afghanistan war-funding bill. The main fight in Congress over the bill was whether or not to include a timeline for troop withdrawal from Iraq.

But the issue of Afghanistan was not on the table. Neither the version Clinton and Obama supported nor the one they rejected had any stipulations on the number of American soldiers in Afghanistan. Both versions continued funding for the operation as is.

Indeed, the top tier of candidates with a realistic shot at the Democratic presidential nomination expresses depressingly similar perspectives on the first front in the Bush administration’s “war on terrorism.” To them, Afghanistan is the “good war.” These supposedly anti-war men and women seem to have serious concerns with what is going on in Iraq, but they have no problem with our conduct of the war in Afghanistan. In fact, they want to enhance it. Barack Obama has said that the Iraq war has “distracted” us from Afghanistan. Hillary Clinton says she is “encouraged by the progress in Afghanistan, but the country is tottering” and needs more troops to “finish off the Taliban and al-Qaeda.” There is talk of moving troops out of Iraq and putting them in Afghanistan. This implies that our troops are doing awful things in Iraq but are doing good things in Afghanistan and therefore deserve support.

In fact, U.S. and NATO troops are doing the same things in both countries: bombing civilian areas, invading villages, rounding up people without evidence, torturing detainees, causing deaths in custody, and shooting into crowds. “NATO’s tactics are increasingly endangering the civilians that they are supposed to be protecting, and turning the local population against them,” says Sam Zia-Zarifi, the Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch.

When it comes to war, most U.S. politicians are concerned not with whether a particular policy benefits the Iraqi or Afghan people but how successful the operation is from a strategic perspective, whether it improves U.S. global status and assets, and whether they can use it to distinguish themselves from their opponents. Thus, many Democrats criticize Bush’s war on Iraq as a distraction from the real war in Afghanistan. In reality, both major U.S. parties will probably nominate pro-war candidates whose only difference on military issues is which country represents the best recipient of American firepower, and which people it makes more sense to terrorize and kill: Afghans or Iraqis.

Progress for War Criminals

Life in Afghanistan did improve in the first year or so after coalition forces removed the Taliban. Voting for president in October 2004 and for parliament in September 2005, Afghans picked their own leaders for the first time in decades. But most of those who ended up in the government, both through elections and through appointments, were already powerful. They had money to run campaigns and hire bodyguards, and they possessed the firepower to intimidate the population. Most of them were also major U.S. allies; many were warlords with histories of war crimes. Hamid Karzai, the man chosen by the Bush administration to become president, was one of the few U.S.-backed leaders who was not a warlord. For this reason, he actually won the popular vote by a landslide. But his subsequent embrace of the warlords and his failure to bring promised improvements to the basic infrastructure of his country have made him almost universally reviled by Afghans.

Contrary to Senator Clinton’s talk of “progress in Afghanistan,” the life of the average Afghan has gone from bad to worse under American stewardship. Amid the re-entrenchment of abusive power brokers in Afghanistan, the people have little security, no jobs, and poor access to health care or a decent education. About 90% of Afghans do not have access to clean drinking water or electricity. Growing anti-U.S. and anti-Afghan-government protests, and numerous surveys show that the people see their lives as getting worse. According to a recent analysis from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), based on interviews with over 1,000 Afghans, Afghanistan has stagnated or slipped backward on four out of five key development categories from 2005 to 2006.

The only improvement came in the category of “economic conditions.” As usual with mainstream assessments of the economy, the main concern is with the amount of money changing hands not the wellbeing of the average person. Afghanistan’s economy is certainly booming by the standard criterion: the GDP has doubled since 2001 as investment in the risky (but profitable) country has gone through the roof. But, according to the CSIS report, “these benefits have not translated into sufficient employment and income generating activities for the ordinary citizen.” Even when money is available, much of it is siphoned into the coffers of warlords and corrupt politicians. Since 2001, the warlords have evicted hundreds of poor residents to “make way for a ‘new Afghanistan’ of palatial homes—scores of four- and five-story mansions boasting gold-painted marble columns and floor-to-ceiling windows flanking grand wooden doors.” Other signs of an economic boom that does not reach ordinary Afghans are the new Coke bottling plant and five-star hotel that have opened in Kabul.

In many ways, U.S. policies have brought Afghanistan back to the age of the Taliban. Since the parliamentary elections, warlords have used their positions to become even more powerful. In July 2006, Karzai’s cabinet approved the proposal to reinstate the Taliban’s feared Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. In a more far-reaching move, the parliament on January 31, 2007 passed an amnesty bill that states, “all those political and belligerent sides who were involved one way or the other during the 2 1/2 decades of war will not be prosecuted legally and judicially.” This bill is so broad it even forgives the Taliban of war crimes. Supporters of the amnesty bill claim that it is “an attempt to bring peace and reconciliation to Afghan society.” This is reminiscent of former U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s excuse that encouraging warlords to enter government was a way toward peace.

The amnesty bill is in distinct opposition to the aspirations of the Afghan people. In an important 2005 survey by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, 69% of Afghans identified either themselves or immediate family members as direct victims of human rights violations perpetrated by the warlords in parliament and their ilk; 61% rejected amnesty for such crimes. In fact, 76% felt instead that bringing war criminals to justice would “increase stability and bring security” to their country.

Freedom of Speech Curtailed

The only member of parliament who openly echoes these sentiments is Malalai Joya, a 28-year old representative from Farah province. Joya is extremely popular for her well-known criticisms of fellow MPs on the parliament floor, but she has consequently received threats of death and rape, and has survived four assassination attempts. For a particularly scathing attack in which she unfavorably compared the parliament to a zoo, the warlord-dominated assembly invoked a little-known parliamentary rule on May 21 that bars members from “insulting” one another and suspended Joya from her post. In response, hundreds of Afghans have been demonstrating in cities across the country demanding her reinstatement. Human Rights Watch said the suspension of Joya “sets back democracy and rights” in Afghanistan, and that her “comments don’t warrant the punishment she received.” Members of the European parliament and Canada’s New Democratic Party also condemned the parliamentary move. Distinguished by their silence on this issue are both the Bush administration and the “anti-war” Democrats in Congress.

Joya is not the only one silenced by the U.S.-backed Afghan government. The parliament is reportedly considering amendments to the country’s media law that “could undo many of the gains made since the fall of the Taliban.” The current law is thought to be “the most liberal in the region,” at least on paper. These amendments are a continuation of systematic attacks on press freedom over the past few years. In particular, Karzai’s National Security Directorate circulated a memo to Afghan media last June, which stated that “the media must ban or restrict broadcasting those materials which deteriorate the morale of the public, cause security problems, and which are against the public interest.” Among the 18 actions to be banned are “publication of provocative articles which are against the Mujahideen [holy warriors] and call them ‘warlords’” and “Negative propaganda, interviews and reports which are provocative or slanderous and which are against the presence (in Afghanistan) of the international coalition forces and ISAF.”

Given the terrible reality of Afghan life, if journalists were to follow these edicts they would have little to report.

Choosing Military Solutions

Despite the the claims of the administration and most presidential candidates, military action cannot solve the problems in Afghanistan as even those implementing the policies admit. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates says of both Iraq and Afghanistan, “these conflicts cannot…be won purel y by military action.” NATO secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer says, “It is my strong opinion that the final answer in Afghanistan will not be a military one and cannot be a military one.”

“The final answer in Afghanistan is,” Scheffer continues, “reconstruction, development, and nation-building.” Gates agrees that what is needed is “to help build a government and an economy that serves the interests of the people.” But the United States is not eager to take on that role. “I would urge others to step forward with assistance to Afghanistan in the areas of governance, reconstruction, and counternarcotics,” says Gates.

Most Americans do not realize that there are approximately 49,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, about one-third the number in Iraq. Of those troops, 28,000 are from the United States: 15,000 operate under NATO and 13,000 are part of the Pentagon’s Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). The U.S.-NATO dichotomy is misleading, however, because the largest contingent of NATO troops is from the United States (the second-largest contingent from the UK is much smaller, only 7,700 soldiers). In addition, the military head of NATO operations, U.S. General Dan K. McNeill, is also the chief of OEF. In other words, America dominates all foreign troop operations in Afghanistan.

For Washington the goal of these deployments is limited to ending sanctuary for “terrorists” who might attack U.S. and allied assets, which include Karzai’s government. But the overwhelming reliance on force has created more people willing to commit terrorism against the United States. Today, Afghanistan is plagued by a new insurgency funded by the remnants of the Taliban and drug lords and fueled by a new hatred of Americans and other foreigners.

Three recent examples illustrate what seems to be an inflexible US military strategy: when confronted by any perceived threat, respond with overwhelming force. Inevitably, this leads to heavy civilian casualties.

On May 8, 2007 in the village of Sarban Qala, U.S. Special Forces soldiers working with Afghan National Army troops were reportedly “under heavy attack by Taliban militants” and called in air strikes to “destroy…three compounds and an underground tunnel network.” The air strikes killed 21 civilians, according to the governor of Helmand province and the district chief. An Afghan official stated, “some Taliban were also killed.” In this example, the civilian casualties may have been a byproduct of a real battle between U.S. forces and insurgents, and hence the result of negligence.

In late April 2007, in a village in Zerkoh valley in Herat province, the U.S. military claimed that American forces “came under heavy fire from insurgents…and called in air strikes, killing 136 Taliban fighters.” But villagers insisted there were no Taliban in the village. According to The New York Times, “the accounts of villagers bore little resemblance to those of NATO and American officials.” The U.S. air strikes were actually a response to the defiance of villagers who had been harassed on two previous occasions by foreign troops. One farmer said, “when the Americans came without permission—and they came more than once and disturbed the people—they searched the houses, and the second time they arrested people, and the third time the people got angry and fought them.” The U.S. strikes killed about 60 civilians, almost half of which were women and children, and displaced over 1600. So in this case, the air strikes targeted villagers who had taken up arms in response to previous U.S. aggression. As a result, the U.S. forces created an insurgency in a village where there was none.

In Nangarhar province in March 2007, a suicide bomber detonated his explosive-filled car near a U.S. Marine Corps Special Forces convoy, wounding one soldier. According to military officials, this was part of “a complex ambush involving enemy small-arms fire from several directions,” whereupon U.S. soldiers returned fire and civilians were killed and wounded in the crossfire. An investigation by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission determined that this was a lie. “U.S. forces claimed that the suicide attack was part of a complex ambush…but…all witnesses and Afghan government officials interviewed uniformly denied that any attack beyond the initial [suicide car] took place.” The report describes what seemed to be random shooting by the U.S. soldiers into the surrounding crowd of Afghans. Then, as the soldiers resumed their journey, the report continues, “During the next 16 kilometers, the convoy in several locations opened fire on civilians traveling by foot or in vehicles, causing further deaths and injuries.” In all, 19 people were killed and 50 wounded. In this third example, U.S. troops were in no danger after an initial suicide bomb.

Col. John Nicholson, a commander in eastern Afghanistan, said of civilian death, “regrettably it does happen, because this is war, but we go to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties.” The facts speak otherwise. Of all the NATO countries, the Americans are reputed for aggressive behavior. According to The New York Times, “many of the most serious episodes of civilian deaths have involved United States counterterrorism and Special Operations forces that operate separately from the NATO command.”

In some cases U.S. officials actively thwart outside scrutiny. On at least one occasion, Western troops deliberately prevented media from uncovering both their criminal actions and their false justifications. After the Nangarhar incident, U.S. troops returned to the area and removed all bullet shells and cartridges. They prevented Afghan National Police units from accessing the site until they were finished. In addition, seven journalists reported having their equipment confiscated or being forced to delete pictures and videos they had taken. A U.S. Marine told one cameraman to “delete the photographs or we will delete you.”

According to Human Rights Watch, there were “at least 230” civilian deaths in Afghanistan attributable to U.S. or NATO actions in 2006. The count will probably be much higher for 2007 (the three examples given here already add up to 100). Even so, the 2006 figure is probably an underestimate, given that U.S. and NATO officials claim many thousands of “Taliban insurgents” and “suspected Taliban” were also killed. In two of the examples above, officials masked the number of civilians killed by mislabeling the dead as “Taliban.”

Cracks in NATO

The growing number of civilian deaths are “threatening popular support for the Afghan government and creating severe strains within the NATO alliance,” according to The New York Times. At a May 9 meeting in Brussels, the NATO secretary general met with the North Atlantic Council, the organization’s governing body, and had “intense discussion” on the subject. But “the conversation was less about how to reduce casualties,” reported the Times, “than about how to explain them to European governments.” To most officials, the criminality and injustice of the civilian deaths alone are not enough to condemn them. But when they undermine the support base at home or in the host country, and threaten the crucial “winning hearts and minds” portion of NATO’s counterinsurgency campaign, they become a strategic problem.

The Americans themselves seem to be slowly reconsidering their tactics. In an unusual move, Col. Nicholson made what seemed like a very sincere apology to the families of the people killed in the Nangarhar incident. In particular, he admitted that the Americans “killed and wounded innocent Afghan people,” and asked for the people’s forgiveness, paying the families $2000 each. Such apologies and payments, regardless of how paltry or insulting, reflect a desperate desire to rebuild America’s image with the Afghan people.

Perhaps the newfound difficulty in understanding civilian deaths in Washington and Brussels has something to do with the increasing number of anti-U.S. and anti-Karzai demonstrations all over Afghanistan. Thousands “stormed a government district headquarters” in Shindand near a large American base, to protest the killings in the Zerkoh valley incident. On the other side of the country around the same time, about 2000 students blocked the highway from Kabul to Pakistan for four continuous days to protest a second killing of innocents in Nangarhar province at the end of April. People burning George W. Bush in effigy and calling for Karzai’s resignation is an obvious sign that Operation Enduring Freedom is not winning the “hearts and minds” of Afghans.

Opening for Anti-War Movement

Afghanistan’s dire situation today is a direct result of U.S. policies over the past six years. The best time to change those policies would have been early on, in 2002 before the warlords were legitimized and before Operation Enduring Freedom became standard military procedure. Still, the failures of NATO’s destructive tactics and the growing, non-Taliban, grassroots resistance in Afghanistan may provide another opening for the U.S. anti-war movement to force a change in policy.

Unfortunately, the movement has been pitifully silent on Afghanistan, especially since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. This is true even though Afghanistan has one-third the number of foreign troops as Iraq, the bulk of which are American (nearly 60%), and the Americans are the worst perpetrators of violence. In contrast, the movements in Europe and Canada are outraged by the conduct of their militaries and force their governments daily to justify their continued presence in Afghanistan. In Canada, for example, which only has about 3,000 troops in Afghanistan, anti-war coalitions have organized demonstrations and petitioned the government to withdraw their soldiers. Canadian public opposition is so high that Afghanistan is regularly debated on the Parliament floor. For example, members of the New Democratic Party have sponsored a motion “calling for the immediate…withdrawal of our troops from the counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan.” The American anti-war movement, on the other hand, has left it to the Democrats to be the only anti-Bush voice on Afghanistan. Thus the U.S. public is presented with only two options: send more troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, or (at best) reduce the number of troops in Iraq and send more troops to Afghanistan. This is truly a failure of the American left.

Ideally, the U.S. antiwar movement should work in solidarity with Afghans attempting to meet their needs. Based on published polls and our own interviews with people in Afghanistan, most Afghans want primarily two things. They want security and justice, which translates into foreign troop withdrawal, warlord disarmament, and war crimes tribunals. And they want assistance to rebuild infrastructure and meet basic needs such as food, shelter, health care, education, and jobs.

Many Americans who were moved by the plight of the Afghan people before September 11 wanted to support efforts to overthrow the Taliban and rebuild the country. The U.S. government responded by bombing the country and replacing the Taliban with equally rapacious warlords. The silence of the progressive movement on Afghanistan leaves unchallenged the claim that U.S. actions liberated the people and brought a new era of democracy. Unlike our Canadian and European counterparts, who have called for an immediate troop withdrawal, we have not made any solid demands of our government.

As a first step, Americans of conscience ought to join activists in other NATO countries to call for an immediate end to Operation Enduring Freedom and a withdrawal of combat troops.

Unfortunately a withdrawal of troops, while necessary, will not solve all the problems of the Afghan people. The immediate result will be a military power vacuum. Recall the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Soviet troops ended their occupation of Afghanistan. The power vacuum allowed U.S.-sponsored warlords to plunge the country into the worst violence in its recent history. If the power vacuum is filled by a UN-sponsored peacekeeping force to help the country transition toward stability, a repeat of that violence might be avoided. In tandem, it will be necessary to fully fund the social and economic programs that Afghans desire. Ideally, the money should be unconditional. And it should come from countries that have played the most destructive role in Afghanistan, such as the United States. Anything less reveals a callous indifference to the victims of our country’s forgotten war in Afghanistan, and is an abrogation of our fundamental responsibility as Americans.

 

James Ingalls and Sonali Kolhatkar are the co-directors of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a US-based nonprofit organization that works in solidarity with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). They are also the co-authors of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence, published in 2006 by Seven Stories Press.

US Causes its own Problems in Afghanistan

Afghanistan is in a horrible state, by any measure. From the increasing power of fundamentalist extremist groups, to rising poverty, rising opium exports, a rising number of suicide and other attacks on foreign troops or Afghan government infrastructure, the people of Afghanistan will not see relief any time soon. More and more international criticism is rightly blaming the foreign troops supposedly there to help build a safer, secure country.

Billions of dollars are being spent on more foreign troops to do so-called peacekeeping under NATO or to hunt terrorists under the US’s Operation Enduring Freedom. This only worsens the situation. According to the Senlis Council, an Afghan/European think tank, “Operation Enduring Freedom and the related militaristic counter-narcotics policies are significant contributors to the current state of war in Kandahar and the other southern provinces” where the Taliban are the strongest. Really, the NATO “peacekeeping” mission that is painted as something different from the hunt for anti-US elements is really not that different, since there’s “no peace to keep,” according to Senlis.[1]

The Council points to three main issues contributing to the anti-US and anti-Karzai insurgency: poverty, drugs, and insecurity. All of these are being responded to by the US in such a way as to worsen the situation.

On poverty “little has been achieved” since the US toppled the Taliban in 2001. This is because little has been done, and an extremely tiny proportion of foreign money has been spent on programs for the poor of Afghanistan. Since “[t]he basic needs of the local population are not being met” the predictable consequence is that “the population is giving its support back to the Taliban and other local power-holders.”

On Drugs, the US tactic of choice has been forced eradication. Senlis states that, “this ineffective counter-narcotics policy…has intensified the local power games.” Since warlords and Taliban factions allow the cultivation of poppies by poor farmers, many Afghans are shifting their support back to such groups.

On Security, “the current state of war has been triggered by the very interventions which were intended to counteract the Taliban and Al Qaeda.” These interventions have featured an “aggressive international military presence” and “lack of respect and understanding for the local communities.” International military responses to insurgent attacks are “largely ineffective,” and appear to lack “any learning process.” These tactics “have in fact exacerbated the dynamics (in particular the support of the Taliban in [Kandahar] province) that initially brought the international community to Kandhahar.”

There is no sign that the US or its protege Hamid Karzai are changing their approach. The international troops are still conducting hunts for so-called terrorists, which the New York Times calls “a disastrous approach to counterinsurgency warfare.”[2] And Karzai continues to give carrots to extremists and warlords (appointing them to cabinet, to the justice ministry, the parliament, allowing the reinstatement of the Commission on the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue), but doing nothing to combat the very dire crisis of poverty, inadequate health care, insecurity, and poor access to education. It’s hard to blame him, since it’s only the Afghan people who want him to deal with these problems, and they have no money. The people with the real power in Washington, London, Ottawa, and at the UN, who can actually support the solutions financially, the ones who should put vast sums of money into programs for the people that go beyond helping run elections, instead tell Karzai the military campaign (of which there is “no end in sight”) is extending his authority.[3] If they had any brains they would realize that it is precisely this “support” that is causing his increasingly bad reputation with his people.[4]

Funds should be diverted away from the military buildup, and the US, UK, Canada, and their allies should stop using their troops against the Afghan people. It’s time to repay Afghans for all the suffering they’ve endured in the name of fighting the West’s battles against “communism” in the 1980s and “terrorism” in the 1990s and 2000s.

RAWA: a Model for Activism and Social Transformation

Published on Znet on June 1, 2006
By Sonali Kolhatkar

The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) rose to international prominence after the attacks on the US on September 11th, 2001. Despite interviews with Larry King Live, and promotion by Oprah, few mainstream media outlets examined the radical nature of RAWAÂ’s political vision and strategy, or their organizational structure. Sadly, many on the left have also overlooked the lessons we can learn from this extraordinary womenÂ’s movement, choosing instead to relegate support of RAWA to mainstream feminist groups.

Within the context of on-going brutal war, that such a political organization of women exists and thrives, is reason enough to study RAWA. Additionally, their political vision is basic and non-sectarian, espousing universal human rights, women’s rights, economic democracy, and a progressive education policy. They create and distribute their own media and have successfully harnessed new technologies to further their goals. RAWA is an extraordinarily resilient organization that uses a horizontal structure with an emphasis on the collective over the individual, and employs practical and democratic decision-making and internal conflict-resolution. In fact, RAWA has been operating in a manner that progressive political organizations in the West could only dream of. What can Western social movements learn from RAWA?

To answer this question I draw heavily from my own personal experience of working in solidarity with RAWA for the past 6 years, supplemented with information from the book, “With All Our Strength” by Anne Brodsky, (New York: Routledge, 2003).

Historical context

Afghanistan’s brutal history of war naturally shapes RAWA dramatically. The 1970s were a time of intense student activism and protest. In 1977, a young Kabul University student named Meena founded RAWA to struggle for women’s rights. RAWA was born into a nation on the brink of imperial war, occupation, and reactionary forces from which it has yet to emerge. A year after RAWA’s formation, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and began a ten year long occupation. RAWA’s initial goal of women’s emancipation, was broadened to include national emancipation. They participated in the nation-wide non-violent resistance, or jihad, against the occupation. But RAWA was also seen as a threat by the fundamentalist, misogynist forces which the US chose to work with. In fact, RAWA’s work was increasingly threatening to both Soviet imperialists and Islamic fundamentalists. In 1987, Meena was assassinated by a collaboration of both forces – KHAD (Afghan secret police, controlled by the Soviet government), and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (the largest recipient of US financial aid).

Rather that destroying the organization, Meena’s assassination drove RAWA underground and actually provoked them to broaden their goals even more. Since then, they see imperialism and religious fundamentalism as twin injustices to be resisted and eradicated. Meena is seen as a martyr by RAWA members. Her photograph adorns the otherwise bare walls of RAWA houses, classrooms, orphanages, hospitals, and clinics. Because RAWA members operate incognito, Meena’s face has essentially become RAWA’s face.

Political Vision

RAWA’s underlying philosophy sees women’s rights as integral to the struggle for human rights, democracy, and national sovereignty. Because women are the main victims of war, religious fundamentalism, and economic globalization, women’s rights are crucial markers of injustice worldwide. As in the US, leftist Afghan women like Meena realized that the men in their movements paid lip service to women’s rights but did not see it as important as class, or other struggles. Women were told that their freedom would automatically follow from other social changes and that it was not necessary for women’s rights to be central to their struggles.

RAWA has not adopted any specific economic or social ideology. They do advocate “economic democracy,” and secularism. While most RAWA members are Muslim, as are the majority of Afghans, they have seen Islam being used as a political tool of oppression by fundamentalist warlords in government positions.

Excerpts from RAWA’s Charter (twice revised since its inception, to address socio-political changes), define their main aims [1] as:

(1) women’s emancipation, “which cannot be abstracted from the freedom and emancipation of the people as a whole,”

(2) separation of religion and politics, “so that no entity can misuse religion as a means for furthering their political objectives,”

(3) equal rights of all Afghan ethnic groups,

(4) “economic democracy and the disappearance of exploitation,”

(5) commitment to “struggle against illiteracy, ignorance, reactionary, and misogynistic culture,”

(6) “to draw women out of the incarceration of their homes into social and political activity, so that they can liberate themselves economically, politically, legally, and socially,”

(7) to serve and assist “affected and deserved women and children, in the fields of education, healthcare, and economy,”

(8) establish and strengthen relations with other pro-democracy and pro-women’s rights groups nationally and internationally, with such relations “based on the principle of equality and non-interference in each others affairs,”

(9) “support for other freedom and women’s movements worldwide.”

RAWA bases their struggle on universal principles of human rights and democracy, consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They are not bound by the inevitable dogma that results from sectarianism and “the party line.”

Additionally, RAWA realizes the importance of connecting their struggle with those of other groups worldwide. They regularly express international solidarity in their statements, such as this one:

We declare our unequivocal and unreserved support and solidarity with the struggles of the people and the pro-democracy and progressive forces of Iran, Palestine, Kashmir, Kurdistan, Sudan and other fettered peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America fighting for their rights against reactionary and anti-liberty states and powers.[2]

Strategy

For the formation of a free, independent and democratic Afghanistan the joint striving and struggle of pro-liberty and democratic forces is indispensable. This objective can only be achieved through relentless struggle, not through compromise and capitulation.

— RAWA statement on 50th anniversary of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, December 1998.

RAWA’s strategies, like their political aims, are broad. They are a balance of long-term and short-term strategies of political agitation and humanitarian aid.

Education

Education is seen as part of RAWA’s long-term struggle and is considered their most important strategy. Education of women in particular, is based on the understanding that when women are empowered through literacy and skills, they are more inclined and better equipped to fight for their rights. However, RAWA also educates boys, providing a practical alternative to the brain-washing of religious madrassas. They believe that male domination is a social phenomenon that can be eradicated through education for both boys and girls.

RAWA’s educational projects range from full-fledged schools for girls and boys, all the way down to home-based literacy courses and skills training for adult women. Many women and girls who discover RAWA through these institutions choose to become members. Education also includes skills training for adult women who are struggling to raise families. RAWA teaches women embroidery, sewing, handicrafts, etc. They also teach women farming skills like raising hens for eggs, fish farming, and goat farming. Such courses are labeled “income-generating projects.” The goal is to enable women to become financially self-sufficient.

RAWA’s educational policy (see Appendix A) evolved over the years through trial and error. It is based on principles of freedom, peace, non-violence, respect for the environment, as well as gender, ethnic, and religious tolerance. Anne Brodsky observes that “Paolo Freire’s groundbreaking work on emancipatory education … speaks to some of the very same approaches that RAWA espouses.” RAWA members are not familiar with the highly influential Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Freire and have developed their own methods based on an intimate understanding of their communities.

Health Care and Humanitarian Aid

Despite much-touted progress, Afghanistan still suffers from shockingly high rates of infant mortality and maternal mortality. In 2005, Afghanistan ranked 173 out of 178 in the UN’s Human Development Index. With so much suffering around them, it is impossible for RAWA to speak of human rights and women’s political rights, without also addressing the lack of access to food and health care, which are prerequisites to other rights.

RAWA runs clinics and mobile health teams both inside Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s refugee camps. In many cases, the people they serve have no other access to health care. When the need arises, RAWA conducts emergency relief operations alongside their political and educational work. They often assists refugees during harsh winter months with blankets, food, and medical aid.

Because of the large numbers of orphans in Afghanistan, RAWA runs several orphanages for boys and girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. (They do not, however, offer Afghan children up for adoption in Western countries and urge instead urge Western supporters to sponsor orphans so that the children can remain in their own country while having access to education, shelter, etc.)

Media, Documentation, and Technology

From their inception RAWA realized that they needed a means of spreading news from independent sources throughout the country, as well as a way to convey news of their activities and achievements.

Payam-e-Zan (translated as ‘Woman’s Voice’) is RAWA’s main publication — a magazine that first published in 1981, only four years after they were founded. Payam-e-Zan started out being produced by hand, with several hundred mimeographed copies stealthily passed across the country. Some issues, produced during the most dangerous years, were published in miniature, to make them easier to hide. According to Brodsky, Payam-e-Zan “operates as an educational vehicle through which literacy skills as well as political consciousness are cultivated. The magazine is also a highly effective recruitment tool” for RAWA, “serv[ing] as a place to document RAWA’s concerns and standpoints, and as a vehicle to present these ideas to a wide audience.”

As the casualties of US-backed fundamentalists mounted in the early 1990s, RAWA, realizing that the world had moved on from Afghanistan, decided to document the rampant human rights abuses through still photography and video. Photographs documenting the victims of the fundamentalists, or in some cases, violence in action, are published on their website and magazine, along side reports by the RAWA members with details such as the date, time, names of victims, and perpetrators, etc. Digital cameras have made RAWA’s documentation much easier and also enabled RAWA to share the images of human rights violations more easily with an international audience via their website.

Videos of human rights abuses are circulated to news media and documentary film makers, and added to RAWA’s own archive. The most famous example of RAWA’s video documentation was the 1999 public execution of a woman named Zarmeena, by the Taliban in Kabul stadium. After 9/11, this video was viewed all over the world, despite the fact that it was more than 2 years old. When initially offered to news media in 1999, no one would touch the gruesome footage until it was politically convenient. The footage was also used in Saira Shah’s widely acclaimed documentary, Behind the Veil, which was re-aired repeatedly on CNN after 9/11.

The advent of the internet catapulted RAWA into the international like no other new technology. Wisely seeing the potential for international solidarity, and drawing world attention to a forgotten crisis, RAWA launched www.rawa.orgin late 1996. One member explained:

We never imagined the internet would bring such a positive result for us. It is very important and something that now we can’t imagine we could work without … At the time I remember it was kind of amazing. The first email from the US that we got, we all called each other to come see this and our eyes were so big… [3]

Most of the relations between RAWA and their international supporters have developed through their website and e-mail. I too first discovered RAWA through their website and wrote to them expressing my solidarity.

RAWA’s website is the perfect portal for them to express their political views and publish their documents while preserving the anonymity of their members. Additionally, large amounts of material can be published and archived with little additional cost.

While Payam-e-Zan is still RAWA’s primary outlet to reach the majority of Afghans – who live in a poor country with little internet access, RAWA’s website is the main method of communicating with the outside world.

Political Demonstrations

RAWA organizes public protests up to several times a year to mark various dates: March 8th, International Women’s Day; April 28th, the “black day” when the fundamentalists entered Kabul in 1992; and December 10th, International Human Rights Day. According to Brodsky, “demonstrations are one of the large-scale non-traditional ways that RAWA educates and enlightens people.” [4] They are usually held in Pakistan, as Afghanistan is still too dangerous. Thousands of women are bussed in from across the border to march with signs and banners. Sometimes the women carry sticks for self-defense, or are accompanied by male supporters who walk beside the march. The demonstrations often culminate in a rally in front of the United Nations Office in Islamabad and elsewhere.

One member of RAWA explains the importance of demonstrations:

When a demonstration happens, some in backward places can’t even think a woman can stage such a thing. Our mission is to change that mentality and let women know they are human beings and equal to men.[5]

RAWA’s demonstrations also highlight events in Afghan history that either are forgotten or have been re-written. For example, the bloody events of fundamentalist infighting and civil war that followed April 28th 1992 are resurrected each year on RAWA’s signs and placards.

The women in RAWA’s demonstrations march militantly with faces uncovered and fists in the air. Their signs are explicitly pro-democracy and anti-fundamentalist. As such, the public demonstrations also challenge pervading assumptions among Westerners who were obsessed by images of mute, burqa-clad, helpless looking Afghan women, after 9/11.

Organizational Structure and Decision making

While RAWA had adopted a committee structure from the beginning, their founder Meena operated as a de-facto President. Her tragic assassination in 1987 highlighted the organization’s vulnerability with having a high-profile “leader” who could be easily targeted. After Meena’s death, RAWA changed its structure so that no single member could assume a leadership role. Their goal was to “create a leadership structure that was democratic, collective, and as non-hierarchical as possible, thus promoting the equality and democracy that RAWA seeks for Afghanistan at large.” [6] This manifested itself in the form of a “leadership council” of 11 members. These members are elected every two years by the entire membership.

The election of the Leadership Council is to my knowledge, unique among “subversive movements.” Because of RAWA’s underground nature, its members are geographically dispersed and cannot communicate with one another frequently. Consequently there are no nominations or election campaigns. Members simply submit in writing 11 names of members that they think ought to comprise the Council. The top 11 vote-getters are then elected.

Leadership Council members simply continue in their daily functions as RAWA members, while taking on the responsibilities of that particular committee. They meet several times a year to oversee RAWA’s operations and author RAWA’s standpoints and statements in a way that reflects the membership’s sentiments by conferring with the spokespeople from all the underlying committees. Their names are never revealed outside the membership for security reasons. RAWA’s structure is consistent with their philosophy of the collective being more important than the individual.

The remaining RAWA members join any one of the following seven standing committees (see Appendix B). These are:

1. Education
2. Social (humanitarian)
3. Finance
4. Reports
5. Publications
6. Foreign Affairs
7. Cultural [7]

Each committee has a number of sub-committees focused on its various responsibilities. All committees, including the Leadership Council, are composed of an odd number of members to avoid deadlock in decision making.

Each committee has a “mas’ul” which is Persian for “responsible person.” The mas’ul functions like a spokesperson for the committee, to whom members can turn for mediation, or to make complaints. They are also responsible for communication between various committees. Brodsky elaborates: “Overall, RAWA’s committee structure can be thought of as having branches in which each mas’ul is the sole connection between the committees and members she is responsible for and the next level up in the committee structure.” This fosters the “relatively independent operation of each committee,” and ensures projects that are “locally responsive.” [8]

As any serious activist knows, committees cannot function without regular meetings, and RAWA members have their fair share of frequent meetings. One of RAWA’s most interesting type of meeting is a mechanism that enables them to deal with internal conflict: the “jelse entaqady” or “mistake meeting.” This is an “evaluation and correction mechanism that operates at all levels of the organization in order to facilitate RAWA’s distributed decision making style, and address mistakes, problems, and differences of opinion.” [9] Differences of opinion or disagreements are directly addressed with the people involved. The committee mas’ul is often a mediator in such meetings, and an odd number of attendees ensure that there can be no deadlock.

Secrecy is a huge factor in RAWA’s operations because of the dangerous nature of their work. As a result most members often know only a small number of other members personally at any given time. RAWA’s dispersed committee structure, and its members’ belief in the collective having more importance than the individual, ensures the organization’s continued functioning.

Only Afghan women based in Afghanistan or the refugee camps of Pakistan and Iran can be RAWA members. Men are not allowed to be members. However, many male relatives of RAWA members are dedicated to supporting the organization in any manner available to them. Male supporters often help with security at public events, escorting foreign supporters, passing out RAWA literature, etc.

What we can learn from RAWA

RAWA’s approach to activism is very practical and tailored to suit the needs of their situation. Their political vision is simple, yet adheres to some basic fundamental truths such as the universality of human rights and democracy. While this may make some Western leftist ideologues scoff, it is an approach that, at the very least, works in a country like Afghanistan which has lost so much and is struggling to preserve the most basic of rights.

However, RAWA’s simple political vision enables it to be flexible to situations as they arise. For example, RAWA does not denounce capitalism. Rather they call for “economic democracy.” This enables them to train women in marketable skills through their “income-generating projects.” The practical short-term goal of enabling economic independence for a poor struggling, often illiterate woman, is achieved in this manner. RAWA does not engage in micro-lending however, preferring to grant women the basic foundation they may need to start up an operation, free of charge.

RAWA’s organizational structure is also quite practical, having preserved the organization for nearly two decades after Meena’s death. Rather than strain to achieve some idealistic but impractical notion of absolute participatory democracy, they have instead conceived a structure that has limited hierarchy (the Leadership Council), which is outweighed by ample democracy through simple and functional elections and committee membership.

RAWA’s emphasis on the collective over the individual is also a philosophy worth aspiring to. Among Western activists we have seen an increasing tendency to valorize individual figures, at the expense of collective action.

Appendix A

RAWA’s Educational Policy, from www.rawa.org

We teach our students:

Recognition of these basic principles and values:

– Everyone must respect all human beings regardless of language, religion, race, color, etc.
– There is no difference between people; no human being is superior to any other because of class, color, language, race, or religion.
– All human beings do not have to think alike or live the same way.
– It’s to the benefit of society that all human beings live in peace, understanding, and harmony.

Religious Tolerance:

– Respect all religions and their followers.
– Understand that followers of all religions can live in harmony and peace.
– Do not discriminate against the followers of religious sects different from your own.
– Understand that religion is a private matter that cannot be forced on anyone else and nobody should be allowed to misuse it for any end, it must be kept separated from politics.
– Do not allow criminals in the future to dare to commit crimes in the name of religion, as did the Jahadis and Taliban.

Ethnic Tolerance:

– Respect all ethnic groups in Afghanistan.
– No ethnic group is superior to any other and no one should be allowed to look down on others.
– All members of all ethnic groups have the right to speak their own languages.
– Respect for each language means respect for the culture of those people who live in different regions and cities.
– Prevent ethnic divisions and the kind of conflicts that, unfortunately, today have reached their peak because it is practiced by the criminal fundamentalists.- To know the history of their own and other countries and about those who sacrificed their lives for freedom; set them as an example for themselves.

Gender Tolerance:
– No human being is better than any other because of gender; contrary to the belief of the fundamentalists who treat our women as cattle and represent them as mentally deficient.
– Avoid any kind of behavior that promotes gender apartheid.
– Invalidate antiquated myths stories or poetry wrapped with religious, traditional or cultural reasons that portray women as powerless and less equal than men.
Handicapped:
– Respect all people who have infirmity, whether physical, mental, or emotional.
– Promote a good relationship with the handicapped, and promote their involvement in society.
– Respect and promote the right of all children to live in harmony.

Environmental Sensitivity:
– Save mother earth with all its richness.
– Avoid using items that pollute the environment.
– Teach that animals have a right to live and avoid wanton killing; don’t kill them except for food purposes.
– Do not injure animals.
– Preserve animals that are endangered or threatened species.
– Preserve trees and jungles and don’t pollute the air and water.
– A culture of peace is not possible if it does not promote conservation of the environment.

Violence:
– Avoid harsh treatment of human beings and animals.
– Recognize the causes of anger and actively try to help diminish the causes.
– Never hurt any human being who is not going to hurt you.
– Recognize the execution and killing of human beings as unacceptable and cruel.
– Avoid words, programs, toys, entertainment, and movies that promote and glorify violence and anger.
– Promote an understanding that anger and the exercise of violence is not the first and only way of solving problems.

Core Values of Life:

– Encourage a respect for the value of life and implement them in their lives.
– Honesty, decency, simplicity, unity, love, patience, responsibility, happiness, respect, and help for others are the values of life that should be inculcated and practiced routinely by everyone.
– Encourage eagerness in understanding the ideas of others.

Family Values:
– Encourage respect for one’s own family and those of others.
– Promote the understanding that everyone, regardless of where they live (suburb, city, or our country), is part of the bigger family that we all belong to.
– Respect the wisdom and dignity of the elders in every family.

Partnership Values:
– Encourage listening to the ideas of others.
– Respect teamwork and focus on the success of common goals.
– Engage in the activities of others and involve others in one’s own activities.
– Avoid unilateral decision-making and imposing one’s will on the majority.
– Should not allow themselves to make decisions individually and impose them on others.

Freedom Values:

– Promote respect for the difference between human beings and an understanding that all human beings don’t have to think alike.
– Avoid pre judgment.
– Avoid anything that damages and debases the values of human beings.
– Respect freedom of thought and avoid imposing one’s ideas on others arbitrarily.
– Respect the freedom of all human beings.
– That freedom has real meaning only with justice and democracy.
– Teach the idea that freedom doesn’t exist without justice.

Individual rights:
– Encourage an understanding of one’s own rights.
– Understand human rights and respect them.

Peace Values:
– Encourage work for world peace and make peace a priority over conflict.
– Exercise love for human beings.
– Promote peace by learning other countries’ cultures, and learn that living in peace and harmony is the only right way for human beings.
– Understand that peace will come to our country only when there is no sign of Jahadi/Talibi fundamentalists as military, terrorist and troublemaker force.
– To never let Afghanistan, which today has become a field for dogfighting and bloodbaths, be a place for the monster like fundamentalists, Parchami and Khalqi traitors.

Appendix B

From Anne Brodsky’s “With All Our Strength” (p. 159)

[1] Anne Brodsky, With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, (New York: Routledge, 2003), p169.

[2] RAWA statement, Overthrow of Jihadi and Taliban Criminals is the Only Guarantee of Human Rights in Afghanistan, December 10, 1998, http://www.rawa.org/dec10-98.htm.

[3] Brodsky, p160.

[4] Brodsky, p110.

[5] Brodsky, p110.

[6] Brodsky, p153.

[7] Brodsky, p156.

[8] Brodsky, p157.

[9] Brodsky, p170.

The United States of Failure

Failed States Global Index What is a “failed state”? I never liked the label, since it is usually used to ostracize poor defenseless countries and provide excuses to invade them. But a recent Fund for Peace/Foreign Policy study suggests that some people are beginning to apply the label a bit more universally.

According to the study,

a failing state is one in which the government does not have effective control of its territory, is not perceived as legitimate by a significant portion of its population, does not provide domestic security or basic public services to its citizens, and lacks a monopoly on the use of force. [1]

In the 2006 ranking, some might be surprised to find, the US was actually ranked 18th from the bottom (“bottom” meaning least-failing state, in this case Norway). That is, the country that supposedly “promotes democracy” in “failed states” was considered to be in worse shape than Chile, Singapore, or Ireland. According to the study, a lot of this had to do with the US government response to Hurricane Katrina.

…Hurricane Katrina exposed gaping holes in the country’s disaster preparedness. Viewers around the world watched in astonishment last August and September as the world’s superpower left thousands of its citizens stranded for days.[2]

But Katrina can’t be the whole story, since the report also cited “Uneven Economic Development along Group Lines,” i.e., the huge wealth gap, “Mounting Demographic Pressures,” perhaps due to the influx of labor from across the border, and “widespread” human rights violations.

The study of course doesn’t go far enough, failing to comment on the fact that the United States, in addition to failing its own people, has been spreading state failure around the world, or at least contributing decisively to it. In the top ten failing states are Iraq (4th), Haiti (8th), Pakistan (9th), and Afghanistan (10th).[3] Two of these countries were invaded and occupied by US forces after 9/11 and endured a US-sponsored “regime change,” one is an ongoing victim of US “democracy promotion,” and the other is a longtime US ally against “terrorism.”

Many of us recall that the “failed state” label was often invoked when US policymakers needed a justification for intervention in the 1990s and after 9/11. I noticed it a lot around the invasion of Afghanistan. While the current situation in Afghanistan is not completely a product of post-9/11 US policy, many of the armed warlords and drug lords – who control much of the land and fill the parliament, making it difficult for the pseudo-democratic government to have any control – are a product of CIA programs of the 1980s and early 1990s. These same programs contributed to the rise of fundamentalism in bordering Pakistan, the CIA’s primary ally in building the Afghan resistance. Some of today’s major “state failures,” if they can be called that, are Washington’s.