A letter from an Afghan feminist

3:31 pm - November 24th 2008

by Conor Foley    

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I received this letter from a friend, Orzala, at the weekend. I will be writing a separate piece about it, but would appreciate it if as many bloggers as possible could post links to it as I think what Orzala says should be widely read

An Open Letter to Barack Obama

I witnessed a historical moment in Washington when I first learnt of Obama’s victory. I joined the crowed of victorious young and old on the streets of America’s capital that night, somehow with confusing feelings. I say confused because I felt so proud to be in America when it happened, but I was unsure whether I should also be happy with what he would do in Afghanistan. I had just – that same day – seen the shocking pictures of women and children injured by a US coalition-forces bombardment in Shah Wali Kot district of Kandahar province.

Would Obama be able to stop such atrocities? Would he be able to fight the war against terrorism with the social and economic means to oppose the military means?

These were the questions in my mind which caused my confusion and made me doubt whether or not to celebrate the moment. I joined the crowd because I saw, for the first time in the history of this land, that an African-American was elected as president; I did so because I had heard him speaking over the past three months about the working class, the middle class and I saw that he was their voice. Such words sounded very unfamiliar to me in the context of a capitalist country, so I thought at least that he is not trying to ‘rescue’ the rich, but that rather he was there also to help the poor and so on. So I joined the crowed. I saw him speaking: “If there is any one out there who still doubts that everything is possible, today is my answer. For those who want to tear this world up, we will defeat you. For those who are looking for peace and security, we will support you…”

I would like to offer, however, the expectations of the war generation and of all ordinary Afghan people who are neither part of the failed ruling government, nor are they terrorists or Taliban, and I do hope that these unheard voices have a space to be heard.

The ‘war on terror’ is a key issue in US foreign policy, and Afghanistan is one of the key battlefields for eliminating extremism and terrorism worldwide. Strengthening global security against terrorism must begin with an increased investment in the improvement of Afghan security forces. An increase in foreign military troops worries us – we are concerned that it just means more house raids and more bombing of civilians. This is not a war that can be fought by military means. Today everyone knows who the Taliban were/are and why they’re fighting. This war needs to be fought with a totally different approach.

We expect your support and investment in our local forces, while sending anti-corruption experts who ensure that the corruption is dealt with in a proper manner. This is essential for alleviating the responsibility from the international forces and will empower Afghans to defend their territory and fight against any kind of crimes on their own. Such a shift in security operations is important because the last seven years of military intervention is evidence for the failure to ensure overall security. Corruption is on the rise, the drug trade is booming and breaking world records, militants and warlords are violating the human rights of our most vulnerable citizens who have no avenues of recourse and still lack of basic social facilities. All this threatens the future of the country.

The militarization of development aid has jeopardized the work of civilian humanitarian assistance organizations, and as a result, hundreds and thousands of people are deprived of basic health and educational opportunities. A major lesson could be learned from the case of Afghanistan if the old-fashioned prescription of what is ‘good’ for the nation were put aside, and if instead the Afghan people were asked to define what they want and need.

Civil society, non-military political groups and tribal leaders are instrumental in maintaining support for a strong democratic Afghanistan that will deny terrorists a safe haven. However, such a strategy must and should not be considered ‘negotiations with the Taliban.’ The Taliban do not represent the Afghan communities. Should the US government and international community want to negotiate, it must be with the ones who have created this group – in other words, the intelligence services of Pakistan – because they have a big stake in directing master-minding the Taliban movement, not necessarily anyone in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan presents a tragic example of what cannot be achieved by compromising with and integrating warlords and drug-lords into the governing core of the nation. This much is clear, because at this point, seven years after the fall of the Taliban, the situation still deteriorates. The encouragement of some members of the international community that we should negotiate with those who behead civilians, use women and children as human shields, manipulate young people and brainwash them to become terrorists, cannot be accepted by Afghan people. The real end to the ‘war on terror’ can only be achieved if there is accountability for war and crimes committed during the recent upheavals and when an effective system of justice is established in the country. Only then can we begin to re-establish the infrastructure and make progress in basic economic development. Such investments will improve the Afghan economy and create opportunities for employment.

In the 21st century, the most important weapon to be given to Afghan people, of whom over 50% are youth, is the pen. More investment in education for a nation with a 71% illiteracy rate will significantly curb generations of prospective terrorist recruits against the West in general, and contribute to a sustainable peace in the region.

Women in Afghanistan, despite some claims to the contrary, are not liberated. Nor can an outside force liberate them. They are under-represented in the leadership and political decision-making processes; and moreover, the debates and discussions about negotiating with extremist groups such as Taliban and Hezb-e Islami are indeed endangering the status of women by limiting their access to education, jobs and political participation. The process of democratization and gender equality requires strengthening grass-roots initiatives working on such issues on the ground. Implying western models in a country where customary law holds sway over 90% of the territory will endanger the status of women further and will limit their full participation in the development and political decision-making.

I congratulate American women and men for electing a man of dignity, and one who is humble, an inspiring leader of our time and someone who walks to the White House with the idea of CHANGE. What we expect from you is to let the CHANGE for Afghanistan to be lead by Afghans and only support such CHANGE by supporting women and men, children and youth of Afghanistan with more economic development opportunities, more jobs, more education, and not by sending your troops and escalating the war. We need your help in fighting against corruption – the main cause of everything that you read in your newspapers or see on your television screen. Corruption has paved the ground for the re-organization of the Taliban; corruption is what opened the doors for the drug mafia, and indeed the larger global fight in Afghanistan should focus on corruption and ensuring rule of law.

We deeply respect the sacrifice America has made to end this war, and we also hope that you will consider the daily losses of common civilians – in particular those of women and children – due to the ‘war on terror.’ We hope that we will all look back with pride at this endeavor in which we undertake together to free the world of terrorism and sectarian strife.

Orzala Ashraf Nemat

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About the author
Conor Foley is a regular contributor and humanitarian aid worker who has worked for a variety of organisations including Liberty, Amnesty International and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. He currently lives and works in Brazil and is a research fellow at the Human Rights Law Centre at the University of Nottingham. His books include Combating Torture: a manual for judges and prosecutors and A Guide to Property Law in Afghanistan. Also at: Guardian CIF
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Reader comments

Duly posted.

Dear Orzala,

I try to sympathize with your plight, but I find myself questioning several of your arguments. I do so not because I want to bomb your country into the stone age, but because it is not at all clear to me what your country is. It is also not clear to me that you grasp some of the obvious implications of war. You push a point of view about the global war on terror but fail to define it as a war.

First, your characterization of U.S. bombardment of Kandahar province as “atrocities” requires the assumption of an intent by the U.S. to harm civilians. I agree that such deaths are shocking and regrettable, even tragic. Nazi death camps and Taliban terrorism are atrocities. U.S. responses to such threats are not atrocities. Could we respond without bombardment? Possibly, but you certainly have not demonstrated in any way that a non-military response to Taliban and al Qaeda terrorism would have any meaningful impact on destroying their organizations. I will concede, of course, that we have not yet shown that military actions can accomplish their elimination, either. In other words, I agree that our military actions so far have not “won” the global war on terror or the battle for Afghanistan. However, I would not characterize our efforts as atrocious. One of the many reasons I’m sure we can agree on for preferring peace to war is that war kills people, often innocent civilians. That’s why we call it war. That’s not a reason to label valid military attacks against enemy forces as an atrocity, even when the attacks miss their targets and hit others. I’m not trying to trivialize civilian casualties. When you equate civilian deaths with atrocities, however, you trivialize the real atrocities, which are the actions of the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Second, your call for increased investment in Afghan security forces does not have any logic, given your own admission that your ruling government is a failure. Afghan military forces will be an instrument of the Afghan state. If the Afghan state is a failure, why should we strengthen its military capabilities? Better to fix the Afghan state. I’m fairly certain we agree that this is necessary, and I confess that I don’t have a clear solution. I do not believe the solution is to try to rebuild your country while we are still at war. Tragically, thoroughly bi-partisan U.S. policy will have us negotiate with so-called “moderate” elements of the Taliban. I have no earthly idea why we should do this, as I do not see how it will do anything but strengthen the forces of extreme repression and terror. Yet, our outgoing President, our President-elect and our defeated Republican presidential candidate all support this direction in our policy. I certainly concede that you know better the problems of your own country and how we might begin to help strengthen a peaceful Afghan nation. However, I do not believe that you have one Afghan nation. I believe that you have a confusing Afghan national identity that is less important to many than tribal, religious and ethnic identity. How ironic I find it that America — long ridiculed by many “cosmopolitan” internationalists as a hopelessly racist and ethno-centric culture — should confront problems abroad where the sectarian, tribal and religious animosities simply surpass our ability to understand them.

Having disagreed with you on these points, I’ll close by saying that I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiments about self-determination, human rights and education. I do not believe that military action is the only answer. But, we are fighting a war, and simply to stop the fighting and hope that international aid will solve the problems that created this war — well, that seems too simplistic and naive to me.

At root, I think that we have never really understood this war — never understood exactly who and what we should be fighting and therefore never set any realistic war objectives. We don’t understand what it means to fight against non-state enemies, nor what it means to confront a variety of states that either sympathize and deliberately aid our enemies (who we haven’t really fully identified) or share at least some of our objectives but lack the power to do any particular good in our fight.

In the end, it is your country that has paid a steep, steep price for this failure. And for that, I am truly sorry. I hope that my country can help. I am not sure your advice would actually improve anything, until we actually figure out this new type of war.

Best regards,
Jim Vernon

Posted with a time delay, extracts and a smidgen of commentary from me…..will go live tomorrow morning at 8ish…

This is actually a good letter and full of sensible ideas, than the idealistic crap I’ve read in most places addressed to Obama. Thanks Conor, its worth circulating.

I’ve just cross-posted this at DisAbled Feminist, a blog I hope to restart, with full links and credit to you.

6. douglas clark

Is Jim Vernon worth debating? In the context of what I think we are trying to achieve here, he should not be allowed a free pass on what, it seems to me at least, is just American exceptionalism writ large. So, where to begin. Well, there is this:

I do so not because I want to bomb your country into the stone age, but because it is not at all clear to me what your country is.

What a privelege, to have the power to not bomb. And what arrogance, to determine what a country is. Presumeably in the context of bombing or, not. If your country is stuck in a ducking stool and you drown, presumeably the righteous Mr Vernon would save his weapons. If you were to surface alive, then he’d let off all his pornographic munitions. Such is the mentality of the ‘nuclear parking lot’ lunatics that try to argue on European sites when they are perhaps best contained on Little Green Footballs.

What the Taliban does is an atrocity. OK. What happened in Nazi death camps were atrocities. OK and a Godwin. But, and hear Mr Vernon good:

U.S. responses to such threats are not atrocities.

Pish. They can be atrocities, wedding parties and the like, or maybe they sometimes hit the bad guys. Obviously lack of evidence is not proof that there is no evidence, however….


Mr Vernon, I would submit, is nuts.

I’ve posted a link.

Douglas Clark self-righteously mischaracterizes what I have written.

My position is anything but American exceptionalism. Yes, I’m an American and proud to be so. I asserted no exceptionalism for my country. I simply asserted the reality that we’re at war. I made it clear, I think, that I’m not happy about that. But wishing it were not so is simply unrealistic. I address the question of what we should do about it, as well as how we should think about it.

Yes, I suppose it is a privelege to have the power not to bomb. Power requires responsibility (which would be a much more obvious characterization than the sarcastic “privelege”), and I was referring both to the need to exercise responsibility as well as the common perception of Americans as cowboys who seem to think bombing is the answer to most foreign policy problems. If it wasn’t obvious that I was trying to create some distance between myself and that stereotype, then perhaps I should not have tried subtlety. On the other hand, perhaps Mr. Clark could have read more carefully.

It doesn’t take very careful reading to understand that I certainly did not “determine what a country is”. Rather, I am confused as to what a country is. Is it whatever Mr. Clark says it is? That sounds arrogant to me. One of my points is that we need to distinguish between countries and the people in them. Thus, while we went to war with Afghanistan in 2001, I certainly do not believe we intended to go to war with the majority of the Afghan people. However, in that context, I also note that we poorly understand the overlapping ethnic, religious and tribal identities that appear to be at least as important as Afghan national identity. This is nothing like arrogance on my part. I may understand the reality very poorly — and I’m sure Mr. Clark thinks he understands it much better than I do — but at least I understand that identifying someone as an Afghan national doesn’t do much to determine whether that person is someone the U.S. should support. The Taliban were Afghan nationals, in fact controlling the state. That matters far less to me than their religious, tribal and ethnic animosities and repression of others not like themselves (as well as of some like themselves but of different values and opinions). It’s not arrogant that the notion of country or nation is much, much different in the U.S. than it is in Afghanistan. Pluck a random person off the streets in America, and you’ll find an American. Not a Californian, not a Christian, not an Asian or African, but an American, first and foremost. Other identities matter, but not nearly at the same level as American. Pluck a random person off the roads in Afghanistan. Will you find a Pashtun? A Taliban? Those identities seem to matter much more in terms of the behavior and attitudes toward a woman not wearing a head covering, for example. That’s not arrogance; that’s observing reality. I may poorly understand the various tribal, ethnic and religious dimensions, but at least I know they exist and that they matter a great deal.

As for the question of characterizing atrocities, I reassert that it is wrong to equate U.S. responses with the simple assertion that “they can be atrocities”. If you call our attacks on the Taliban atrocities, then you have equated our intent with theirs. We may be stupid, using a missile to respond when a sniper’s rifle would be more effective. We may be naive, thinking that our military strategy can do good. But, make no mistake that we believe we do what we do precisely because we think it will do good.

Yes, I think it’s clear that I would concede that we sometimes convince ourselves that something is good when in fact it’s just in our self-interest. But I think that even Mr. Clark would have a difficult time persuading many that we invaded Afghanistan out of some economic or other self-interest, other than preventing further Taliban/al Qaeda violence. If anyone wants to label me as a self-interested American for that motivation, I happily accept and confess to the so-called crime.

Nevertheless, when we act from an intention of doing good or preventing evil, as we do when we aim missiles at Taliban and al Qaeda targets, it is a gross exaggeration to the point of irresponsibility to label that an atrocity equivalent to the acts and motivations that led us to form that intention. It would be an atrocity to target civilians deliberately, as the Taliban have done, as al Qaeda has done, as the Nazis did. It was not an atrocity to defeat the Nazis, even though we killed many civilians in the process. I’m not trivializing civilian deaths; I’m acknowledging them as part of the terrible cost and therefore tragic, but not an American atrocity.

According to the rules of this forum, “(a)busive, sarcastic or silly comments may be deleted”. It should be clear which post I believe should be subject to this policy.

Best regards,

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