By Terry Glavin
«Peace at any cost.» Those were the exact words Afghan President Hamid Karzai used last week to describe the intent of a Taliban peace-talks plan that the UK, the US and Japan are pegged to bankroll as a new exit strategy from Afghanistan. British foreign secretary David Miliband must have winced.
Miliband prefers to describe the plan as kind of international trust fund. The idea is that Karzai might draw from it to bribe jihadist commanders out of the Taliban chain of command. It’s an attempt to find what Miliband calls the “the right balance of military muscle and political outreach,” but for Afghan feminists, secularists and democrats, the long, lingering dread of a squalid sell-out, all dressed up in the guise of peacemaking, is fast giving way to a gnawing, horrible fear.
«You cannot buy off your enemies,” Ahmad Zia Kechkenni, a senior adviser to Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai’s main challenger in last year’s fraud-riddled elections, told me the other day. “When your money is gone, they will go back to fighting.”
In Paris, London, Washington and Ottawa, in all the places where young Afghan progressives would expect to find their closest friends and allies, “peace” is the conceit that animates every conversation about Afghanistan. The words on all the protest placards are “troops out.” If Europe and the United States cook up a sordid sell-out, there will be no one to stand in its way.
“Troops out” is not what Afghans say, least of all those Afghans who you would think European liberals would be proud to call their friends. From one opinion poll to the next, Afghans have good moods, and sometimes they’re in bad moods, but Afghans are now the most studied people in all of Central Asia. What they think should not be unknown to us.
The latest poll shows that 61 per cent of the Afghan people support the recent U.S./NATO troop surge, and only five per cent blame the U.S. for the violence that wracks their country. While editorialists persist in rambling on about the legendary high dudgeon with which Afghans always meet foreign intrusions, only two per cent of the Afghan people cite «foreign influence» as the country’s biggest problem. Some 76 per cent say their government should negotiate with the Taliban only if the Taliban first stops fighting.
There was nothing extraordinary about the poll. The Afghan Center for Socio-Economic Research conducted its surveys throughout the country in the dying days of 2009, and its findings reflect the same kind of thing Afghans have been saying for years.
What Afghans say doesn’t count for much in “anti-war” circles. It never did. But if you ask, you will hear from Sima Samar, head of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission. “Nobody includes women in these negotiations, and that’s part of the problem.» That’s what Samar told me the last time peace talks were being mooted as an exit strategy. «Finish the job you started, “she said. “It is about the protection of humanity.”
You will find the same across the political spectrum. At the conservative end, Fatima Gailani, president of the Afghan Red Crescent Society, says: «Tomorrow, I don’t want to wake up and open my eyes and you are not there. It’s really scary.» Suraya Pakzad, a liberal democrat and founder of Afghanistan’s Voice of Women Organization, says a foreign troop withdrawal, any time soon, would be “devastating.» From a more left-wing perspective, Horia Mosadiq, Amnesty International’s resident Afghanistan expert, says foreign troops should recalibrate their victory metrics: “Instead of a meaningless focus on how many Taliban are killed or how many villages are cleared, international forces should measure their success by clear benchmarks in terms of how they’ve improved human rights.”
But these are not the Afghan voices we hear, and there are reasons why.
The one Afghan woman whose name is likely to be known in the fashionable parlours of the west is Malalai Joya. The BBC calls her “the bravest woman in Afghanistan.” Spain’s primetime 20 Minutos calls her «the world’s most beautiful female politician.” The claims she makes for herself: “I represent all the suffering people in every corner of my country,» and her own voice is “the voice of all Afghan women.” But what Joya says is exactly what the west’s isolationist intelligentsia wants you to hear: The Afghan people want all those imperialist soldiers to leave, the entire enterprise has been a fraud, a failure and a lie, troops out.
Joya became instantly famous in 2003. In a fiery speech to the Afghan parliament, she called her fellow MPs a pack of war criminals. Ever since, she’s been a fixture at anti-globalization protests and “anti-war” rallies, far from Afghanistan. Her recent memoir, ghostwritten by a Canadian “anti-war” activist, is earning hagiographic notices in the posh newspapers of Europe and North America, as well as in all the usual counterculture webzines. Her message: Troops out. Damn the consequences.
Joya has been conscripted to a project that requires a silencing of the voices of Afghanistan’s feminist mainstream and civil society majority. In the United States, Joya’s most active support base is Code Pink, which claims 250 chapters and 100,000 members. Like every other “anti-war” outfit, Code Pink has consistently and falsely claimed to champion the cause of Afghan women.
Code Pink was caught red-handed last October, when a reporter with the Christian Science Monitor witnessed an encounter between some outspoken Afghan women and a Code Pink propaganda-gathering delegation in Kabul. Shinkai Karokhail, a women’s rights activist and an Afghan MP, told Code Pink: «International troop presence here is a guarantee for my safety.» Said Masooda Jalhal, a former Afghan cabinet minister: «It is good for Afghanistan to have more troops – more troops committed with the aim of building peace and against war, terrorism, and [committed to provide] security – along with other resources.»
The controversy was short lived, even though the way that Code Pink manipulated the testimony it took from Afghan women was exposed in a six-part blog series written by Sara Davidson, one of the eight Code Pink delegates who travelled to Kabul. Code Pink published its report and submitted its petition in person to U.S. President Barack Obama: Troops out.
What will happen if Karzai’s “peace at any cost” formula gains traction in the world’s rich countries, if the “anti-war” movement prevails and NATO countries grow weary of it all and decide to concentrate only on Al Qaida, and leaving Afghanistan to the men in black turbans? Says Wazhma Frogh, a young Afghan human rights activist: “The answer to that question will be a life-or-death matter, for many thousands of women in my country, and men as well.”