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PART 1 - Confessions of a Dove in Afghanistan
There was no stopping us, even though the State Department issued a warning against travel to Afghanistan because of “an ongoing threat to kidnap and assassinate Americans.” We were a group of eight women and one man organized by Code Pink, Women for Peace, and we arrived in Kabul believing the U.S. should withdraw its troops and spend more money on development.
After eight days, our presumptions were turned upside down, splitting us into camps with conflicting opinions. Some still wanted an exit strategy, but one woman who’s spent 40 years in non-violent peace work reversed her lifelong stand, believing the military should stay and more troops might be helpful. “It shocks me to admit this,” she said.
What happened to this group in Kabul -- how our ideas changed or resisted change -- reflects how and why people in living rooms and offices are struggling with the issue: do we commit or get out?
I’d never been to a war zone before and never participated in a Code Pink action. I signed up for the trip after reading that men were attacking Afghan girls on their way to school by spraying acid in their faces. I called Jodie Evans, a founder of Code Pink, whom I’d know since our kids were in pre-school together. “Is your group doing anything to support Afghan women and girls?” I asked. “I’m organizing a trip,” she said.
Code Pink was founded in 2001 to protest the invasion of Iraq. It now has 250 chapters and 100,000 members, who’re known for their nerve and in-your-face tactics. At a White House demonstration, women pulled off their shirts revealing peace doves on their bras and words written on their stomachs with black marker: “Read my tits: No War in Iraq.” I was nervous they’d do something flamboyant in Kabul but Jodie assured me they would dress and act “respectfully.”
A month before we were to leave, suicide bombs and a rocket exploded in Kabul, days before the election. I panicked, but Jodie said she didn’t think Kabul would be more dangerous than New York city. For weeks I felt I was on my way to be killed, or worse, paralyzed, blinded or brain injured. Every moment became heightened: watching my daughter play piano, walking through a field of aspens. I would think, this could be the last time I hear my daughter play, or see aspens turning gold.
Friends asked why in hell I was going to a place where two New York Times reporters had been kidnapped and hundreds of Americans killed? I didn’t know, but something kept pulling me to commit. At times I would think, I can’t handle this, I won’t go, but then the world went flat and gray as it does when one “refuses the call,” as Joseph Campbell describes it. Finally there was a moment when I simply knew I had to go and felt a keen instinct that no harm would come to our group.
When we all introduced ourselves at the Dubai airport, Jodie, 55, who has natural flaming red hair and wears pink earrings with peace signs, said terror had come over her a few days before, despite the insouciance she’d expressed to me. “I’ve got white knuckles,” she said, “but I had to come. It’s the eighth anniversary of the U.S. invasion and I need to see--what’s the result?”
Our group must have looked like a cougar team: the women were mostly in their 50s and 60s and the guy was 39. The women included a gynecologist, lawyer, photographer, teacher and a former army colonel. The lone male, Paul Kawika Martin, is political director of Peace Action and wanted to come because, he said, “I learn more from experience than anything else.”
We’d been told to arrive wearing plain dark clothes that cover the head, arms and buttocks. But Medea Benjamin, 57, who founded Code Pink with Jodie, showed up in a purple short sleeve blouse and pink t-shirt. “Some people have a problem following directions,” she said.
Medea is like the quick brown fox who jumps over the lazy dog. Small, blonde and wiry with lively brown eyes and an aquiline nose that lends her face a sense of forward motion, she’d been to Afghanistan twice since 9/11 and witnessed so much tragedy that she hadn’t wanted to return. “I changed my mind when I saw people were turning against the war and there was an opening to talk about it,” she said.
* * *
In the garden of our guest house, there’s a twenty-foot long bird cage with thousands of chartreuse parakeets chirping so loudly we can barely hear each other speak. Afghans love birds as they love flying kites, but both passions were outlawed by the Taliban. Our guide and translator, Najib, a former war surgery medic, says the guest house is “pretty safe” because it’s not near the embassies or military installations. (A month later, a guest house nearby would be attacked by Taliban and eight people killed, including six UN workers.) Two men with machine guns guard the entrance, the compound is surrounded by metal walls and the rooms are primitive but have internet connection.
Najib tells us the safety rules: don’t split off from the group, don’t walk on the street, even to the corner, without an Afghan escort, and don’t go out after dark.
Our days begin at 8 and end at midnight, riding on a bus from meeting to meeting with a wide range of Afghans. What surprises us is that almost all say they want U.S. troops to stay, for security and to train the Afghan army. Even those who are hostile to U.S. policy say, “Now is not the time to withdraw.” Mirwais Wardak, who runs an NGO for peace building, says, “I can’t go to the provinces to do research. I can’t go to my own village--I’ll be attacked on the road driving there.”
Asad Farhad, a former minister of finance, tells us that if all foreign troops are withdrawn, “This government collapses in 48 hours and we have what we had before: killing, looting, rape.”
Paul is perplexed. “I’d read that only 20 per cent of Afghans want American troops to stay, but that’s not what we’re finding.”
Sara Nichols, an attorney from L.A., wonders if we should re-think the call for a quick exit strategy.
Medea breaks in, “Let’s not be so quick to change our thinking. In the first days you get bombarded with new ideas. At the end we’ll see what we want to integrate in our bedrock beliefs.” I ask what those beliefs are. “The military can’t defeat the Taliban,” she says. “Countries have to work out democracy on their own and women have to find ways to liberate themselves.”
PART 2 -Real Housewives of Afghanistan
In a mud-brick building on the outskirts of Kabul, 25 women are sitting on a faded red carpet, learning to read. They’re barefoot and their palms are dyed orange with henna. We visit the class on our first day in Kabul and find the students, who range from their 20s to their 50s, on fire for learning.
Ninety per cent of Afghan women are illiterate, we’re told by Farida Faqiri, head of Women for Women, an NGO that teaches women to read and trains them for jobs. “Our mission is to give them confidence, let them know they have rights and can play important roles in the community,” Farida says. The first thing her organization does when starting a class in a village is send a male from their team to talk with the local mullahs and assure them, “Everything will be done according to Islam. The prophet Mohammed said women should be educated, so please allow them to go to school.”
“And the Mullas agree?” I ask.
“For the most part, yes,” Farida says.
Women for Women has graduated 20,000 women since the Taliban fell. But the program only lasts a year and the women we meet say they need a place to continue studying after the program ends.
Rais, who has green eyes so light that they’re startling, says “We want a better life, a safe life. Please, we want the U.S. to talk with the Taliban and stop the war.” The Afghan women burst into applause.” Jodie Evans, a founder of Code Pink, hands out peace buttons and tells them, “If you keep using your voices, that will come to be.”
The Prophet Mohammed, in addition to saying women should be educated, taught that men and women are equal and that men should not harm their wives because if they do, they may be harming something Allah has blessed. Why then, we ask, are women subjugated across the Islamic world?
A teacher who’s lived and worked in the Middle East would tell me later that the Koran, like the Bible, can be interpreted to support almost any position. If people can’t read -- and 70% of Afghan men are illiterate -- they don’t know what’s in the Koran. They only know what the mullahs, their parents and grandparents have taught them. And the common teaching, except in urban areas, is that women should not leave home. In rural Afghanistan, where most of the population lives, women will leave home only twice: when they get married and when they die.
The most severe problem they face, according to Farida, is domestic violence. The UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) asserts that the majority of Afghan women are beaten regularly -- by husbands, fathers and brothers.
I ask Farida why violence is so prevalent. She lists three factors, starting with lack of education. UN studies show that the more educated a man is, the less likely he is to beat his wife. Second is unemployment. “When men have no work and are angry, they often take it out on their wives,” Farida says. Third is tradition and culture.
Her views are echoed the following day when we meet with a UN project director, who says she can’t be named because of the risk. “We have a problem that’s not getting press coverage: the assassination of Afghan women who take public roles, whether it’s a police woman, a teacher -- anything outside the home.” She says they’re being tracked, targeted and killed in drive-by shootings from motorcycles, and “the rising acceptance of this is alarming.”
In almost every case, she says, the women are forewarned. “I got a call last week saying I would be killed unless I resigned my job and denounced the U.S. occupation.” She changed her cell phone and went home in an armored car. She says the belief that women shouldn’t leave their homes “is so tightly knit into the fabric of society that it’s like a blanket -- a blanket of fear. And it’s not just the Taliban who’re against women in public. That’s the norm.”
Jodie asks the director the question she asks every person we meet: “Do you want the U.S. to send 40,000 more troops?”
“People here are not clamoring for troop withdrawal,” the director says. “But as an individual, I would say: All troops out now.”
Medea Benjamin, a co-founder of Code Pink, asks, “Won’t the Taliban come back and women will be stuck in the dark again?”
The director shuts her eyes and rubs the bridge of her nose. “This is the struggle I go through,” she says. “There is no solution on a white horse. This is not just about the Taliban. It’s not about troops in or out. Karzai in or out. It’s so multifaceted, we have to be honest about the contradictions.”
She wishes we could travel outside Kabul, which is impossible because the roads are embedded with explosive devices. “If you sit in farm houses with women, you’ll hear: their main concern is security. We can build a hospital for them but women aren’t free to walk to it.”
She tells us about a Pashtun woman in the south who was referred to her by the U.S. Special Forces. The woman fell sick and tried to walk to the hospital but had to be chaperoned by a male relative, so she took her 8-year-old son. She was wearing the Afghan burqa -- a light blue garment that covers the woman completely except for a mesh grid over the eyes. “She stumbled and when she put out her arms to break her fall, she accidentally touched a man. Her son ran home and told his father that she’d had `relations with a strange man.’”
The UN director has to stop to compose herself. “Her husband called his neighbors to hold his wife down while he chopped off the tips of all her fingers. Then he told his son to punch her in the eyes. When we found her, she was unable to see.” The director shakes her head. “If your neighbors witness something like that, they’ll think twice about going to a hospital.”
We’re subdued as we ride away from the UN office. We’re hearing numerous stories like this, which makes us probe and question our assumptions. Ann Wright, 63, a former army colonel and State Department officer who has kind blue eyes and speaks with a Southern lilt, says, “I have changed a little bit. Before this trip I was leaning toward: let’s get the hell out! Accept the inevitable! Now I feel we have a responsibility -- to be part of a security strategy and help provide education and jobs. That’s a far better way to deal with terrorism.”
But the Pashtun woman wasn’t maimed by terrorists, she was maimed by her family. Education will alleviate this, but how can we provide classes for people when the roads aren’t safe?
PART 3 - Band-Aids for What's Broke
On our second night in Kabul, there’s a dinner given in our honor by Nooria and Asad Farhad, an Afghan couple whom Jodie Evans, a Code Pink founder, had met in L.A. The dinner proves to be a coming out party for our group. Asad is a former deputy in the Karzai government, and the guests are a glittering cast of ministers, journalists, generals, tribal leaders, professors and Mahmoud Karzai, the older brother of the President. By the end of the evening our dance card is full -- with invitations for dinner on every night of our stay.
Nooria, who’s warm and emotive, dresses with dramatic flair and doesn’t wear a head covering. She tells us how she and Asad left Kabul in 1976 for the U.S. so he could study on a Fullbright grant and didn’t return until the Taliban fell. They’ve rented a three-story home in a walled compound that has a large garden and staff, including a cook and driver. But it’s not considered a “good neighborhood.” Directly across the dirt road is a camp of Afghan refugees who fled to Pakistan during Taliban rule and returned with no place to live. They’re squatting in ragged tents on vacant land with no water or electricity. The men make wooden bird cages and the women sew quilts, which Nooria sells through her import business in California.
Before the party begins, she leads us across the dirt to the camp where we’re surrounded by children, many of whom have those startling green eyes that give them an eerie beauty. Asad says the kids don’t go to school but scavenge in garbage dumps for fuel, earning maybe a dollar a day. He and Nooria are offering to pay the families the amount the children could earn if they’ll send them to school. “We can’t get the families out of the tents now,” Asad says, “but if the kids learn to read and write, we can get them out of the tents in ten years.”
Medea protests that this is “a Band-Aid. They need a national program.”
“It’s one step,” Asad says. “If we leave it to the functionaries, it will not happen.”
Back at their home, musicians begin to play traditional Afghan songs and guests are arriving. Everyone on our team is wearing Afghan clothes we’ve bought on the fly -- long colored tunics and scarves -- but the Afghan men are wearing elegant Western suits. They keep checking their cell phones and we keep taking notes, shooting still pictures and videos and making digital voice recordings.
One of the guests, Anand Gopal of the Wall Street Journal, says the party is the equivalent of “hanging out with Jeb Bush during the Bush years.” He’s not surprised that we’re hearing people say they want U.S. troops to stay. He says there are two Afghanistans: Kabul, with 5 million people, and the provinces with 25 million. In Kabul, people enjoy more freedom than they did under the Taliban and want the U.S. here as a buffer. But in the south, where shooting and bombing are destroying homes and killing civilians, they want the troops out. “Under the Taliban, they had order and peace,” Anand says.
A woman reporter cuts in, “It was the peace of the oppressed.”
Asad points out that the Taliban have roots in every village and have set up a de facto government. “They collect taxes and settle disputes on the spot. There’s no other justice. People may not like the verdicts but at least things get resolved.”
A group of men are sitting in a circle with Mahmoud Karzai, dressed all in white with a gray vest and silver hair. He talks about how life has improved since his brother took office, but other men complain bitterly of corruption. Daoud Yaar, economic adviser to the President, says, “We live in a society where you can trust nobody.”
Asad tells them about a proposal he submitted to the government to create local marble works. “If the government builds a factory, it won’t work,” he says. “But if locals build it, they’ll have something to protect.” He says the country has one of the largest marble and granite deposits in the world and it’s exquisite -- equal to Italian marble. “But we make no marble products. Our marble is blasted out, which destroys 90% of it, then smuggled to Pakistan where it’s processed and sent back here.” He’s proposing that local workers be trained to extract and process the marble in factories they control.
“What response did you receive?” a friend asks.
The men look away.
On the bus driving home, I’m exhausted and on overload. Everything is blurring together -- an endless stream of talking heads. Every opinion and argument we hear contains the seeds of a counter argument, and none is provable. Paul, our young stud with gelled hair and black rectangular glasses, lies slumped in his seat. “I’m like a sponge that’s totally full,” he says. Sara Nichols looks glassy eyed. “I came here for clarity but things are getting more confusing by the hour.”
Part 4 - Love Shacks for the Taliban
We’re invited to lunch by Dan Allison, who runs an NGO, Hope International. Women spread a cloth on the floor and carry in platters of rice, lamb, Afghan flat bread, spinach that’s been cooked to the consistency of mush, raw vegetables and mounds of grapes. We’ve been served the same meal at every lunch and dinner, and have been religious about not eating anything raw and drinking only bottled water. But Dan tells us, “We’ve trained our cooks to wash everything carefully. You can eat it all and won’t have problems.” Wonderful, I think, savoring a raw carrot and some grapes.
A half hour later, I do have a problem and others will come down with digestive troubles later. Anand Gopal of the Wall Street Journal tells us there’s a higher percentage of fecal matter in the air here than any other place on earth. Kabul has no sewer system, waste runs in ditches along every road and farmers use human excrement as fertilizer.
The next day, I’m too sick to get on the bus but the team returns at noon to our guest house to meet with Norine MacDonald, a Canadian who’s worked in the south for years. Norine is 39, blonde and gutsy. She carries a gun and looks like a model in Kabul, but in the south she dresses like an Afghan boy because women aren’t seen on the street.
Norine directs the Mercator Fund, which works with farmers in the south who, she says, “are all in business with the Taliban.” Mercator is encouraging them to grow poppies for medicine. “You can’t get morphine in this country or in Africa. The World Health Organization calls it a global pain crisis,” Norine says. “It’s a simple process to convert raw opium to morphine. The farmers could start with the harvest next spring. It will make them legitimate and solve a world problem.”
Her group wants to intervene with young men before they’re recruited by the Taliban. She says there’s a bulge in the population of males between 15 and 25. “They’re not sexually active because Islam forbids sex before marriage, and they don’t have money for a wedding. They have no sex, no job, and they’re angry.”
Imagine, she says, if in the U.S., all the males between 15 and 25 had no sex and no job. “What kind of violence and chaos might erupt?” Her organization wants to give the young men cash to get married, an allowance to build their own place -- “a love shack” -- and job training. “It’s harder to recruit a married man as a suicide bomber when he has a decent job and a home.”
Jodie nods, saying she found the same was true with gang members she worked with in L.A.
Norine says she’s a fan of Gen. Stanley McChrystal and is happy to see “more troops brought in with his approach.”
There’s a burst of traffic noise outside and I ask Medea Benjamin, a Code Pink founder, if she can hear Norine. “Yes, but I don’t like what I’m hearing,” Medea says.
I move my chair closer. Norine says she likes the idea of taking soldiers out of their vehicles and putting them on the street.
“I’m strongly against that,” Medea says. “I think they should be less visible -- stay in their compounds.”
“When soldiers walk around on the streets, people have a different experience of them,” Norine says.
“But they attract Taliban shooting and violence.”
“From my point of view, living here, I’d like to see the military deliver aid,” Norine says. “There are two huge camps of displaced Afghan refugees and they’re starving--10,000 families. No one’s delivered any food aid in years. If the military wants to, I’m all for it.”
“Why not have the humanitarian community do that?” Medea asks.
“They can’t get there because of the security problem,” Norine says. “What do you think people in those camps would feel about the military delivering food aid?”
“Grateful,” Jodie Evans, our trip organizer, says.
Norine adds, “I’d like to see the troops go into Pakistan and rout out the insurgents.” There’s silence at the table. (After the meeting, Ann would say, “Norine lives here and that’s reality. We represent the ideal, and somebody has to hold that.”)
Norine continues, “Here’s another controversial proposal but you’ll like it better: Give all the aid and development money to Afghan women. It will empower them. The men will have to go to them if they want a new well.”
Jodie says, “That’s what we fight for, but we want to do it without troops.”
“You need both,” Norine says.
“If you had to choose between troops and development?” Jodie asks.
“Had to choose? I’d put money on development.”
“Yay!” Jodie says.
This kind of questioning divides our group. Some are upset that the Code Pink leaders are leading people to get the answers they want instead of listening without bias. I spend the evening with two who feel this way, Rabia Roberts and Dr. Laurie Hamilton. The rest of the team are going to dinner at the home of the deputy minister of defense. I’m running a fever, Rabia is staying in to conserve her energy and Laurie has made a different calculation. She and her husband recently adopted two brothers, 11 and 13, who grew up in foster care. Laurie works as a gynecologist in Coos Bay, Oregon, and her husband cares for the boys. “They need me to come home,” Laurie says, “so I’m not taking any chances by going out at night. It’s not worth it.”
Rabia trained with Marin Luther King in the ‘60s and has conducted citizen diplomacy in Iraq and Syria. She’s been uncomfortable with the Code Pink Leaders from the first day. “They had their decision made before coming here and are drumming for evidence to support it. That’s not peace making.”
“It’s aggressive,” Laurie says. “I’m really disappointed. My approach is: you come with questions, not answers. They make everyone wrong who doesn’t agree with them.”
“This is peace movement fundamentalism,” Rabia says.
When told of this comment, Jodie said, “I don’t think I was leading anyone. I wanted to come home and say, “We should put more money in development,” and if nobody agrees with that, I need to know. But every time we asked, what if the money went into development instead of troops, people wanted development.”
PART 5 - Women's Liberation, Afghan Style
Afghanistan is no island, entire of itself. There’s a constant bleeding of people, money and ideas through its porous borders with Pakistan, Iran, Russia and nearby India. There can be no solution to its problems without involving neighboring countries, which is the point of a women’s “Trialogue” we attend at the Central Hotel.
About 60 women from Pakistan, India and Afghanistan have gathered for a two-day peace conference. Radha Kumar, a professor from India, opens the meeting by saying, “Our three countries are linked by the threat of violence, women are being targeted but when it comes to the peace process, we are not at the table. You cannot have peace without involving women. So we need to keep asking: Where are the women?”
To my surprise, there’s no security check at the hotel. Nine of us walk right in, pick up programs and earphones for translation and take seats behind the horseshoe table where the delegates sit. Half of them wear head scarves and half do not. During tea breaks, we talk with the women and when we leave, Rabia says, “No one I spoke with wanted the American military to be gone.” Jodie, Medea and Ann say that’s not what they heard. They’d drawn up a petition urging President Obama not to send more soldiers and to work for a political solution that leads to withdrawing all troops. They asked women at the Trialogue to sign it, some refused but a dozen signed.
Rabia says, “I feel like we’ve been at two different conferences.”
The same thing happens when we visit Camp Eggers, an army base in the center of Kabul. I speak with a dozen soldiers from the Indiana national guard, who are perched on a tank, playing Texas Hold ‘Em and drinking cokes. “We’re here to help people and make a difference,” one says. “It’s not about money -- we could make twice as much working for private security, but I’d rather wear the uniform.” When friends back home ask what they can send him, he asks for toys he can deliver to local kids, "who've never seen a toy before."
I ask, “Were you scared to come here?”
He shrugs. “They train us up. You live day to day.”
We also meet female soldiers, including an African-American who says she hasn’t encountered any hostility from Afghan men. “They love me. They can’t do enough to help me. I guess they think I’m exotic.” For these women soldiers, it IS about money. They say they enlisted because, as one puts it, “I get free health care for my family, my kids get a free education, I can retire at 38 and get a pension the rest of my life.”
When I repeat this to Medea later, she says, “Sounds like socialism to me.”
Medea and Jodie say the soldiers they talked with want out of Afghanistan fast. “They told us, `We hate them and they hate us.’”
I say I didn’t hear anyone speak like that.
“Must be the way we ask questions,” Medea says.
And it could be the proverbial story of the blind people feeling an elephant. The person who feels the trunk thinks it’s one thing and the one who feels the ear thinks it’s another.
Two women in their 20s, Shakila and Razia, are telling us about participating in their first political protest in April against a law that restricts women’s rights and condones marital rape. Shakila, a nurse with lovely Eurasian features, says, “I never liked politics. I was always busy with work, but when I heard the terms of the law, I had to do something.”
They knew it would be dangerous. Razia says, “When I remember the situation, my body shakes.” The Mullah who’d proposed the law was appearing on TV every night, warning that Islam is in danger from non-believers who’re protesting the law.
About 300 women had gathered in front of the mosque, holding signs that said, “Women of Afghanistan do not want Shia law. We want equal rights.” Suddenly the gates opened and a thousand men rushed out, throwing stones, spitting on the women, pulling off their head scarves and calling them whores. “We thought we were going to be killed,” Shakila says. But police formed a wedge between them and the mob and escorted them to Parliament where they met with legislators who are currently revising the law.
Men rush at the women protesting
We asked if they would demonstrate again, given the danger. Shakila says, “I think some times we are too afraid. But this protest gave me confidence. I saw we could really accomplish something.” Farida nods. “It changed my life.”
Their fervor reminds me of the early days of women’s liberation in the U.S. — of Redstockings in New York and Cell 16 in Boston, whose members were called man-haters and destroyers of marriage. The young Afghan women are hearing some of the same objections their American counterparts heard: women are too emotional, they can’t make decisions and their monthly mood swings make them unfit as leaders. Razia says her husband supports her political action but when he saw her on TV, told her, “I said you could protect your rights, but why do you have to stand in the first line?”
We laugh with her. It’s compelling to see, in the darkness and danger, a grass roots movement blossoming for women’s rights. The prospect of withdrawing and leaving these young women vulnerable to the Taliban is, to put it mildly, disheartening.
PART 6 - Hopelessly Helping
On our last day, the final voice we hear is that of a member of Parliament from the south, Roshanak Wardak, who expresses the opposite position from what we’ve been hearing in Kabul. She just moved to a house in Kabul because it’s no longer safe to commute to her village. The concrete slab house looks as if it was erected yesterday, surrounded by rocks, rubble and a security wall with barbed wire.
Roshanak is small and graceful, dressed in turquoise with a black head scarf. “I’m sorry for Americans, they waste their lives here,” she says. In the four years she’s been in Parliament, “everything in the south has deteriorated. America didn’t help us. Our country can’t help us. If you stand in the market and kill ten people, nobody will catch you. There’s no justice, no security.”
She says special forces killed a father and son working in their fields. When she asked the commander why, he said the son had relations with the Taliban. “I have relations with the Taliban,” she says. “We are living with them. When any person is killed, I have to go for the condolence. They ask why Americans did this killing and nobody knows. Now people are against Americans and against our government.”
Roshanak is a gynecologist who set up practice in Wardak in ‘96. When the new Afghan constitution was written in ’04, it required that 25 percent of the seats in Parliament be filled by women. Roshanak’s neighbors urged her to run but she resisted. “I hate politics, it’s a dangerous game, full of fraud,” she says. But her constituents prevailed, “and I won, even though I did not spend one dollar.”
With the video camera rolling, Jodie Evans, who organized our trip, asks Roshanak what she wants to tell President Obama. “Withdraw all troops,” Roshanak says, then proposes a three part solution to the war. “First, the U.S. should negotiate with the Taliban and ask them to participate in government. If you think it’s impossible to talk with Talbian -- that’s not true.” Second, she says, “Everyone knows the center of insurgency and training camps is Pakistan. If you don’t give money to Pakistan for one year, the fighting will finish in Afghanistan.” Third, she says, “Instead of sending troops, send engineers, doctors, teachers.”
Her proposals are sensible but are they workable? What good will it do to send doctors and teachers if the roads are too dangerous for them to travel where they’re needed? Roshanak confirms what Jodie believes, though, and Jodie will post this clip online. Roshanak signs Jodie’s petition urging Obama not to send troops and we race to the airport, passing the Indian embassy where, three days later, a suicide bomb will explode, killing 17.
I ask Jodie how she can be sure the President will see the petition. She doesn’t know yet, she says, but ten days later she will find her opportunity.
A friend buys two tickets to a Democratic fund raiser in San Francisco for $32,400, which entitles her to a photo op with the President.She invites Jodie to come, and after Obama puts his arm around Jodie for the picture, she hands him the petition and tells him women in Afghanistan don’t want more troops and they’re upset that women are not at the negotiating table. The President says, “What do you mean, I have Secretary of State Hillary Clinton…” Jodie says, “No, Afghan women want to be at the negotiating table.” Later, Jodie reports that the President responded, “Oh.” He told her he would not be able to fix Afghanistan quickly. She said, “You won’t be able to fix it at all. Only they can.”
On our way to the airport, we have to stop for a huge convoy of U.S. army tanks and trucks to lumber by. Jodie says her views “haven’t changed but have deepened. We’ve created a situation here that’s so intolerable we can’t just leave right now, without real training of the Afghan police and army.”
Medea Benjamin, a co-founder of Code Pink, says she’s come full circle. “At first I thought, oh no, maybe you’re just having a knee-jerk anti-war attitude that doesn’t reflect reality on the ground. But at the end of the trip I feel I do have the right position. We definitely shouldn’t be sending more troops and the ones here should be phased out.”
Rabia Roberts, on the other hand, has reversed her original stance. “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.” She acknowledges that adding more troops will also precipitate violence. “But can we have any development in Afgthanistan without security?” She adds, “I liked it better when I knew what the moral high ground was.”
I’m leaving with no certainty but a humble appreciation of the complexities, of how there is “no solution on a white horse.” It pains me that we’re sending more troops and that the public dialogue is focused only on that number. I don’t believe there can be a military solution, but understand that it will be a long, hard slog to attain stability and peace and that the U.S. must participate in that effort.
This will require work on multiple fronts, including talks with the Taliban, agreements with neighboring countries, redirecting the military to do aid work, securing the roads, cleaning up corruption, ensuring women’s rights and launching an equivalent of the Marshall plan to build up the country, not to mention grace. The unexpected grace that, like the quality of mercy, “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.”* A call for troop withdrawal or troop buildup now seems, to most of us, simplistic.
The situation, so labile and confounding, makes me think of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.”
Despite the tensions in our group, we’re grateful we’ve come and grateful to Jodie for organizing the trip. And we’re grateful to be on the plane heading out.
*Shakespeare, "The Merchant of Venice"
IF YOU'RE IN COLORADO, I'll be speaking about the trip and solutions for Afghanistan in January in Boulder. If you'd like to come, please rsvp to
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