“Afghans understand that the US is here for its own interests and to get rid of al-Qa’eda for their own protection.” We were in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, speaking with the head of an Afghan human rights NGO. “But when they came,” she continued, “Afghans had to choose the better group to support, and US presence brings some benefits to the people. We are hoping NATO forces will also help with our problems from neighbouring countries.”
Our delegation, sponsored by the Chicago-based anti-war group, Voices for Creative Nonviolence, strove to hear (and then report back) a wide array of voices, starting with those of Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers, an organisation of teens and young adults whose week of demonstrations for peace we came to support during our 18-30 March visit.
While in Kabul we heard many varying opinions from Afghan people about the role of the NATO troops and whether (and when) these troops should leave.
A member of a government ministry told us that the crimes of the past are much more horrific than those under the US and that Afghan people do not want the US and NATO forces to remain indefinitely, but want them to stay until there is more stability and a credible government.
According to an independent journalist, one consequence, were international forces to leave now could be the forming of a Pashtun state, made up of Pashtuns from Afghanistan and Pakistan, breaking Afghanistan into smaller tribal states. Right now the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is “non-existent.” He and others said that about 90% of the Afghan people do not support the Taliban. Even in the absence of international troops, he believes the people would resist and prevent a Taliban takeover of the country.
Some Afghans suggested there should be a transitional period during which US and NATO forces would withdraw so the UN could replace them with security forces from more neutral countries, giving the Afghan people stability while they re-adjusted and chose new leadership. The warlords and Taliban leaders would be brought to the world court. One journalist said: “Yes, we see the possibilities of the UN taking this role, but who pays the salary of and runs the UN? The UN has sold out”.
Leaders of the Transitional Justice Coordination Group told us they opposed the Karzai government’s “amnesty” programme, supported by the US, because it does not hold the perpetrators of violence accountable for truly heinous crimes. Instead, they complained, it releases wrongdoers from any responsibility and has given too many of them positions of power and wealth. It does not acknowledge the pain of the victims, nor offer the help victims always need. The coordination group has put forward their own “action plan” aiming to bring justice and accountability for past crimes and thereby seek reconciliation.
A human rights worker agreed that many actions of the Karzai government (the “amnesty” programme; the “high peace council” made up of warlords and other corrupt leaders; the funding and arming of local militias) “only give… more power to the very ones who have been killing us over the years.” She and others want peaceful solutions, but they fear the possibility of more violence and oppression returning under the hands of the Taliban and the warlords.
“Afghan people want peace and know that war is not a solution to their problems, but they don’t see the way,” two other journalists told us. “The people are not naïve. They do understand what it means to have international troops here and are grieved by their killing. They understand that US/NATO presence has given more power to the warlords and the Taliban. But they feel trapped and don’t know how to get out of this. It’s the lesser of two evils. What can we do? People are living in fear. They have experienced so much pain under the Taliban and cannot forget. We need a change of mindset, which will take a long time.”
We were in Kabul to support peace demonstrations by the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers, teenagers who’d come quite some way to Kabul from their village of Bamiyan, and their perspective, differing from the urban officials and helping professionals we also interviewed, is the one we’d come to Afghanistan chiefly to hear.
“It is possible that there would be civil war, but is that sufficient reason to keep the US troops here?” asked one of the volunteers. To which his friends chimed in: “International forces leaving would create the possibility of the Taliban negotiating with the people and the Afghan people working it out.” “Right now Afghan people are being killed anyway.”
“The longer international forces stay, corruption increases, driving people to join the Taliban,” one young person insisted. “Karzai’s actions have been putting more power into the hands of the local powerful and cruel men, who have been killing and oppressing the people for years.” “The war perpetuates the tribal tensions. The Afghan people are tired of war.” “We wish the troops to withdraw, but in a responsible way.” “We have only military options on the table, and people think that is the only way. We need to highlight civil society options, such as development, reconciliation, and finding a way the money from other countries would go to strengthen the communities of the poor, rather than to the rich and corrupt leaders. We need to create more nonviolent options.”
As with other US intervention conflicts, there are many “what ifs” about the withdrawal of international troops, and no guarantees.
Fear of the “hell” of the return of the Taliban, civil war, of more violence and oppression dominates the people’s spirits. It makes it difficult for Afghans, traumatised by 30 years of nightmarish violence, foreign intervention and domestic oppression, to imagine that there may be nonviolent options and that these are not mere naïveté.
People both in Afghanistan and abroad, who strongly believe that the violence will not solve these conflicts – these cycles of violence that benefit only the war-profiting corporations – face a difficult task. That task is to present and defend the clear, simple statement of the youth volunteers when they say: “We want this and all violence to stop, whether it be from the Taliban, warlords, or international troops. We must find a way out of this mess and confusion and offer alternative nonviolent options to the people.”