Sonali Kolhatkar is a founding Director of the US-based solidarity organization, Afghan Women’s Mission, which raises funds for social and political women-led projects in Afghanistan. She is co-author of the book, "Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence". She is also the host and Executive Producer of Uprising, heard on KPFK Pacifica Radio.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Washington.
With the killing of 16 civilians in Afghanistan by an American sergeant, and whether or not there were more soldiers involved, it has certainly brought into focus once again the more fundamental issues of what is the U.S. doing in Afghanistan, what is the strategy, what is the plan to get out, and what do Afghans want, although I must say, in terms of the American media and most Western media, the last question, what Afghans want, is not addressed very often.
Now joining us to talk about that is Sonali Kolhatkar. She's a founding director of the U.S.-based Afghan Women's Mission, which raises funds for social and political women-led projects in Afghanistan. She's co-author of the book Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence. And she's the host and executive producer of Uprising, heard on KPFK Pacifica Radio. Thanks for joining us, Sonali.
SONALI KOLHATKAR, CO-DIRECTOR, AFGHAN WOMEN'S MISSION: It's my pleasure.
JAY: So when I talk to activists in Afghanistan about U.S. strategy, I hear different things, but certainly amongst one section of the activists I hear a very clear message, which is, one, they do want the U.S. out. But they do not want peace negotiations with the Taliban, which seems to be the U.S. strategy. So what do you make of that? And what do activists want in Afghanistan?
Sonali Kolhatkar addressing an anti-war protest in California.
KOLHATKAR: Well, I am very much in touch with, and on a, you know, close basis, with the members of the organization RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, which is the oldest women-led organization, women's organization in Afghanistan. And right from the start they were very clear, even before the 9/11 attacks, even before the U.S. war began in 2001, that they were against the Taliban, they were against the U.S.-backed fundamentalists who are now part of government. And they certainly didn't want a foreign occupation on their soil, however, to address these issues of fundamentalism through a war. And so that has not changed over the years.
And what Afghans, ordinary Afghans have been subjected to over the past ten years has been they get targeted from three different sides. You have the U.S. and NATO occupation on the one hand, which is conducting these night raids and killing civilians, the likes of which we just saw. And then you have the Taliban, who are only stronger because of the U.S. presence, because they have a great excuse to remain in Afghanistan. And then you have the U.S.-backed central government in Afghanistan, which is riddled with very corrupt and criminal warlords.
And what is happening is all of these three groups that are in power are negotiating among themselves for who gets power as the U.S. leaves. And Afghans that I talk to do not want the Taliban or the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance in power. With the U.S. troops withdrawn, it's one out of three forces that they have to—three forces fewer that they have to contend with. But that doesn't mean they want the Taliban or the Northern Alliance. What they want is peace. And you don't get peace by putting criminals who have weapons into power.
JAY: Now, part of the—I was in Afghanistan in the spring of 2002 making a film called Return to Kandahar, and I would say at that time, in the spring of 2002, most people were willing to give this thing a chance, that they wanted reconstruction and they thought that's what they were going to get. Instead, as we know, they got mostly militarization. But there is divisions in Afghan public opinion, and certainly there are some Afghans—and it's hard to tell numbers here and what polling really says—but they see the possibilities of civil war following an American withdrawal. So as much as they hate foreign occupation, the alternative doesn't look any better to them.
KOLHATKAR: And it's true. I mean, if we look at what happened when the Soviets withdrew in the early '90s, there was a brutal and bloody civil war, when the U.S. just turned its back after having funded this very extremist faction of the anti-Soviet resistance. And that civil war continued through 2001, when the—actually, through 1996 the Taliban came in, but were in power in most of the country.
And what we're seeing is the United States now basically saying that our presence means that there's going to be a lack of civil war, our presence is equivalent to peace, because if we leave, there's going to be even worse war. And I think what we're not getting here is that Afghans have been given very few options. The only options Afghans have ever been given in the last few decades is war versus foreign occupation. They've never been given the option of justice, real justice, of demilitarization. And so, when given the option of war versus foreign occupation, they may choose foreign occupation. Then again, if you look at the polling around the places where the U.S. is most active, where the night raids are most active, where just as in the camp where this horrific murder took—multiple murder took place, you see very different reactions. You see Afghans who are very much against the foreign occupation because they're bearing the brunt of the U.S. presence there. So they may choose the Taliban over the foreign occupation.
But think about the few choices, the terribly limited choices that Afghans are given. Why should they be given just those few choices? What about a choice where we see civil society that have women-led organizations, activist groups, ordinary secular organizations, as well as maybe Islamic groups that don't want to see fundamentalism in the government? When do they get to have a say? And why is it that we, the richest, most powerful country in the world, can't empower those organizations, those groups of people?
JAY: Well, is that what you'd like to see and is that what RAWA would like to see? Because that implies some kind of U.S. role for encouraging that.
KOLHATKAR: Well, it certainly would be a better role than the role the U.S. is playing now. And I think RAWA for years has been very much focused on the international community through the United Nations. At least ten years ago the United Nations had a little bit more backbone than it does now. The UN, if people remember, was replaced by NATO in the early part of the war.
But definitely RAWA would like to see justice. They have called for tribunals, Afghan-led criminal courts for these U.S.-backed warlords, as well as the Taliban, to be tried in. And, of course, we as Americans should be asking for our own warlords to be tried. But I think it's really important that we think about a future for Afghanistan that doesn't involve weapons, that doesn't involve fundamentalist, corrupt warlords or the Taliban.
And another part of the puzzle that everyone's missing is that there are regional politics at play here. You have Pakistan, which is supporting the Taliban for a reason—because they're worried about Indian influence on the U.S.-backed government. You've got Iran at play as well. And the U.S. could take a much more constructive role by addressing some of the regional concerns of its partners around Afghanistan, because that plays a big role. Even if the U.S. were to leave tomorrow, it doesn't mean that Pakistan would stop interfering in Afghanistan's affairs. And so I think that's really important for us, because these are supposed to be our allies, right? Pakistan is our ally.
JAY: Right. But the objective or vision you paint, how do you get there, in the sense that, you know, political power does come from guns right now? And to create some kind of real alternative, what is a process that gets there when all the other interested parties have many, many guns, and more than willing to use them?
KOLHATKAR: Absolutely. No, it's taken two decades of war to destroy Afghanistan. It's going to take two decades of a very complex process to rebuild Afghanistan if we actually believe that peace, justice, and demilitarization are goals. And getting there is the challenge.
Now, absolutely it's true that we can say—it's so much easier to just put the warlords in power. But we're talking about real lives here. If we care about the 16 people who were killed this week in our name, nine of them children, we have to care about the whole country. And, you know, the U.S. is saying this was the most—this was the deadliest intentional killing by a soldier of Afghan civilians. What about the so-called unintentional killings, which one can argue whether they're unintentional or not? Over the years, over the ten years of war, we've killed hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of Afghans directly through bombs and indirectly through other methods and our presences. And we have to—you know, that has to be what's at stake.
Of course it's a really complex procedure. And I don't have all the answers. RAWA has maybe part of the answer. They're on the ground there. But unless they get a voice in the matter, we're never going to see a future for Afghanistan that's beyond weaponry and violence and war. And I think that if we give up on Afghans, if we give up on Afghanistan, we're literally giving up on Afghans. And their blood is on our hands.
JAY: And is RAWA actually—what is their position? Do they call for just a complete U.S. withdrawal now?
KOLHATKAR: They have been calling for a U.S. withdrawal for a very long time, and they were very critical of the war right from the start. So they're very clear on that. They have been against the Soviet occupation right from the start, because they were founded just before the Soviets invaded. And they are against the U.S. occupation. They really believe that emancipation can only come from within, liberation can only come from inside Afghanistan.
JAY: Thanks for joining us, Sonali.
KOLHATKAR: My pleasure.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
More on RAWA: www.rawa.org