Confessions of a Dove in Afghanistan

This is the first in a series about a peace mission to Afghanistan. To see all posts in chronological order, Click Here.

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, 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.”


PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT: What would you do in Afghanistan if you were Pres. Obama?



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27 thoughts on “Confessions of a Dove in Afghanistan

  1. Anonymous

    War is horrific, but what is going on there is more horrific. If the people of Afghanistan want the help then we are obligated to help them. Not just this area but the world in general is under one type of conflict or another and it is taking too long to end it. Get in, take care of busines, and get out to let these people get on with their lives. But to do this our military need the backup, support, and supplies. Yes, send more troops and get the job done.

  2. Bill -- Slatington, PA

    When I was in Vietnam as a soldier, I learned that a war of attrition doesn't work, especially when we're leaving arms and legs and whole bodies and minds behind by the thousands. At the time, I thought we should just put a sign in the sand saying “We Won”, and leave. And I think we should leave both Afghanistan and Iraq now. and spend some of those billions on the hungry people, and those who can't afford health insurance here in our own country.

  3. Anonymous

    How absolutely idealistic some people are, just send money on the millions of hungry. Where pray-tell do you really think that money would go……its never to those would need it. There is a much bigger picture going on in the region than a few ladies from Code Pink with Medena(who acts like shes on Prozac most of the time) I've seen her interviewed so many times and its always the same mono message. As far as the message from Bill in Slatington, Pa. People in the USA can go into any hospital and get care, the illegals here in Arizona do it all of the time. My daughter was on staff at UMC and the medical care was given freely to those in need. I don't have the answer for Afghanistan or Irag but it would definitely take alot more thought then what these others have said.
    Dee Tucson, AZ.

  4. injaynesworld

    I don't know what I would do if I were the president, so I am so glad that you will be sharing your experiences with us. You're a wonderful writer and I am so happy to see you applying your gift this way and no longer wasting your considerable talent writing about “Billy.” Welcome back…

  5. Kirby

    Hi Sara:

    You're off to a very good start here. Much better than that last regrettable piece.
    I'm looking forward to the rest of it.


  6. Anonymous

    Money, arms, and personnel pumped into this part of the world does not feed Democracy but far more ancient instincts. With a broken heart and understanding no one should be disfigured for wanting to be schooled, it is time for us to leave and return only after a solid display leadership has moved beyond tribal bickering. Get out.

  7. Kenneth UCB class of 68

    Foreign soldiers are unwelcome in Vietnam in the 60s & Afghanistan today. US military never can work.

    Taliban is living in the 7th Century. Pretty ugly set of beliefs. Kill unbelievers. Subjugate women. Blow up Buddhist statues from 4th Century.

    US troops should leave. They are just helping the Taliban recruit, just as in Vietnam.

    Arrange with the UN a replacement Islamic force (Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Bangladesh, Pakistan) from Islamic country trying to merge with secular science. Have UN sponsor it to provide legitimacy. Saudis sheikhs should pay for it. US is now broke, and each soldier costs $1 million per year. Only non-broke countries going forward will be oil countries.

    Women were not so subjugated under King, in 1960s. King united the dozens of ethnic groups. The King was living in the 19th century, which is better than the 7th, for women.

  8. fvP77

    Thursday, November 19, 2009 9:35PM
    FVP- Brentwood, California & Telluride,Colorado

    If I were President Obama I would remove our troops
    from Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. is again in an impossible situation – just like we were in Vietnam.

    I think Medai's statement:”Countries have to work out democracy on their own and women have to find ways to liberate them self's”. IS – RIGHT ON TARGET!

    Thank you for sharing your experience in Afghanistan.
    I am very moved by your self observation – revealing-your thoughts and feelings helped me to crystalize my own belief that we should l get out of AFGHANISTAN AND IRAQ. Thank you!

  9. Chari

    You can't fight an insurgency with military troops. I don't have an answer either; don't know if there even is one.

    However, personal attacks such as those displayed by Dee from Tucson, are completely inappropriate and do nothing to advance the discussion.

    There is such a clash of cultures, beliefs and ideals between the Taliban, our country and the “regular” everyday Afghan. Bringing a sovereign country out of the dark ages into this century isn't necessarily our job.

    If we were doing this for purely humanitarian reasons, I'd lean more toward supporting it. Since it's backed by and based on the U.S. military complex and all the lobbyists and contractors who make millions off war, I don't see how it's a good thing.

    Still; no answers.

  10. rick lanning the celestial cowboy

    dear sara,

    in trouble again!

    didn't your cowboy billy give you enough of a headache? what's a good-looking single jewish woman like you doing upending rocks in afghanastan? girl, you're liable to find a rattlesnake on your tail!

    seriously, i applaud your courage as a writer with the tenacity of an investigative journalist seeking the real truth, not what the government tells the people. as a former reporter for the los angeles herald-examiner and other newspapers, i wish i had gone with you and your group.

    having lived in the caribbean for five years, i have learned to be cautious with what people tell you. the ones that are communicating with your group are those that have been friendly to Americans and are probably on the enemy's 'to kill' list. that would be a strong motivation for anyone to want more u.s. troops in afghanastan at this time. there are many more people who feel differently, and i think it is your job to discover who they are and what they truly feel.

    keep writing. this is enjoyable and educational. just don't step on any rattlers.

  11. Anonymous

    Oh, dear. My household has all the opinions possible–and we're only 2 people! The Afganis couldn't be subdued by the English or Russians; why might they be by the Taliban? What can the US do to strengthen them without necessarily creating a national government? Who is this Karzai character any way!?

    I'm glad Obama is taking his time. Have he and his advisers read up on the history of Afghanistan?

  12. Sean

    As the father of a son only recently returned from Iraq, only to find his job no longer existed, my initial reaction if bring them all home. I look forward to your further exploration of this divisive as well as complex issue.

  13. Doug from Dallas Oregon

    War is certainly not the answer. However, if we are there (truth no one ever knows) to stop the wrongs being committed against people and especially the women then by all means step it up, train, monitor and withdraw. If, on the other hand, we are there for monetary gain through capitalism or pure greed then we need to reassess our values. I am not for war since historically it is all about capital gain. But I am all for helping people see what is morally right and how to treat each other with kindness.

  14. Anonymous

    Hi Sara,
    I'm glad to see you writing about this. There is a lot to think about and I'm glad Obama is taking his time. There are no military solutions to social problems. There is an imbalance in the world of masculine and feminine energies. Everywhere women need to speak out for their sisters and embrace all children. Eventually there will be an awakening even though many will suffer until then. Let's not be part of the suffering. War is never the answer!

  15. Paul Kawika Martin


    You were a joy to be with during our intense experience in Afghanistan. I look forward to reading more of your perfect prose.

    You were so inquisitive and being such an excellent journalist that I knew whatever you wrote would be amazing.


    Paul Kawika Martin

  16. Anonymous

    I am for staying and for leaving. Which is to say I want to see us there for no more than another 2-4 years. I want to see a real exit strategy in place but not one that has us “cutting and running,” not one that is irresponsible.

    As for the Afghans wanting us to stay, you only talked to the people living in the city. Or at least that's the impression I got from your article. The majority of the population lives in the countryside and may have a very different opinion.

  17. Anonymous

    i am always amused when no-nothings try to give their ideas for war strategy — when to withdraw troops, when not to withdraw — and come up with other silly comments that show their lack of understanding.

    war is insanity. and the fact that so many citizens either support war or fail to do something to stop war from happening shows why the world is doomed to continue repeating its stupidity while the global population expands and jobs, money, water, oil, gas and our true natural resources disappear.

    i have no advice whatsoever for barack obama and his inept crew of government bureaucrats. whatever they do will be a little right and a whole lot wrong — probably more wrong than right.

    as for the subject of war, i think everyone should watch the wonderful anti-war film, KING OF HEARTS, starring alan bates. you can rent it through netflix or at hollywood video. it's circa world war 1 and it shows the instanity of war much better than i could explain on this blog. bates plays a peace-loving soldier who cares for the army's carrier pigeons and who is sent on a mission to disarm a bomb that is set in concrete in a village square and that is timed to go off at midnight. he stumbles upon a home for the insane who are accidentally set free, along with the animals from the zoo, during the evacuation of the town by the german troops. the crazies are not as insane as people think since they believe in making love, not war, and in taking on the identities of the political and religious leaders of their time, including the Pope, a Cardinal, and many other types. watch KING OF HEARTS and then take a stance against any war that is brought on by economic or territorial issues. it isn't worth it.

  18. David Phipps

    I prefer the approach Mr. Obama appears to be taking. Study the situation thoughtfully, with as much input and advice he can muster, and ultimately lets hope that what he decides to do is what is best for the people of Afghanistan. I believe that what Medea said is probably the most accurate view of the way it is and must be.

    Thank you, Sara, for sharing your experience and for allowing us to put in our two bits worth. Keep up the good work; the faith and goodwill will follow.

    “There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning.”
    Louis L'Amour

  19. DDP

    Sara, for some reason I feel I know you, I've been reading all of your books, my very best friend and I talk about you quite often, we'd really love to meet you someday. Maybe if you're ever in the Tucson area? You are quite a trail blazer of sorts, I'm sure you know this, my friends kind of thinks you live for the adrenalin rush. Whatever it is you live for, your living full and moving forward as we say in the horse world. I wrote a blog, probably alittle rough but I get so tired of people putting our American values on the people of Iraq and other countries. There's a history that needs to be studied and people need to be informed, but I quess we're all intitled to an opinion aren't we. thanks

  20. Scott

    This is powerful stuff. What most impressed me about this article is that Sara did not superimpose her opinions in the article as much as describe the struggle that the group had in maintaining the their original views after seeing the situation on the streets first hand. These are not easy issues, and this article exemplifies the importance of having as much first hand information as we can in order to make cogent decisions and arguments in our political activities and initiatives

  21. BEVKAI

    If I were Obama, I would GO to Afganistan incognito; no publicity. I would stay with a group like yours and go where you go — as well as consult with the Military.Standing firm won the Cold War. Leaving Vietnam was not good for their South.So I tend towards standing firm.
    It could take another decade. But the Cold War was four decades and many deaths. We could learn why the Russians failed in Afganistan and act accordingly.
    I do like “UCB'68″s idea of gathering a coalition of troops from modern Islamic Nations. I lived in Malaysia, and visited Turkey; they are Muslim but not
    Arabs. They don't like fanatics any better than we do .BTW, Paul's middle name, Kawika' means “David”. Aloha Nui Loa, Paul. The world can't have too much Aloha; it would solve so much. . . .
    So many do agree that war is and always has been insanity. However, it has worked as a way of life for
    thousands of years for tribal societies. It is the way they get things done. We can't pacify them by exposing our boobs.
    As in the schoolyard: if someone is determined to “do” you, they WILL.Bev in Honolulu

  22. BEVKAI

    Another light bulb went off over my head as I forwarded this column to friends and family: Groups of protesters in the US and around the world finally convinced our Gov't that we should get out of Vietnam and leave it to the people there.
    That decision didn't turn out well for the South Vietnamese.
    So while I think that “read my tits” might be adorable and attention getting, similar stunts in the past eventually led to the Fall of Saigon in our living rooms every night, with Chet, Dave, and Uncle Walter.
    Naivete doesn't work out well.
    Bev in Honolulu

  23. Peter

    What would I do about Afghanistan?

    I'd listen to people like you who'd actually been there — objective observers or ones who'd started with a contrary point of view.
    Thanks for making the trip, putting your ass on the line and writing about it.


  24. Nancy Parsons

    please reconsider. it's a death trap, a money pit and a moral abrogration. plus a double cross from a 'peace' candidate who keeps dumping this war news into the Fri. afternon news cycle, an old GOP 'bury the news' trick. this tamps down public debate and even hides the reality of what is happening.
    I am disgusted. why aren't you?
    Nancy Parsons
    Oviedo, Fla.

  25. Anonymous

    Amazingly, I have noticed little discussion here about money. So for the moment I am going to leave the moral debate behind and simply point that IF we intend to not only stay in Afghanistan but to also increase our presence there, we will have to find some way to pay for it. This would mean either a tax increase (not at all popular) or perhaps the sale of bonds yielding decent interest (war bonds) The idea that we can continue to simply add this war to the debt is to me a very bad option (war bonds would be form of debt, but the proceeds would be clearly earmarked for easier and honest accounting of the cost of the war). Baby boomers really need to consider the condition of the U.S. economy. We are potentially in a serious crisis as baby boomers have lost much of the last decade of earnings, and at some point interest rates will have to rise, possibly derailing a recovery that we are now absolutely dependant on. Baby boomers simply cannot sustain another major economic setback such as the most recent one. At this point in life, it would assure the rest of our lives would be spent in penury.

  26. James Angleton

    An Israeli told me in the 1980’s that you will not find a Muslim in the Arabic speaking Middle East who will recognize a non-Muslim soverign. I think that our failed efforts to conquer Iraq and Afghanistan support my friend’s statement. Any Muslim pupet we install will be discredited.
    I wish we had followed Israel’s method of retaliation after the Munic masacre. Israel went after the culprits. By analogy, we should have gone after Bin Ladin and his organization and tried to avoid making it look as if Islam was our enemy.

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