Letter from the Road #37

Path of the Friend

Elizabeth Rabia Roberts


Confessions of a Peace Activist


Kabul: armed guards, machine guns and sand bags at every intersection and at the door to my guest house – open sewers and fecal dust – traffic jams of SUVs, military convoys, bicycles and pedestrians – six-story buildings amidst crumbling houses and filthy refugee encampments – men, lots of men everywhere, and street children. The women on the streets are conservatively dressed (no skin showing) with big scarves. About a quarter of them wear the signature blue head-to-toe burqa.

I have come to Kabul because I want to experience for myself what is happening here, eight years after the U.S. ousted the Taliban. I have spent the past 40 years of my life protesting war and working for peace in conflict areas. I don’t believe that killing leads to peace.

I came here as part of a small peace delegation of mostly women who share my conviction that President Obama must not send more troops and should set a timeline for withdrawal of the 60,000 that are here.

But now – after seven intense days and nights of interviews and meetings in Kabul – I no longer have that conviction.

The best path to peace may not be the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops. And since the troops here now are not able to provide enough security for the Afghans to rebuild their country, it is possible more troops may be needed.

It shocks me to admit this. But the voices I have heard – local and international NGO workers, reconciliation activists, ex-Taliban members, warlords, women in homeless shelters and in governmental positions – clearly do not want a withdrawal of troops now.  They are under attack. The great majority of the people I listened to – not all but the great majority – feel that additional troops are necessary to train a viable Afghan army and a national police force and to secure the country so that development projects can proceed. Yes, we should have accomplished those goals by now, but we have not.

Dr. Soraya, a dedicated and hopeful Afghan physician who is Commissioner for Women’s Rights, told us, “If the international troops leave Afghanistan now it could be a humanitarian disaster. There will be chaos and rape again.”

Leading Questions
I am not the only one in our delegation who had to confront this disparity between our pre-convictions and the reality we found. This disparity became a serious tension in our group.

After the second day of appointments, with most of the Afghans we met expressing support for the presence of troops, one of the leaders of our delegation said, “I don’t like what I am hearing.” So she changed her style of questioning. For example, when she asked, “Do you want the troops to leave?” the answers she received were mostly “No.” So she began asking questions like, “Do you want development and jobs, or do you want that money spent on more troops?” Sure enough, more people began to say they wanted “Jobs not war.” This was the sound-bite she wanted.

In my younger days as a social researcher for national-scale projects, I learned a great deal about survey questioning. You can get the answer you’re looking for by limiting the options presented in the question. A more accurate approach is to formulate questions that are essentially open-ended, questions that do not in themselves limit the field of the answer.

So when I asked the same people, “Do you feel Afghanistan can develop economically and socially at this time without military security?”  the answer was “No. We need an army. The coalition forces must stay and train an army of 250,000 Afghans. Until that happens we need U.S. troops to secure the border with Pakistan so the Taliban stop coming and going from their training camps there.”

I came to Kabul to listen and learn, and to report back home what I witnessed. While I respect the heart values of those of my colleagues who insist on reporting only Afghan voices that support their position, I feel the simplicity of sound bites like “No more troops” risks misleading the American people about their responsibility to the people of Afghanistan and about how their own security interests are intertwined in the region.

A Snapshot of Three Decades of War
America is not an innocent bystander to the situation in Afghanistan (and neither is Britain, Russia, Pakistan, or Iran.) Over the past thirty years American policies have shown an appalling lack of long-range thinking as well as arrogance and ignorance about the cultural and political forces at play in the region.

In 1979, Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan to bolster a faltering communist government.  Blinded by cold war rhetoric, the CIA spent the next ten years funding and arming an indigenous insurgency called the mujahedeen (Mr. Wilson’s War). So the U.S. couldn’t be called to account, these funds were moved through the Pakistan intelligence services (the ISI) who served their own needs by directing arms and money to the most fundamentalist of the Islamic warlords involved, slowly freezing out the moderate and nationalist leaders. When the Soviets withdrew in 1989, the U.S. breathed a sigh of relief and promptly forgot about Afghanistan.

With 1.5 million Afghans killed in the war and 4 million more banished to squalid refugee camps, the country was in disarray. But the mujahedeen militias divided along tribal lines had become accustomed to fighting and the thrill of living near death. Almost as soon as the mujahedeen took over, rivalries exploded into civil war. Armed with the weapons we supplied them they plunged the country into another devastating six years of war.

Many Afghans welcomed the “talibs” as they poured out of their conservative madrassas over the border from Pakistan and offered to put an end to the chaos. But the Taliban victory was soon its own scourge on the people of Afghanistan. They imposed severe social and religious sanctions on the populace, and welcomed the money and recruits that came from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan with the express purpose of challenging Western-style civilization.

Three weeks after 9/11, American forces attacked Afghanistan. Three months later the Taliban had melted away. Obsessed with cultivating war with Iraq, we left the job in Afghanistan unfinished – with inadequate security force, little money for reconstruction, and little attention to the growing drug trade that was funding renewed terrorist activities. The Taliban and Al Qaeda moved to Pakistan to regroup, recruit, and then returned to destabilize the provincial and national governments of Afghanistan.

Americans are now tired of the “war of choice” in Iraq. Faced with enormous domestic problems, Americans understandably want to be rid of the Afghan problem once again. After 8 years of misguided bombing raids to “kill Taliban” who are living in villages surrounded by civilians, we have created a new multi-headed enemy.

Today the Taliban are different from the original fundamentalists who waged a war in the name of Islam. According to the director of the Peace and Reconciliation process in Kabul “only about 10% -15% of Taliban are ideologically motivated today.” The rest are a combination of poor villagers angry at U.S. bombing, out of work youth, former militia, drug smugglers, plain thugs and those from the countryside who distrust any national government no matter whose it is. “Most of them,” the director told us, “if offered money, land, jobs and personal security would put down their weapons and come in.”

You Break It, You Own It
Why is this mess our problem? Why should the boys and girls from Indiana and Texas who I talked with at Edgar Military Base in Kabul come here to risk their lives for the security of these people? Why? Because the U.S. has been intimately involved in creating this mess, and we have a moral responsibility to these people to help clean it up. And in terms of our own self-interest, if we turn our back on Afghanistan now it will almost certainly come back to haunt us.

What does “clean it up” mean? It means we have to do many, many things differently from how we have been doing over the past 30 years. In my next letter I will try to outline a few of these courses of action.

Many analysts say the U.S. is using the war on terrorism as an excuse to expand its military power in order to access resources throughout this region. This may be true. After 40 years of peace activism it is hard to trust the military establishment and the industry behind it. Basically I don’t. Yet I know if the international forces leave Afghanistan now without securing the country, there will be a great deal more violence here and it will very likely spread beyond these borders.

Consider the alternatives. Without an international military presence there is a good chance that money and influence from neighboring Pakistan, Russia, Uzbekistan, Iran – not to mention Saudi Arabia – will plunge the country back into civil war. Then there is the enormous success of the illegal heroin trade in the region since the U.S. invasion. Today in the south of the country, drug production and transport pays the bills and cements the loyalties of hundreds of tribal chieftains who are involved in the trade. This could easily become a narco-state funneling half of its profits to terrorist groups around the world.  Two other options are a successful Taliban victory establishing another repressive, woman-hating, terrorist-supporting regime fueled by drug money, or maybe simply a failed state in perpetual war, continuously destabilizing the whole region. Any of these outcomes would stimulate an increase in Islamist militancy and global terrorism.

The Dilemma of the Peace Activist
Peace workers are against violence. We protest all war. Military adventurism and the pervasiveness of the military–industrial complex appall us. I liked it better when I knew what the moral high ground in Afghanistan was – troop withdrawal – but my experience from this intense week in Kabul has given me pause.

I feel we have to admit a terrible truth: the standard anti-war position of “bring the troops home now” is in itself a violent policy. It will precipitate extreme violence. The opposite position – maintaining current troop levels, or adding more – also means more violence. But after all that has happened, the U.S. has a responsibility to help Afghans fashion a sovereign country capable of human decency.

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