Last week, a long-term CODEPINK supporter phoned to invite me to dinner with Obama. She said, "You went to a war zone to learn what the women of Afghanistan want to say to Obama -- I want to make sure he gets the message." She told me she spent $30,000 for two tickets to Obama's DNC fundraiser in San Francisco, and would gift one to me. After waiting for eight years to speak with the president of the United States about the wrongful invasion of Afghanistan, I jumped at the opportunity.
To prepare, I spent a few days transcribing conversations from our Afghanistan trip. I also reached out to the CODEPINK community to join the petition that Afghan members of Parliament, human rights activists and NGO leaders we met in Kabul signed:
We, the women of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and the United States, implore you to refrain from sending more United States military forces to Afghanistan. We encourage you to work quickly for a political solution in Afghanistan that will lead to a reconciliation process in which women will fully participate and to a withdrawal of foreign military forces. Sending more military forces will only increase the violence and will do further harm to women and children. Instead, these funds should be redirected to improving the health, education and welfare of the Afghan people.
I wasn't sure that I would actually get into the dinner and we were careful to make the package very user and security friendly. It was filled with photos, quotes, thousands of signatures, a copy of Rethink Afghanistan and our 25-minute interview with Afghan MP Dr. Roshanak Wardak from Wardak Province, who is adamant that the U.S. should not send new troops and rather, must leave.
The front of my CODEPINK t-shirt read, "The most recognizable feature of HOPE is ACTION" (a quote from Grace Paley) and the back was stenciled with "End the Afghan Quagmire." This made getting in a bit difficult but our supporter continued to wave the $30,000 receipt as our ticket in. We arrived a few hours before Obama and were able to think through all the potential obstacles to being in the photo line and taking our own footage of the moment. This also gave us the opportunity to deliver the same packet of photos, quotes and signatures to Nancy Pelosi who was generous in her receipt of the message from the women.
The DNC staff was nervous and came over to make sure I knew I couldn't hand anything to the president, asked us to remove our CODEPINK buttons, and I couldn't take photos because there was an official photographer. Luckily the supporter who invited me to join her had a Flip cam to capture the meeting, and we uploaded it to a news truck immediately afterwards. The staff circled us until the last moment and we were pretty surrounded when it came time for me to move forward. I took strength from remembering that outside the hotel was basically surrounded by Bay Area activists clamoring for peace and justice
Expecting less than the minute I was warned I would have, I was in a hurry to say a lot and make that minute count. When it was my turn to meet with President Obama, I began by telling him I had just returned from Afghanistan and had brought back messages from the Afghan women who said they didn't want more troops. I passed along their message that the U.S. is supporting corruption and greed in Karzai: we would be more effective by changing how we operate in Afghanistan rather than adding more soldiers. I handed him the signatures from Americans through our online and paper petitions and from the women in Afghanistan and he told me to pass them on to his staff, which I did. But he did see the pile of signatures, marking the first time since the war began that we have been able to hand-deliver a peace petition to the president. After handing off the packet, I turned to him and said, "The women really want to be at the negotiating table." He responded with what about MY Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and we have a woman ambassador (whose name he failed to recall). I stopped him and said, "No -- the women of Afghanistan." His response was a revelatory, "Oh..." He then gave me a fatherly pat as he told me, "I am not going to be able to fix Afghanistan quickly," and I responded, " You won't be able to fix it at all. Only they can."
Our conversation, however brief, confirmed my fears about the insularity of the discussion about Afghanistan. When you are there, in the midst of everything, seeing the impact of our occupation and listening to the citizens brimming with ideas on fixing their war-ravaged country, you realize it is painfully clear to the people of Afghanistan that their ideas are falling on deaf ears. They are not part of the debate about the future of their country, and, heartbreakingly, they pay the price. So many of the Afghan women and men we met with asked me, incredulously, "Aren't you upset that your taxes have gone to nothing? That we are worse off than before?" The waste, corruption, greed, ineptitude, and our attempts to end violence with violence are deep wounds that Afghans and their country will continue to be forced to bear for decades to come.
One thing I learned from Obama is that he is making the decision about troops, and he is trying to learn as much as he can, and is going to take some time in making this VERY important decision. So, now is the time we who KNOW that more troops is WRONG to speak out, to deliver the message in the media, to the White House and in the streets. If one of the points of decision making is 'how will the voters respond?' he needs to know we won't be happy, nor will history.
Contact Obama today at http://www.codepinkalert.org/afghanistan for more info.