Sunday, October 17, 2010

Calling All Londoners.

The Canadian High Commission in London is presenting an exhibition of my profiles of Afghan activists, workers, feminists and teachers, "Unsung Heroes," at Canada House, Trafalgar Square. The exhibition is on display in the Canada House Small Gallery from Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., until November 11. The exhibition will be shown concurrently with Kandahar Through Afghan Eyes, an exhibiton of photography produced by young Kandahari photographers and journalism students.

The opening night at Canada House featured a panel discussion with Horia Mosadiq, Hashim Alavi and Shoaib Sharifi. I am told that everyone said kind things about the Unsung Heroes project, and also that there were free drinks all round, which adds to my regret that I could not be there.

Unsung Heroes’ is a travelling exhibition brought together by the Funder’s Network for Afghan Women and the Canada-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee. It profiles some of the Afghan people who are working to make positive, lasting change in their country.

These Afghans are largely unknown in the West. Away from the limelight, they are working for human rights, for gender equality, for poverty relief, for health, for cultural revitalisation, for the right to education, for a free press, and a vibrant independent civil society. These activists are ordinary people with extraordinary courage. Their motivation is to see peace in Afghanistan and to play a part in making it happen.

They were nominated by other Afghans and their stories collated and written by Terry Glavin, co-founder of the Canada-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Guest Post: "The future will be even worse than the past."

Afghan Women Doomed If NATO Leaves.

by Lauryn Oates.

This week, the now well-known ousted Afghan MP Malalai Joya will kick off her latest speaking tour of Canada. Joya's message is that Canada is part of a hostile occupying force in her country. As Joya and her antiwar sponsors disseminate that message, it will be important to seek out the views of other Afghan women, who live in Afghanistan and fight for reforms there.

(Breaking: Taliban representatives and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai have begun secret, high level talks.)

As the "troops out" organization, Code Pink, learned last year when it met with women leaders in Kabul, most have no interest in seeing NATO's departure any time soon. These women want peace and they know a premature exit by international forces will not lead to the end of violence, but will swiftly usher in more repression, particularly for women.

Similarly, ordinary citizens generally do not support a withdrawal of foreign troops at present. In a 2010 ABC News poll, only four per cent of Afghans said they would prefer a Taliban government. In a Gallup poll last year, 80 per cent said the Taliban were a negative influence on their country, and a 2009 BBC poll found that Afghans saw the Taliban as the greatest danger to their country.

When asked to rate NATO's work in Afghanistan, 69 per cent responded "excellent," "good" or "fair" in 2009. The same number also said it was "very good" or "mostly good" that U.S. forces came into their country.

Many leaders of the women's movement and women members of parliament echo the polls' findings, and posit constructive recommendations for moving forward. Their voices should be heard by Canadians.

Dr. Sima Simar, the courageous chair of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, is succinct in her expectations of the international community: "Finish the job you started. It's about the protection of humanity. This is a human responsibility. It isn't possible to escape this kind of responsibility."

Horia Mosadiq, an Afghan researcher for Amnesty International, articulates what that "job" should resemble: "Instead of a meaningless focus on how many Taliban are killed or how many villages are cleared, international forces should measure their success by clear benchmarks in terms of how they've improved human rights. Are more women in Helmand able to get health care? Are more children able to attend school?"

Recently, Afghan Suraya Pakzad, named one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2010 by Time magazine, called a potential U.S. military pullout "devastating," adding it "would mean more girls enduring more horrors."

Fatima Gailani, president of the Afghan Red Crescent Society, said in an interview that she was worried about Americans growing weary of the war in her homeland: "Tomorrow, I don't want to wake up and open my eyes and you are not there. It's really scary."

Masooda Jalal, who made history when she ran against Hamid Karzai as the only woman among 17 presidential candidates, said in October 2009, "It is good for Afghanistan to have more troops . . . committed with the aim of building peace and against war, terrorism, and security -- along with other resources."

Shinkai Kaokhail, an outspoken women's rights activist and a member of parliament for Kabul, adds, "In the current situation of terrorism, we cannot say troops should be withdrawn," adding, "international troop presence here is a guarantee for my safety."

Jamila Afghani, executive director of the Noor Education Centre and a veteran women's rights campaigner, told me in February, "If the military left, it would be very dangerous. If they have a proper strategy to replace themselves, OK, but without a strategy, they might as well walk out right now. There is a Taliban revival and terrorist revival going on. The future will be even worse than the past, so I don't suggest they should leave. Or if they leave, we should be satisfied before they go."

Manizha Naderi, who runs shelters for Afghan women fleeing domestic abuse and leads legal advocacy work through Women for Afghan Women, has said, "If the coalition forces leave, the Taliban or other conservative factions will be much stronger. Women's mobility and participation in everyday life will be limited again."

During the Kabul Conference in July, MP Shukria Barakzai saw increasing signs of the deteriorating commitment of the international community, saying to journalist Chris Sands, it's "like the last drop of the water just fell down" . . . "Until a few months ago I was optimistic, maybe, maybe, maybe. But right now there is no hope." She added, "In a year's time, it will be like a civil war."

MP Fawzia Koofi, added, "We thought we were working in a longer-term partnership with the international community. We really wanted to have a joint partnership with them and now they are leaving. There are talks about leaving (but) I think the train has left the station" also saying, "even in two years' time, I think Afghanistan will be Talibanized, not in terms of individuals, but in terms of ideology. And then all these outspoken women, and media and the young generation of Afghanistan will have a much more tough, difficult life."

Laila (pseudonym), posted the following to a listserve in response to Joya's call for withdrawal of all troops: "She needs to understand that her country that she hardly visited in the past years is so vulnerable and fragile that once 'left' by international troops, her countrymen and women will be terribly lashed out (at) by the Taliban -- and another civil war will eventually or rapidly erupt. So her patriotism is really inviting more misery to the women and the people of Afghanistan. However, I agree that huge mistakes have been done by international community as well that a strong Afghan government would be able to improve the situation."

Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan has worked for nearly 15 years to improve human rights, to end women's oppression, and to provide opportunities for Afghan women to live their lives with dignity, certainty and purpose. For the realization of these goals, the international community including military, developmental and diplomatic entities, must stay the course, but with a paradigm shift that dramatically improves security, escalates development, changes tactics, champions human rights, and vigorously addresses corruption in government and in the aid community.

It's not time to give up. Canadians can honour the brave struggle of Afghan women by listening to those women on the front lines of a very uphill battle for human rights.

For now, they are saying we should stay.

Lauryn Oates is a Canadian aid worker managing education projects in Afghanistan. Lauryn is a founding member of the Canada-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee and projects director of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Guest Post: "Malalai Joya’s Message Is Anti-Peace."

By Babur Mawladin, President of the Canada Afghanistan Solidarity Committee.

This week, Malalai Joya will begin her latest speaking tour of Canada. The message of Joya, who has long collaborated with Canada’s anti-war community, is that Canada is part of a foreign occupation which has invaded Afghanistan and which is unwelcome by the Afghan people.

This could not be further from the truth.

As an Afghan-Canadian, I am alarmed that another Afghan is working so hard to spread a view that is not widely held among either those in Afghanistan nor among Afghans living here in Canada. My assertion can easily be verified by referring to the many polls that have been conducted in Afghanistan, including in 2010, by ABC News, the BBC, Gallup and other sources that used large sample sizes, which have consistently showed that a clear majority of Afghans support the presence of the NATO and US soldiers working to bring peace to our land.

Further, Joya’s message is that NATO and the “foreign occupiers” have brought destruction to Afghanistan. This too, is untrue.

There have been tremendous achievements in Afghanistan. For the first time in three decades, people have been able to move forward with their lives. They can send their children to newly built schools, they can vote for a representative in parliament, they can walk to a nearby hospital or clinic when they are ill. There are more than 7 million children back in school, the same schools that the Taliban closed down. Child mortality has dropped. New roads were built for villagers to transport their agriculture products, and the economy is booming. There are women sitting in parliament; more women, in fact, than sit in Canada’s parliament. Many brave Afghans are working hard to rebuild our country from the ruins. The Afghanistan of today is simply incomparable to the Afghanistan of the Taliban.

I feel compelled to speak up because of the misinformation I believe Canadians are subjected to. The news reports only the negative, giving a skewed picture of what is really happening in Afghanistan. Further, many of those calling for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan have ulterior motives for their positions, whether it’s their alignment with ‘troops out’ organizations in western countries, to connections to the insurgents or their regional backers. When individuals such as Malalai Joya demand the withdrawal of foreign troops, before peace has been achieved, they are effectively saying they want Afghanistan to be drawn back into the darkness of the Taliban time, of civil war, of bloodshed. I can only be suspicious of someone who would take such a position.

Meanwhile, thousands of Afghan women rights activists, women MPs and other progressives who actually still live in Afghanistan, unlike Malalai Joya, are giving the opposite message. They want democracy, rights for women and girls, and to be protected and supported by the world community, unlike in the past when the world turned its back on us, leading to the Taliban taking power and then to the attacks of September 11th. But their voices are not heard. Too many Canadians are too willing to take the words of one single Afghan at face value. Malalai Joya’s message is anti-peace, and it is harmful to Afghanistan’s future.

Unfortunately the realities of the conflict in Afghanistan and the “war on terrorism”, and its implications for global security, are not clear for many here in Canada. The Taliban are not a natural part of Afghan culture or politics; or governors that we Afghans will ever accept lying down. Rather, they are killers who took the lives of thousands of innocents in New York, London, Madrid, New Delhi, Islamabad, Kabul and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan experienced decades of war and the ravages of fundamentalism, and then was left to fend for itself following the Cold War. Afghans recall the time that came after that, when the Taliban governed us, as a dark time when women were confined to their homes like prisoners, and men were brutalized for every transgression of the Taliban’s warped version of sharia law.

The Taliban’s mission is to spread hatred and radicalism, yet Malalai Joya lumps them together with the international community and the current government of Afghanistan as common enemies. It’s nonsensical, when Afghans and the international community, including Canada, share a common interest in defeating the Taliban, their ideology of hatred, and their terrorist sponsors. We Afghans welcome Canadians as our allies, not our enemies, and we are not yet ready for them to leave Afghanistan. We all want a permanent peace and for international troops to depart eventually, but a premature withdrawal would lead to more violence.

The Taliban run a powerful propaganda machine powered by intimidation. They use leaflets, local radio stations, and the Internet to recruit new members and publish their beheadings and suicide attacks, with the primary goal of terrorizing people in Afghanistan and beyond. Canada must confront the Taliban head-on, and Canadians should question any person—Afghan or otherwise—who advocates a course of events that would ever make it possible for the Taliban to return to power or even to share power in Afghanistan.

Afghans want progress and peace, not death and destruction. Malalai Joya, and her call for the world community to abandon Afghanistan, has failed to speak up for Afghanistan, and for Afghans.