CounterPunch, March 2, 2004
Afghanistan: The Liberation That Isn't
An Interview with "Mariam" from RAWA
By RA RAVISHANKAR
While Iraq continues to hog the headlines, Afghanistan has slipped beyond the mainstream media's radar screen.
In a region of ever-changing allegiances, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan has won wide support and respect for its principled anti-fundamentalist stance. On the current state of affairs in "liberated" Afghanistan, let's hear from a RAWA representative, who, for security reasons, will only be identified by her pseudonym Mariam.
1) How long have you been associated with RAWA? How did you join?
I joined RAWA as an active member in 1996. Before that, I was raised in a RAWA orphanage and school. I left my country and took refuge in Pakistan after my father was killed fighting the Soviet invasion. Since 1996, I've been working in Pakistan and, sometimes, also inside Afghanistan. I've also represented RAWA in meetings and speaking tours in European countries, Brazil, Japan, South Africa, etc. Currently, I am a member of the Cultural Committee of RAWA and (am) active in publishing magazines and booklets and organizing functions and demonstrations.
2) On Nov. 17, 2001, the U.S. First Lady Laura Bush proclaimed: "Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment." Two years later, human rights organizations and news reports paint an entirely different picture. Amnesty International quotes an international NGO worker as saying: "During the Taliban era, if a woman went to market and showed an inch of flesh, she would have been flogged. Now she's raped." Is this an accurate depiction of reality? Are the much publicized human rights victories entirely delusional?
Actions speak louder than words. Fundamentalists are fundamentalists, no matter where, which religion they belong to or defame and whatever name they might bear. Both the Northern Alliance and the Taliban are very similar in their nature and actions; they are two sides of the same coin. The Jehadi forces, which are now called the NA, are but a bunch of fanatics that were powered by America during the anti-Russian resistance. The puppets have since turned masters and destroyed our country to the extent possible.
At the end of the Russian puppet regime, under the NA's rule between 1992 and 1996, Afghanistan resembled nothing but a hell where destruction, killings, looting, rapes and suicides were rampant. It was the NA who first -- even before the Taliban -- banned education for women, destroyed hospitals, schools, educational institutions, museums and cinema halls. They were the first who banned women from going out and imposed the veil on them. If Hitler had been alive, even he would have exclaimed, "Alas ... I didn't know these new methods of torture." Pakistani General Akhtar Abdul Rehman ordered, "Kabul must burn." And the NA criminals did just that, burning our country and destroying its entire moral and material fabric.
If a crime race is arranged, the Taliban and the NA will both emerge winners. Replacing one monster with another can't guarantee a better life because Afghanistan needs political change, a systemic change rather than a change of dictators. The U.S. and British first ladies tried to project the bombardment of Afghanistan as benefiting Afghan women, but the entire world knew that it was a punishment given to the puppets by the masters and nothing else.
3) I assume it was impossible -- for security reasons -- for RAWA to have participated in the Loya Jirga (a grand council of tribal elders and representatives).
The changes expected by the rest of the world, but not by RAWA, have not materialized. We still look forward to the day when we would be able to work in a much more open political environment, but such a day won't come if fundamentalist domination prevails. The rule of the NA poses a grave danger to RAWA and others struggling for democratic secularism, so we still cannot appear under the banner of RAWA. However, this cannot stop our work and from influencing activity in such important and historical gatherings as the Jirga.
4) The Loya Jirga includes three of the worst criminals -- Burhanuddin Rabbani, Abdul Sayyaf and Abdul Dostum -- and several of their henchmen. In June 2002, when the Jirga met to set up a provisional government, one delegate aptly called it a "commanders' council" and Human Rights Watch concluded that the whole exercise had only strengthened the warlords. In December 2003, a similar farce was enacted, only this time to approve a new constitution. The Chairperson of the convention got away with proclaiming women to be half of men and branding some delegates (who advocated removal of the word "Islamic" from "Islamic republic") "infidels". On the contrary, when the courageous Malalai Joya accused some of her fellow delegates as criminals and said they "should be tried in national and international courts," she was almost thrown out of the convention. With the criminals once again having their way, has the Jirga fallen in public esteem? Has any good come of this farcical exercise?
We have always asserted that unless the domination of fundamentalist elements ends, there cannot be any hope for political change and stability in Afghanistan. Criminals' being in power is for sure a source of hopelessness for Afghanis.
The proceedings of the Loya Jirga proved it to be anything but a free and democratic grand assembly. What transpired there only proved the claims of democratic forces like RAWA, who from their steadfast anti-fundamentalist position have been exposing the real nature of these criminals. However, sick and tired of wars and instability, our people had put all their hopes in the Jirga. They are now a disappointed lot, though the presence of brave delegates like Malalai Joya gives some hope.
Also, conditions in Afghanistan have changed a little. Earlier, the two fundamentalist forces (NA and Taliban) used to hold all aces, but now, democratic forces have sneaked in. Though in a minority and suppressed by the fundamentalists, their mere presence is cause for some hope. Of course, the presence of fundamentalists will surely affect the process of democratization of Afghanistan, particularly if they gain international support as in the past.
5) In the last few years, the foreign powers seemed more interested in a rapprochement between the Taliban and the NA rather than holding them accountable for their various war crimes. Needless to say, this was also a clear thumbs down to Afghan civil society. How did this affect the activist landscape in Afghanistan?
A few people might have lost hope and diverted others from their struggle, but this can't lead to a general decrease of steadfastness in defending human rights. As those who believe in themselves and have faith in the nobility of their aims, we know very well that struggle for the cause of democracy in a country like Afghanistan -- which is in a worse state than Hitler's concentration camps -- is no less than a revolution. If not attained democratically, it might lead to the necessity of armed struggle.
RAWA does not ask the foreign powers to come and "liberate" us. As an Afghan saying goes, "if you can't do something good for us, please don't do us any bad." We strongly believe that no foreign power can or would want to liberate us unless we ourselves fight for freedom and democracy. Foreign support can only facilitate this process. Also, when we ask the world community for help, we mainly count on people everywhere to put pressure on their respective governments to stop meddling in our country's affairs. We have always maintained that there is a huge difference between people and governments of countries. For instance, while we have suffered from the pro-fundamentalists policies of the U.S. government for several decades, we have received generous moral and material support from the U.S. people for which we are always thankful.
6) The consequences of appeasing the criminals are obvious, but there have been frequent calls for 'moderation' (a euphemism for appeasement), often from unexpected quarters. In November 2002, Daria Fane, the U.S. State Department's coordinator for Afghanistan Women's Issues had the gall to say, "It is better to have warlords in the government rather than outside, causing mayhem." Last year, after Malalai Joya's brave comments at the Loya Jirga, Faitana Gailani, founder of the Afghan Women's Council (an NGO purportedly working for women's rights), advised restraint. She advocated suppressing such uncomfortable facts "till we are strong, till the country is strong, till our democracy is strong, till women's situation in this country is strong." RAWA has also been variously accused of being confrontational, being fiercely judgmental and being very westernized. While the elite in Afghanistan and outside are fixated with "reconciliation" and "alliance building", there does seem to be considerable public support for bringing the criminals to justice. For instance, when Malalai Joya returned from the Loya Jirga to her village, she was welcomed by a cheering crowd of about 10,000 people. Does the conciliatory position (toward the criminals) adopted by the elite reflect Afghani public opinion at large?
RAWA's 26 years of struggle, be it against the Soviet puppet regime or other Jehadis or Taliban, has shown that the only way to obliterate the fundamentalists is through a decisive and irreconcilable struggle against fundamentalism. Some women who have relations with these criminals raise misgivings that can only strength the warlords. RAWA's uncompromising stance is also questioned, but this doesn't concern us. What does matter is that our stance is well received and accepted by the majority of our innocent Afghanis, who have borne much pain in the last few decades.
A few words by Joya aroused a lot of passion among people all over Afghanistan and her shorter then two minutes speech made her a heroin. Why? Because she said something that was from the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, something they knew all along but were only too frightened to openly talk about. In Afghanistan, anyone who dares to bare the truth is silenced and threatened to death; the reaction of the fundamentalists in the Loya Jirga against Joya was very typical. They ask our people to forget their past and present and accept them their rulers!
RAWA has always maintained that compromising with fundamentalists would only make them more rabid and strong. If only there were a few more voices like Joya and RAWA, the fundamentalists would have never been in a position to openly try to silence Joya in the Loya Jirga. There has never been such a strong and open opposition to them, so when a woman raises her voice, they regard it as a warning and act menacingly so as to desist others from following Joya.
As the sole anti-fundamentalist voice of the Afghan women, we have pledged to expose and condemn the murderous and rapist Jehadi and Taliban in anyway and place possible; for we know that the eyes of our mournful people are watching us. RAWA will not for a moment give up its struggle for freedom, democracy, secularism and women's rights in fundamentalism-blighted Afghanistan. We will continue our committed pledge to tell the truth, even if this pledge requires us to pay a high price. Telling the truth is always revolutionary, and we will remain revolutionary forever.
Daria Fane's comments are exactly the same as that made by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robin Raphel in 1996: "if we wish them (Taliban) to moderate their policies, we should engage with them". We condemned her remarks then (http://www.rawa.org/raphel.htm), and the U.S. government still continues to rely on criminals rather than the Afghan people. On April 27, 2002, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld praised warlord Ismail Khan as an "appealing person, thoughtful, measured and self-confident." A more accurate portrayal was given by Human Rights Watch which called Khan an "enemy of human rights in the west of Afghanistan" and stated that it was Iran and the U.S. which had placed Khan in such a position. It is indeed very strange that even those who clearly see the warlords as the main obstacle to peace and stability in Afghanistan still want them to be in power.
We firmly believe that the Taliban and NA warlords must be dislodged. The emergence of "moderate" elements among them will not last long; even the "moderates" are also so rotten that one cannot compare them to, say the "reformist" or "moderates" in the Iranian regime. Instead, they would only serve to perpetuate the horrible tyranny through deceit.
7) Far from doing anything to curb the influence of the warlords and the fanatics, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has sought to make peace with them. He nominated their worst specimens -- Dostum to the Loya Jirga and an ally of the dreaded and reviled Sayyaf as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court -- to influential positions. The Taliban's Department of Vice and Virtue has reappeared as the Ministry of Religious Affairs and married women have been debarred from schools. The Ministry of Women's Affairs exists but only on paper. And the list goes on. Did Karzai's appeasement of the criminals stem from a realization of his very tenuous position at the top -- some reports have it that he didn't have much support from the warlords and the Loya Jirga delegates and wouldn't have been elected President but for considerable U.S. pressure?
You are right, this is the point that we have always condemned him for. RAWA statement on March 8, 2002 read: "Mr Karzai, not a fundamentalist himself, has a history of colluding and hobnobbing with Burhanuddin Rabbani and his band, and has therefore deluded himself into thinking that putting up with the criminals he has around him and honoring arch-warlords like Rabbani would bring him political dividends. Unfortunately he either does not know or does not want to know that his key ministers are perpetrators of heinous crimes against our people - infamies which are manifold times more unpardonable and inexpiable than those of the Taliban. Mr Karzai can rest assured that the Rabbani gang he has around him, having already had a taste of a number of years of power and government and unfettered drug trafficking and legendary hoarding of wealth under the cloak of diplomatic immunity, will never be content with the simple usurpation of key government posts. They will bide their time to once again seize undivided and uncontested power." Also see our statement "Don't be Afraid Mr Karzai! Target the Sharks Not the Fish!" on http://www.rawa.org/karzai.htm.
This is the main reason Karzai is losing his credibility among the Afghan people. The U.S. government is also to blame since he is only doing their bidding. If he becomes President again, it could only be because he is the United States' chosen man and also because our people don't have a better alternative now. Our civil society has been brutally suppressed in the past 25 years and is only starting to re-emerge; till the emergence of a strong democratic alternative, Karzai and his like might collect the vote of people.
8) Does the new constitution have any provisions that guarantee women's rights?
I won't go into details of what the new constitution might have for our women and our nation at large, what is important is whether the laws -- not sufficient and up to demand -- get implemented. Given the lawlessness of the last three decades, this is the primary concern of every Afghani. A failure to implement the semi-democratic articles of the constitution would only bring more misery for our long suffering nation.
9) The new constitution confers strong powers for the President; has Karzai shown any promise so far that one could justifiably hope his widely expected re-election (in the elections scheduled for later this year) to herald a new era of peace with justice?
In the past 3 years, Mr. Karzai has make many promises to people but did nothing tangible, so people now make fun of his promises. However, having suffered from different criminal regimes, the Afghanis are now willing to vote for anyone who could promise them relative peace and justice. And the absence of a strong democratic force in Afghanistan has made Karzai a better option over the Jehadi parties. Moreover, Karzai's re-election would not be determined so much by the vote he gets than the fact that he enjoys strong American support.
10) The new constitution proclaims Afghanistan to be an Islamic republic. Do you think this reflects the majority opinion? As a long-time votary of a secular state, do you consider secularism to be a prerequisite to a successful democracy?
A large number of delegates in the Loya Jirga advocated removing the word "Islamic" (from "Islamic republic"), but the Jirga's chief rejected this without any discussion. Despite the fact that the majority of Afghanis are Muslims, they were not in favor of naming Afghanistan as an "Islamic Republic." Both the Jehadi and Taliban misused Islam as an oppressive tool, and our people are fed up by those who talk about Islam but inflict brutalities.
The U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Khalilzad's influence in the Loya Jirga was very clear. A majority of our people feel that the naming of Afghanistan an Islamic state is an American seal of approval to the fundamentalists. The U.S. Government intervened when its interests were at stake, so it could have also easily insisted on a secular state. But it didn't.
In our opinion, secularism and democracy are two sides of the same coin. Democracy without secularism is incomplete. And the new name ("Islamic Republic") will give nothing positive to our people but will give an extra excuse to fundamentalists to suppress our people under the guise of Islam. Only a few days after the Loya Jirga, warlord Ismail Khan in Herat province announced that since Afghanistan is an Islamic state, he will turn his province into a real Islamic place by removing any un-Islamic phenomenon. His actions included putting more pressure on women.
11) A new law banning head-scarves in public places has been enacted in France. Would you support a similar measure in Afghanistan?
I won't go for a generalization on this issue. France is a country with very different conditions, culture and lifestyle. Judging their conditions while sitting here might lead me to conclude this as a not-so-democratic change. On the other hand, when I remember the dress code imposed on our women, I dream of such a law in my country.
That said, I don't think scarves and burkas are the main problem for women, or that they play a vital role in their emancipation. Women are deprived of many more vital rights. Besides, such laws might provoke negative reactions as it did in our country. In the 1920s, when King Amanullah's modern policies strayed too far from the cultural and social setup of then Afghan society, certain fanatic elements used it as an opportunity to cash on the public cultural and religious resentment.
12) When international governments and bodies were collaborating with criminal groups, did you receive support from any NGOs and mass movements?
Since the anti-Russian movement began in Afghanistan, different governments and organizations drew their attention to Afghanistan for their vested interests. Unfortunately, the Islamic parties were the prime beneficiaries. The West never thought of the consequences that their aid would bring, they only wanted to pose a threat to the Soviet army.
RAWA has also had wide support -- though not financial -- from many mass movements. With the income from selling handicrafts and informational packets produced in our centers, and membership fee and donations from our supporters all over the world, we run various projects for women and children in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Though individual supporters provide the bulk of our financial support, we've also received support from a few groups. V-Day ["a global movement to end violence against women and girls"], for instance, has provided us with material and moral support in the past few years.
13) I assume your refugee camps are based primarily in Pakistan and you have the support of some prominent human rights activists including Asma Jehangir. However, given the Pakistan government's cordial ties with the Taliban and your strongly anti-Taliban stance, how/why did it allow you to establish a base there?
We have faced many problems in Pakistan over the last two decades primarily due to our strong stand against the fundamentalism-fostering policies of the Pakistan government. Our leader and her two aides were assassinated in Pakistan by KHAD [Afghanistan branch of the KGB, Soviet secret service agency] and fundamentalist agents of the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan's secret service agency]. Our demonstrations have been brutally attacked by the Jehadis and the Taliban. Some of our assets have been confiscated by the Pakistani authorities. Most of our activists in Pakistan are under constant surveillance, our phones are tapped, and our project members are frequently investigated. The ISI has repeatedly warned us NOT to condemn the Taliban. And recently, they were pressurizing us not to say anything against Gulbuddin Hekmatyar [an NA 'leader'], Masoud [an NA warlord], and other "Jehadi leaders." Early last year, a woman minister in General Musharraf's cabinet warned our representative -- who had gone to seek her help for releasing our shipment that had been confined for months in the Customs -- that RAWA is an illegal organization that needs to be traced by concerned Pakistani authorities.
RAWA can hold demos in Pakistan only due to the courage of its supporters, who operate at the risk of being subjected to attacks, being wounded and even shot by the fundamentalist terrorists. Almost all our demonstrations have been staged without permission, for we knew the authorities would never allow us to hold any rally against their Jehadi or Taliban puppets. That we actually hold anti-fundamentalist demonstrations in Pakistan distinguishes us from groups affiliated overtly or covertly with Jehadis or Taliban.
Despite this, Omaid, a weekly published by the NA in the US, accused RAWA of being ISI agents. We held our first ever demonstration in Peshawar against the Jehadi traitors when they were the blue-eyed boys of the ISI; the Taliban hadn't emerged then. So how is it possible that the ISI installs the fundamentalist bands in Kabul, but at the same time likes RAWA to condemn them as traitors and terrorists? Ironically the slanderers themselves admit that RAWA members "shout anti-Pakistani slogans!" The farce continues to the extent that our demonstrators are attacked by the fundamentalists while the police are watching, and participants become seriously wounded and hospitalized! To the Omaid slanders, we responded: "We don't want to moan or implore, but would like to say that nobody can understand our hardships in Pakistan unless she/he spends some time with us or herself/himself is engaged in tangible anti-fundamentalist activities for even a short period. They'll come to know how ISI has created some Afghan women's and cultural organizations in Pakistan to overshadow RAWA and use them against RAWA."
The Pakistan government cannot directly attack a democratic women's organization as it will negate the democracy they claim of. While this affords us certain minimal protection, we still work semi-underground due to the presence and influence of fundamentalist elements in the Pakistan government. We have never been able to open an office here in Pakistan due to security threats.
However, as the sole anti-fundamentalist voice of Afghan women, we accept any consequences of our fight against the murderous and rapist Jehadi forces and the Taliban. And there are thousands of Afghanis and others who sympathize with us.
14) What is the general opinion among the Afghanis about the United States? How has the United States' cluster bombing of children and innocents and legitimization of the warlords gone with the public?
The majority of Afghanis see the U.S. government as the main source that channeled money and arms to the Islamic fundamentalists who have since then laid everything to ruin and committed heinous crimes against women and men. The U.S. government and Pakistan were the only forces behind the creation of the Taliban. At present, Afghanis know very well that the U.S. aid assistances are serving its long term strategy in Afghanistan.
Why have the Afghanis not risen against the U.S. forces as they did against the Soviets? The answer is simple: Afghanis have been crushed by 25 years of war and are now controlled by very powerful criminal parties. So they welcome anyone that could guarantee their existence. In the present situation, the Afghanis know that the presence of the U.S. troops can stop another civil war in Afghanistan and if the leave even for a day, the warlords will again start a reign of terror and repeat the dark days of 1992-96 when they were in power.
15) There's a long history of foreign interference in Afghanistan, with consequences almost always disastrous. In 1929, a British-inspired coup put an end to the progressive reign of king Amanullah. In July 1979, U.S. President Jimmy Carter authorized military aid to the now reviled 'Islamic' fanatic opponents of the pro-Soviet Afghan regime. In December 1979, the former USSR invaded Afghanistan and installed a reformist-cum-repressive puppet regime. In the 1990s, the "lackey-breeding policies of Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Uzbekistan and the United States" ensured continuous misery for the Afghanis. And now, far from learning from the Taliban fiasco, the United States continues to arm and fund the Northern Alliance warlords. Given the history of warlord-appeasing by international governments and even the United Nations, do you support calls for expanding the International Security Assistance Force"? If not, what is the way forward?
It is true that Afghanis have proudly opposed any external intervention that threatened their sovereignty. They fought the mighty USSR and liberated their land at great human costs, but their freedom was snatched by the Islamic fundamentalists. The Jehadi parties and their Taliban brethrens committed such unparalleled crimes that people soon proclaimed, "28th April is darker than 27th April" (27th April is the day Russia installed its puppet regime in Kabul and 28th April is when the Jehadi parties took power). The Afghanis have now come to a situation where they welcome any force who could free them from the fetter of the fundamentalists. This was the reason they welcomed the ISAF with flowers. They knew if Kabul was not controlled by a foreign peace keeping force, the NA would again fight for power.
16) Despite successive U.S. governments not being helpful to the women's cause in Afghanistan, support from the American public has been forthcoming, at least after 9/11. What is your message to them?
First of all, we send our gratitude to all great American people for their generous help and support to the Afghanis, particularly women. Afghanis draw a red line between the American governments and its people; we believe that successive U.S. governments have backed very anti-democratic forces in Afghanistan. Our message to all American people is to extend their support to freedom-loving Afghanis and pressurize their government not to let the fundamentalist forces seize power again.
Ra Ravishankar is a student at the University of Illinois.