Volunteer turns outrage into concrete action to help her peers in Afghanistan
Licia Corbella, Calgary Herald April 25, 2013
“This,” says Janice Eisenhauer, sweeping her hand around her tiny office in her southwest Calgary home, “is the national head office of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan.”
The executive director of the grassroots, not-for-profit organization laughs heartily as she takes a couple of steps into the 30-square-foot room, which quickly brings her to the far wall of the office. The irony is as big as the room is small. From this compact space, Eisenhauer has helped open a world of promise to women and girls living in Afghanistan and she has done it without accepting one cent of pay for her 15 years of full-time work.
It all started in 1997 when Eisenhauer was earning her degree in development studies at the University of Calgary. She read an article in the now defunct Homemakers magazine by editor-in-chief Sally Armstrong, who was one of the first journalists to expose the plight of women and girls in Afghanistan living under Taliban rule.
“I can still recite almost word for word the first paragraph of that article,” says Eisenhauer, from her sunny dining room in Calgary’s Knob Hill community.
And Eisenhauer comes very close to getting the following spot on: “It’s hot in here. Shrouded in this body bag, I feel claustrophobic. It’s smelly, too. The cloth in front of my mouth is damp from my breathing. Dust from the filthy street swirls up under the billowing burka and sticks to the moisture from my covered mouth. I feel like I’m suffocating in the stale air.”
Those words that start the article quote a then-28-year-old psychiatrist named Fatana, who fled to a refugee camp in Pakistan to escape the Taliban’s medieval government.
Armstrong’s article revealed that the Taliban — which means Islamic scholar — “catapulted” the lives of women and girls “back to the dark ages” when they seized power on Sept. 27, 1996.
Overnight, women could no longer work, they had to be completely covered from head to toe in a burka, could not be in the company of men who were not relatives, and were not allowed outside alone without a male relative. Windows were blacked out to prevent women from being seen from the street; radio and television were forbidden, along with music, singing, dancing and clapping. Photographs were considered un-Islamic and were forbidden. Every Afghan woman was a prisoner. They could be beaten if they made too much noise when they walked and would be stoned in the public square if they were found in the company of an unrelated man.
Reading about what the Taliban was doing to women and girls — and how little the international community was doing — outraged Eisenhauer.
Along with her friend, Carolyn Reicher, Eisenhauer co-founded Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan (CW4WAfghan).
“It was so enraging and it continues to be enraging,” says the 61-year-old mother of a son who is in university.
“But the way that we manage that rage and the empathy that we have for women worldwide is to be active, to take action, to do something,” adds Eisenhauer, who was awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee medal last year in recognition of her 15 years of volunteer work.
“And I am so thankful to have had Women for Women as the way that I — along with so many other tremendous people — could do something to cope with that rage and turn it into something positive and to ensure that our programs are relevant and helpful.”
Since its inception in 1997, Women for Women has raised more than $4.8 million and has trained more than 4,000 teachers, who in turn have helped bring literacy to about 400,000 men, women and children. The organization, which has 14 chapters across Canada, has also opened community libraries in cities and remote villages, and helps street kids and orphans obtain an education and get one warm meal daily, as well.
Much of the money is raised by women across the country, holding Breaking Bread dinners to raise awareness and fund the $750 salary of an Afghan teacher for six months. These dinners usually involve a host inviting nine other women to a potluck dinner, with each person donating $75 while learning more about the plight of women and girls in that landlocked country.
Tonight, however, the country’s largest Breaking Bread dinner is taking place at the Thorncliffe Community Centre. Six hundred people will attend the 10th annual fundraiser that was started by Irene MacDonald — a retired Calgary schoolteacher — in 2004 in her home, and growing exponentially since.
This year, Armstrong — the woman whose article was the seed that sprouted the passion — is speaking at the sold-out event.
Last year, CBC journalist Mellissa Fung, who was kidnapped at knifepoint and held hostage for 28 days in Afghanistan in 2008, enthralled the crowd.
Armstrong, a journalist, author, member of the Order of Canada and human rights activist, is grateful for Eisenhauer and the mighty little organization she has built.
“Janice has put in hours and hours and hours over 15 years to benefit the well-being of others,” says Armstrong.
“She is really a daughter of Alberta and she doesn’t get recognized enough for it. You know, around the world, people talk about Janice Eisenhauer and Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan. So here’s a woman from Calgary who heard about a situation in Afghanistan and decided that she just couldn’t look the other way, she had to do something about it. So she set out with her friend to start a program, and look what they’ve accomplished.”
Armstrong, who has visited Afghanistan numerous times, remembers hearing Eisenhauer’s name being mentioned by schoolgirls in a remote community of the mountainous country.
“About six months after the Taliban was toppled (in 2002), I visited a Canadian-Women-for-Women-in-Afghanistan-funded school in the central highlands of Afghanistan in a place called Jaghori. The school was in the middle of nowhere — kids walked miles over the mountains and down the valleys in their black school dresses and white head scarves, leaving home at dawn to make it to school on time,” says Armstrong, whose latest book is called Ascent of Women.
“From a distance they looked like penguins dotting the Earth. When the students were told why I was there, I was astonished by how much they knew about the people who opened their school. Words like ‘Canada’ and a hugely mangled version of ‘Janice Eisenhauer’ sprinkled through the comments they were making in Dari. When I asked them what they wanted from school, an 11-year-old said, ‘I want to be an astronaut,’ and a little six-year-old said, ‘I want to be president of Afghanistan.’ I thought their dreams could come true because of a collection of women half a world away in Canada.”
And drawing from the theme of her latest book, Armstrong says she plans to speak about women like Eisenhauer. “Janice is a torchbearer for the world, because she learned of an injustice and decided not to look the other way,” says Armstrong.
Torchbearer is a perfect word to describe the work that Eisenhauer does.
“Women in Afghanistan refer to their lives when they were illiterate as ‘being blind,’” explains Eisenhauer.
An illiterate woman who learned to read, count to 10, and sign her name said she no longer is shortchanged by merchants and she can now read the signs on businesses.
The only paid Canadian staff member in the organization is projects director Lauryn Oates, who started the Vancouver chapter of CW4WAfghan when she was just 14, back in 1998.
“Since I first became involved in development work in Afghanistan,” says Oates, who in less than a week is heading back to Afghanistan for the 37th time, “I have met a plethora of humanitarians, activists, project leaders and others working in some capacity in the development sector, many of them heroic, courageous and innovative individuals. I have travelled throughout the world, met heads of state, Nobel laureates and celebrated change-makers. But to date, I have never met anyone like Janice. Soft-spoken, humble and kind, she is also more defiantly relentless than anyone I know in pursuit of her commitment to the idea that every female deserves a chance at an education, and at dignity.”
Eisenhauer’s humility is evident. Try to talk about her and she changes the topic to talk about someone else — Sally Armstrong, Lauryn Oates, Irene MacDonald and many others. She’s a lot like her tiny office — compact, unassuming and world changing.
Sami Sadat Member, Afghanistan Analysis And Awareness; former advisor to Afghanistan’s minister of interior
I am writing this in the hope of providing an Afghan perspective on the challenges and achievements of the last decade as the war in Afghanistan is nearing an end. I am tired of hearing about different doomsday scenarios boasted by Afghan as well as international news organizations in the last year or so.
Let me give you a brief summary of my experience, as an Afghan living, working and fighting for justice and democracy in my homeland. There was no doubt that the Sept. 11 attacks were planned by extremists who were given sanctuary by the former Taliban regime and supported by Afghanistan's neighboring countries. But based on my own experience, I believe the Taliban regime would have collapsed whether the U.S. had intervened or not. The U.S.-led intervention only sped up the demise of the militant regime. This was evident in the fact that most Afghans did welcome U.S.-led coalition forces back in 2001 as liberators, something unprecedented in the history of the country. More than a decade ago, my countrymen and women cheered as the last fighters of the Taliban regime -- with their Pakistani and other extremist allies -- were driven out of Afghan cities one by one.
I remember the day very vividly because the arrival of international forces more than a decade ago coincided with the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. I saw Afghan families in Kabul providing food to coalition forces as they passed through the ruins of what was left of the Afghan capital.
Now eleven years later, I am afraid to say that the same feelings and emotions are no longer felt by many Afghans. But the fact remains that despite the many challenges, incredible progress has been made throughout a very short period of time. But the overall objective of U.S. intervention and Afghans' aspirations to live in a free and prosperous country has only been partially realized. No doubt that al-Qaida is weak but still deadly and dangerous. Many extremists groups were pushed out of the country but there are still many new ones who have risen in the last ten years. They still remain active and deadly partly because of the support they receive from certain neighboring countries and also because of their safe havens in Pakistan.
But on the positive side of things, great improvements have been made in the areas of education, health care and governance, to include distinction as the first nation in the region to adopt a democratic constitution.
Another area of progress has been the increasing strength and confidence of Afghanistan's National Security Forces (ANSF). Having grown sufficiently in capacity and capability, the ANSF now stands at more than 350,000 strong. Providing security for more than 75 percent of the Afghan population, the ANSF is on track to take full charge of Afghanistan's security by the end of 2014. In addition, Afghan Special Forces, a key expected player in 2014, is now numbering at around 30,000 strong. As a former Afghan official with the Afghan ministry of interior, I have witnessed firsthand the growing strength and bravery of Afghan Special Forces. I have witnessed their growing capability in rapid deployment to conduct independent or joint operations with Coalition partners. Looking ahead, this new capability will most likely play an important role in supporting future peacekeeping missions and regional cross-border counter-terrorism operations as Afghanistan's domestic security directly affects regional stability.
But ANSF will still need the U.S. and our international partners support in areas of offensive air capability, intelligence gathering and building their fire-ower. The international community has committed to support Afghan security forces beyond 2014. However, they need to make their commitment more visible, tangible and more urgent. President Obama will announce U.S. troops status after 2014 and with that comes changes in the mission statement and the presence of limited number of U.S. troops, who will increasingly rely on Afghan capabilities beyond 2014. As a military man myself, I have to say that Afghan infantry forces are unique in the region but there is an immediate need to expand the Afghan air corps, strategic lift capacity, air defense and border defense systems. I say so because Afghans have seen time and time again the increasing capabilities of their security forces in defending Kabul and other major cities against mass suicide attacks by the Taliban militants. But these attacks have also revealed a key weakness: Afghan Special Ops soldiers relying on U.S.-led NATOs planes and helicopters for operational needs. The Afghan Air Force still remains weak relative to the scope of challenges posed by the militants.
In terms of socioeconomic developments, let me say that there have huge improvements in the Afghan economy. I say so because one should have only come over a decade ago to the country to understand the dramatic economic transformation of Afghanistan. But we also have to understand that the Afghan economy is still largely dependent on foreign aid. Yet people often forget the fact that Afghanistan possesses vast mineral resources, estimated to be at hundreds of billions, ready to be exploited and become the backbone of the new Afghan economy. We understand that corruption remains a problem and a hurdle to achieving this goal, but there are also serious efforts under way to tackle corruption. These efforts are led by a new generation of Afghans who are readying themselves to assume their responsibilities as the elections for 2014 is coming up in a year. And I am part of this generation who has come of age over the last decade.
Afghan cities have also been transformed over the last decade. Despite insecurity and many economic challenges, Afghans look to the future in terms of building new planned cities. For instance, the development of a new eco-city in the north of Kabul provides a tremendous example of Afghanistan's recovery. Designed by fine Japanese engineers, this exciting new 30-year public-private project is already moving forward as part of a greater initiative to modernize the country.
In terms of trade, given the geostrategic location between the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent, Afghanistan is also uniquely positioned to provide a vital link for the transit of oil and natural gas and other resources to foreign markets. Similarly, Afghanistan's location could serve as an alternate route to facilitate the delivery of Chinese manufactured goods throughout the region.
On the geopolitical front, today the country enjoys special status as a major non-NATO ally to the United States and a key strategic partner to the United Kingdom, India, France, Australia, Germany and Italy. Additionally, it's recognized as a potential partner by regional great powers, including Russia and India. As the mission statement of the U.S. military changes, the United States needs Afghanistan as a long-term partner in order to contain Iran and be prepared to stay abreast of the rising extremism and instability in Pakistan.
Finally, I understand that some experts may question my overoptimistic outlook for my country. But I tell them that all these many achievements were carried out against the backdrop of a counterinsurgency, while recovering from a 30-year war. Without question, challenges and hard work remain.
One year from now will mark the critical juncture of 2014 when the last of NATO combat troops will depart and Afghanistan will experience a political transition as it holds its third democratic presidential election. Being part of a new generation, my belief is that elections will take place and I believe it will be a watershed moment when a new generation of Afghans will assume the leadership of their future. We will prove our enemies wrong and turn this country into a great power and a reliable partner to the United States and many other friends who helped us in the times of need.
Sami Sadat Member, Afghanistan Analysis And Awareness; former advisor to Afghanistan’s minister of interior
Originall posted: Posted: 02/11/2013 10:18 am
Graham Bowley, New York Times, August 11, 2012
KABUL, Afghanistan — When she refused to prostitute herself or have sex with the man she was forced to marry when she was about 13, officials said, Sahar Gul’s in-laws tortured her and threw her into a dirty, windowless cellar for months until the police discovered her lying in hay and animal dung.
Sahar Gul in December on the way to a hospital in Baghlan, Afghanistan.
In July, an appeals court upheld prison sentences of 10 years each for three of her in-laws, a decision heralded as a legal triumph underscoring the advances for women’s rights in the past decade. She is recovering from her wounds, physical and emotional, in a women’s shelter in Kabul.
But to many rights advocates, Sahar Gul’s case, which drew attention from President Hamid Karzai and the international news media, is the exception that proves the rule: a small victory that masks a still-depressing picture of widespread instances of abuse of women that never come to light.
Further, advocacy groups fear that even the tentative progress that has been achieved in protecting some women could be undone if the West’s focus on Afghanistan now begins to shift away as NATO troops withdraw and the international money pumped into the economy diminishes.
“If you take away that funding and pressure, it is not sustainable,” said Heather Barr, Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch.
As more details of Sahar Gul’s case have come to light — including the fact that the abuse continued even as, time and again, neighbors, police officers and her family members voiced suspicions that something was wrong — it has only reinforced how vulnerable women and girls still are in Afghanistan, particularly in rural areas where under-age marriages are common and forced ones are typical.
Sahar Gul, who is now about 14, grew up in Badakhshan, a poor, mountainous province in the north. As a young child she was shuffled around after her father died, ending up with her stepbrother, Mohammad, when she was about 9. She helped with the hard work — tending cows, sheep and an orchard of walnut and apricot trees, and making dung bricks for the fire — but her stepbrother’s wife resented her presence. The woman pressured Mohammad to give Sahar Gul up for marriage after he was contacted by a man, about 30, named Ghulam Sakhi — even though she had not yet reached the legal marriage age of 16, or 15 with a father’s consent.
In effect, Ghulam Sakhi bought her: he paid at least $5,000, according to government officials and prosecutors, an illegal exchange. He drove off with Sahar Gul to his parents’ home in Baghlan, another northern province hundreds of miles away.
Ghulam Sakhi’s first wife had fled after he and his mother beat her for not bearing children, according to Rahima Zarifi, the chairwoman of Baghlan’s women’s affairs department, and the mullah in the mosque in the town in Baghlan. In his search for a new wife, there may have been a reason Ghulam Sakhi’s family looked so far afield: they intended to force her into prostitution, according to Ms. Zarifi, who followed the case closely, and officials at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Kabul.
In Baghlan, the girl was immediately put to work cooking and cleaning, but she was able to resist consummating the marriage for weeks.
She ran away to the house of a neighbor, who alerted both the police and her husband’s family. Ghulam Sakhi’s neighbors and the police forced him to sign a letter promising not to mistreat Sahar Gul, though they let him take her back.
The warning had little effect. One day, when she complained of a headache, her mother-in-law, Siyamoi, tricked her into taking a sedative that she thought was medicine, said Mushtari Daqiq, a lawyer for the aid group Women for Afghan Women and also Sahar Gul’s lawyer.
Jawad Sukhanyar contributed reporting from Kabul, and an employee of The New York Times from Baghlan Province, Afghanistan
... continued on site of original article
Lauryn Oates, Calgary Herald, July 11, 2012,
It’s often said that the war in Afghanistan is more a war of perception than anything else.
This reference is sometimes made in relation to the Taliban’s capacity to use propaganda strategically as compared to NATO, and sometimes to the Afghan government’s need to win greater legitimacy by doing a better job of rooting out the corruption that too often consumes it.
But most frequently, the reference refers to the waning public support in the West for our governments’ ongoing investments in a war routinely written off as a lost cause.
The popular perception is that the war is being lost, or at least not being won, because the Taliban continue to wage their campaign of suicide bombings, assassinations and intimidation within Afghanistan. Recently, a video surfaced of a public killing of a married Afghan woman who was accused of running off with another man.
Lives are indeed lost daily at the hands of the insurgents. The Afghan government is under persistent assault, while the Taliban produces gloating (and much exaggerated) statements of their glorious martyrdom.
But while there is never any shortage of pessimism, we’re actually winning in Afghanistan.
The Taliban are not fighting the threat of progress, modernization, individual rights and civil society, but their actual existence.
It’s these changes, above all else, that should form the basis of our assessment of whether we’re winning or losing. This is not a war for land, for resources, or for power. It’s a war against fascism and for democracy, and for the right to live free from fear.
Afghanistan has been utterly transformed from what it was a decade ago. It is now a country where young people, the majority of the population, battle out ideas in classrooms, on blogs and on TV talk shows, rather than with Kalashnikovs.
It is now a country of thousands of civil society organizations — from village co-operatives of women farmers to independent electoral monitoring organizations, to think-tanks and research institutes.
It is now a country of courageous women who have staked out their turf in parliament, with no plans to retreat.
As a result, where 10 years ago women were publicly executed for “moral crimes”:
* There are now laws criminalizing violence against women;
* Women work, go to university and are in business;
* There is 55 per cent primary school attendance;
* There is improved access to water and sanitation;
* In 2009, the GDP real growth rate was an astounding 21 per cent;
* There is a thriving independent media;
* New universities have opened, and others reopened;
* Health care coverage is spreading, and
* Surveys show unequivocally that the majority of Afghans believe in democracy, support women’s rights and think their country is moving forward.
But acknowledging the progress does not diminish the significant challenges still facing Afghanistan.
It’s true that 45 per cent of primary school age kids aren’t in school in Afghanistan. But in 2001, the public school system essentially did not exist. Girls were shut out of education and a pitiful minority of boys studied in schools with a largely unregulated religious curriculum.
While in Canada, women make up only one in five parliamentarians, Afghan women represent 28 per cent of the parliamentary seats, and that within only a decade of when they were stripped of all of their rights.
Afghans have accomplished all this despite the violence they live in. And like a kicked hornets’ nest, the Taliban are raving mad about it.
It’s not wishful thinking to suggest that there is something worth fighting for in this beleaguered country. But it is most definitely wishful thinking to assume that we can give up on Afghanistan without it being a colossal betrayal to those people fighting to grasp what we already have: liberty.
Lauryn Oates is a Canadian aid worker managing education projects in Afghanistan. She is projects director at Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan. Distributed by Troy Media.
In the former capital of the Taliban, it takes courage to provide modern education to young women. For such courage, Ehsanullah Ehsan of Afghanistan was awarded by the National Educator Program in the United States with its highest honor; the Charles W. Bowser Award for Innovation in Education.
Mr. Ehsan, who serves as the Director of the Afghan Canadian Community Center and President of the Afghan Learning and Development Organization, adopted “career academies,” a model of instruction from American public schools, and adapted it for his own school – the first of its kind outside of the United States. In this way, he educates his students and prepares them for the world of work at the same time.
"Through this award you, the great people of the United States are honoring and respecting my whole nation of Afghanistan." Ehsan told the international audience via Skype. "You give it to the eight hundred girls who bravely come to school every day just in a hope to have a better tomorrow."
Mr. Ehsan has helped open community learning centers in Afghanistan and Pakistan to give hundreds of young women and men equal opportunity for education, and better jobs to help their families and serve their communities.
"Democracy only works insofar as you have an educated and dedicated electorate," said Mark Thompson, Executive Director of the National Educator Program. “Mr. Ehsan is a giant in the field of education and respecting human values and that greatness must be recognized. If we could support a hundred people like Ehsan, we would be making a big difference in Afghanistan at a much lesser price. Upon receiving the Bowser Award, Mr. Ehsan becomes only the third to hold it, and the first recipient who is not American.”
During a re-awarding ceremony, Ubaidullah Obaid, Minister of Higher Education of Afghanistan said to media in Kandahar, “I am pleased to re-award this honor to Mr. Ehsan for his hard work in providing education services to Kandahari men and women. The NEP in the United States of America through this award honors the whole nation of Afghanistan.”
Dr. Toryalai Wisa, the Governor of Kandahar said, “Mr. Ehsan’s role and commitment to fostering education services in Kandahar is highly commendable and we thank NEP for honoring him with this high honor.” The governor added, “There are several private education institutions open in Kandahar, but their services have not been as effective as the Afghan Canadian Community Center’s. The ACCC has served so highly that a large number of its graduates are serving in different government offices and that’s what we really need today. I believe we should support this community learning center to continue its training services.”
On the occasion, Mehmood Karzai, the President of the AFCO International and brother of President Karzai asked governor Wisa to help invite local and international organizations to give donations for the construction of a campus building for the ALDO/ACCC.
1.Prof. Ubaidullah Ubaid Minister of Higher Education (Left) Mahmood Karzai President of AFCO International (Center) Re-awarding
2. Prof. Ubaidullah Ubaid Minister of Higher Education (Left) Dr. Toryalai Wisa Governor of Kandahar (Center) Re-awarding Mr. Ehsa.
In the Name of Allah:
We the members of the Afghan Civil Society for Advocacy vehemently condemn the chain of violent attacks in the capital Kabul and across Afghanistan which resulted in the killings and wounding of many civilians and caused widespread horror and fear among the residents of Kabul and other cities.
Conducting and mounting armed assaults on civilian targets for the purpose of spreading horror and intimidation are against all International Conventions. According to these conventions the perpetrators and organizers of this sort of actions are subject to sever criminal punishments.
We as activists of civil society and civil institutions express our deep condolences and share the sorrows of the families who lost loved ones in last day’s incident. We hail and honor the heroism and sacrifices of the Afghan National Security Forces who have suffered injuries or lost their precious lives while defending civilians. They are the true and genuine heroes, they made history and will be remembered as a part of history.
While hailing the tireless efforts of the Afghan security institutions and personnel of Afghan National Police (ANP) and Afghan National Army (ANA) in safeguarding the lives of Afghan people, we inquire the Government of Afghanistan to launch an inclusive investigation on how the attackers managed to bypass numerous established security cordons and examinations and smuggled arms and equipments to their targeted spots and mounted numerous concurrent assaults. The investigation should highlight the shortcomings and inadequacies of Afghan security institutions in preventing such an organized and planned attacked.
While we would like to highly praise the security personnel, who risked their lives to save and protect the lives of civilians – we demand full financial and emotional support for the families of servicemen who lost their loves in action.
Furthermore; we once again request security officials to take appropriate measures, in cooperation with municipalities of Kabul and other cities across the country to ensure that yesterday’s incidents don’t repeat and high-rise buildings are not used for violent attacks.
As impartial civil society institutions, we once again ask all parties including the Taliban to restrain from conducting armed attacks in residential and civilian places.
Additionally, we inquire United Nations and other international institutions to support Afghan Government in investigating these attacks and indentifying the organizers for the attacks which took many lives and caused heavy financial damage to civilians, and render the orchestrators to justice for their crime.
Security and protection of civilians is of constitutional duties of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan which is headed by the President Karzai. Following these abhorrent attacks people had expected a message for the President – after the silence – we request the President to present an accurate definition of peace process.
This statement is from:
Afghan Civil Society for Advocacy that is comprised of civil society organizations and individuals who advocate for justice, rule of law, elimination of violence and protection of civilian rights.
For more information kindly contact;
Mr. Hamid Zazai - 7701088973900 – 7701077980000
Ms. Nargis Nehan – 0093799030631
Mr. Raz Mohammad Dalili - 7701077997918
The increasingly predictable commentary on Western involvement in Afghanistan centres on the need to abandon that troubled country.
Having recently completed a 12-month contract working for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan as head of radio broadcasting, I can offer a very different picture of this broken yet incredibly proud country. My picture comes from the perspective of a journalist mentoring Afghan journalists, talking, laughing and hoping with them - and sometimes their families - every day.
I left Australia in February last year convinced that international forces should leave Afghanistan, and that all Afghans must feel the same.
How ill informed I was.
These were assumptions made without having visited the country or having spoken to an Afghan, but I was nonetheless sure of my opinions. Yet every Afghan I spoke with, and there were many over the past 12 months, pleaded that the West remain or civil war would resume. ''We like the army tanks; they brought peace to our country,'' I was told repeatedly.
Most commentary on the situation in Afghanistan comes from within the prism of either the American military or agenda-driven politicians. These are people with the authority to fly into Afghanistan, speak to a few chosen people, then leave as quickly as possible.
They conclude quite rightly that Afghanistan isn't ready for the transition to Afghan-controlled police and military, and consequently the International Security Assistance Force should withdraw from the country, as it's hopeless.
Surely we should be doing the exact opposite, precisely because the need is clear. The current situation continues to be a nightmare for Afghans; they fear the international community leaving and the return of the Taliban, and their fate once again being ignored by the world.
I have seen the sadness and despair on Afghans' faces amid the suicide bombings, and I have also seen the productive work the UN and other international agencies are doing on the ground. Ethically, how can we justify leaving?
What would be more productive is to ask questions of Afghans struggling to make a living or hospitalised from war wounds or landmine injuries; or those huddled in displaced persons camps, enduring the lack of food and freezing in makeshift tents; or working-women and young girls attending school; students coping with under-resourced universities; or young women protesting against harassment and discrimination who are fomenting change on the streets of Kabul.
The key players being neglected in Afghanistan are young people, who are keen to forget their recent war-ravaged past and start rebuilding the country they love. Young political leaders (and there are many potential ones despite what well-intentioned but agenda-driven Westerners tell you) need training in contemporary political framing, infrastructure and discourse. The way forward is to help this generation throw out the old, tainted and mostly hated past and herald the new at every level of government and society.
Young people don't want to carry on the historical hatreds and resentments of those in the Afghan parliament. As one student told me, they want to find a different path that does not include the current crop of political leaders.
By continuing to support former warlords we are fostering yet another generation of disaffected, bitter and angry youth. And if you ask them, they do not want the Taliban to be part of any negotiation process. This is anathema to them, and yet this "solution" is touted as a possibility by both the US and the UN.
If Australia is serious about helping to shape Afghanistan's future, it's far more constructive to focus on positive initiatives since the fall of the Taliban; however, it seems these stories don't attract an audience or sell papers. One journalist based in Kabul, writing for a UK daily, told me he had submitted many positive stories about progress in Afghanistan but they were rarely accepted by editors.
According to an Afghan journalist, ''when we Afghans see nothing but negative stories in the Western media, it makes us depressed and continues a sense of hopelessness in our country.
''Why don't Western media write about the good things happening here?''
I hang my head in shame and reluctantly tell him it's all about political agendas, audience, readers, consumers and, ultimately, money.
The US should never have interfered in Afghanistan in the first place, but it did, so we now have a moral obligation to finish the job we said we came to do.
Jillian Hocking is a media development and communications specialist.
March 20, 2012
Original article: thehindu.com
The idea that liberal democracy is alien to the country, now being used to legitimise early western withdrawal, is racist libel.
In 2004, at a packed gathering in southern Afghanistan's troubled Paktia province, the eminent Pashto laureate, Matiullah Turab, read out a wrenching new poem: “war is a female fly,” it went, “hatching a hundred eggs a day.”
Last week, a deranged United States soldier shot dead 16 people in a village near Kandahar: the latest evil spawn to join a swarm of events that could ensure the war in Afghanistan will run on without end. In February, murderous riots broke out after copies of the Koran were found to have been burned by U.S. troops; earlier, video surfaced showing soldiers urinating on the corpses of killed enemies.
Each disaster has sharpened tensions between Afghans and the West — tensions which, in turn, have legitimised calls for an early withdrawal from intellectuals in Europe and the United States. In a sharp commentary in The Atlantic, for example, James Joyner demanded a “hastening [of] the day Americans stop dying for a lost cause.”
Powerful voices in western geo-strategic discourse had long railed against efforts to build a secular-democratic order in Afghanistan after 9/11. Now, the notion that liberal democracy is in some way alien to Afghanistan has become a pervasive meme. In order to legitimise early withdrawal, the anti-democratic politics of the Taliban is being marketed as an authentic voice of Afghan tradition. The ideological underpinnings of these ideas need extremely careful examination.
Enlightenment vs. darkness
Last week, in an essay published in The New Yorker, the influential British diplomat, scholar and Conservative politician Rory Stewart, made the most comprehensive “lost cause” case so far. He claimed that the pursuit of modern democratic values post-9/11 Afghanistan was founded on was “an Enlightenment faith that there is nothing intrinsically intractable about Afghan culture and society and that all men can be perfected [to a western ideal] through the application of reason.” Mr. Stewart doesn't explain which Enlightenment faith he is referring to, since there was no one single Enlightenment dogma, nor what “intrinsically intractable” might mean — but his propositions underpin much recent writing.
Doug Bandow, writing in the National Interest in 2010, claimed that the U.S. government “was embarking on a long-term mission to transform Afghanistan by turning it into a Western-style liberal democracy.” Hamida Ghafour, writing in the United Arab Emirates-based National, had this variant: “European and North American donor nations … are obsessed with the idea of establishing a western-style liberal democracy”.
“Lost cause” polemic draws, perhaps unconsciously, from Joseph Conrad's brilliant but profoundly racist masterpiece, The Heart of Darkness. Afghanistan, in this narrative, is a place where the West's efforts to promote its values will fail — and where those values themselves will become corroded from within.
The problem with this line of argument is this: there is nothing in recent Afghan political behaviour that suggests it is any different from that of peoples elsewhere. There are few places on the planet where the killings of innocents, such as those in Kandahar, do not have the potential to incite large-scale violence. Indeed, irrational scale violence has been a feature of the West's political heritage, too.
No one in his right mind, however, would link race riots in the U.S. to the culture of black Americans Nor could a reasonably literate commentator attribute the lynching of black people in the U.S.' southern States in the 1960s to a traditional honour code — even if it was invoked by the killers. Political scientists and media know that tradition was invoked by political actors to sharpen group boundaries, and to scare white women from asserting their rights. In writing on Afghanistan, however, it remains perfectly acceptable to attribute political behaviour to a supposedly self-evident term called “Islam” or “tradition.”
Myth & reality on democracy
A lack of thought has allowed a few key myths about the democracy-building project in Afghanistan to entrench themselves. The first is that the practice of democratic politics — and its foundational structure, a central state — was a post-9/11 western imposition. Even a cursory acquaintance with Afghan history would show that the state had strengthened itself steadily for over a century, building up to the promulgation of a new constitution in 1964.
Muhammad Zahir's monarchy was overthrown in 1973, and a republic declared — but the idea that Afghanistan ought to be a democracy was not assaulted, except from Islamists who argued that the Shari'a, not popular will, ought to be the basis of the government. In 2001, when Afghan leaders met in Bonn to deliberate how the country ought to be rebuilt, they chose to adopt the 1964 constitution as its basis: simply, democracy was an Afghan choice, not a western one.
The second myth is this: President George W. Bush was committed to the promotion of western values — whatever this ill-defined thing might be — in Afghanistan. Neoconservative dogma held, on the contrary, that left to themselves, people would make rational choices. The Iraqi state was thus dismantled; in Afghanistan, administration and security were subcontracted to warlords. Hamid Karzai, it bears remembering, was installed as President not in pursuit of some grand project to promote democracy, but to address concerns that a regime led by the victorious Northern Alliance might not have legitimacy among southern Pashtuns, and would displease Pakistan.
Thirdly, the proposition that there is no cultural foundation for democracy is dubious. Farhat Taj has demonstrated the existence of democratic traditions among the Pashtun tribes who straddle the Afghanistan-Pakistan border; the work of historian Sana Haroon demonstrates, likewise, that what western commentators refer to as tradition was, in fact, the outcome of complex political contestation between tribal custom, nationalism and neo-fundamentalist theology.
Historically, there is evidence that Afghanistan's cultural-religious traditions have been capable of considerable flexibility. In spite of the Koran's express prohibition of interest, scholar Ashraf Ghani has shown, Afghanistan's 19th century cleric-run court system routinely mediated commercial disputes involving loans. Put another way, god's words were given meaning by human power. The merchant class, not exegetes, shaped the substance of Sharia.
Indeed, Mr. Stewart's suggestion that reason is not central to Afghanistan's Islamic tradition is utterly without foundation. Though powerful anti-rational tendencies exist in Islamic tradition — just as they do in other faith-systems — the canon stretches to the frankly atheist. Muhammad ibn al-‘Arabi al-Ta al-Hatimi, a 13th century philosopher, saw reason as a key element that could elevate man to the status of khalifa, god's vice-regent. Earlier, Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali also placed reason at the core of his work.
The western philosophical tradition, for its part, doesn't rest on the idea of human perfectibility alone. For every philosopher like Jean Jacques Rousseau, there were those from Thomas Hobbes to Carl Jung with somewhat darker perspectives on humankind. Like every other crisis on our planet today, the roots of the war in Afghanistan lie in modernity: the battles for empire of the 19th century; the Cold War; secularisation against faith.
There are entirely legitimate debates to be conducted on when the West should leave Afghanistan, and how the war there should be fought. The truth, though, is this: the world chose not to commit the resources, and blood, needed to build a modern nation-state from the ruins of the Cold War. Blaming Afghans for a fate they did not choose isn't legitimate debate — it is deeply racist libel.
Come celebrate Nawroz in Vancouver with your fellow Canadians at a special event on Saturday, March 17th, 2012 .