I thought I knew what the U.S. should do in Afghanistan, until I made a trip there with a small group organized by Code Pink. This is Part 1 of a series.
There was no stopping us, even though the State Department issued a warning against travel to Afghanistan because of "an ongoing threat to kidnap and assassinate Americans." We were a group of eight women and one man organized by Code Pink, Women for Peace, and we arrived in Kabul this fall believing the U.S. should withdraw its troops and spend more money on development.
After eight days, our presumptions were turned upside down. Some still wanted an exit strategy, but one woman who's spent 40 years in non-violent peace work reversed her lifelong stand, believing the military should stay and more troops might be helpful. "It shocks me to admit this," she said.
What happened to this group in Kabul--how our ideas changed or resisted change--reflects how and why people in living rooms and offices are struggling with the issue: how do we attain a stable peace in Afghanistan?
I'd never been to a war zone before and never participated in a Code Pink action. I signed up for the trip after reading that men were attacking Afghan girls on their way to school by spraying acid in their faces. I called Jodie Evans, a founder of Code Pink, whom I'd know since our kids were in pre-school together. "Is your group doing anything to support Afghan women and girls?" I asked. "I'm organizing a trip," she said.
Code Pink was founded in 2001 to protest the invasion of Iraq. It now has 250 chapters and 200,000 members, who're known for their nerve and in-your-face tactics. At a White House demonstration, women pulled off their shirts revealing peace doves on their bras and words written on their stomachs with black marker: "Read my tits: No War in Iraq." I was nervous they'd do something flamboyant in Kabul but Jodie assured me they would dress and act "respectfully."
A month before we were to leave, suicide bombs and a rocket exploded in Kabul, days before the election. I panicked, but Jodie said she didn't think Kabul would be more dangerous than New York city. For weeks I felt I was on my way to be killed, or worse, paralyzed, blinded or brain injured. Every moment became heightened: watching my daughter play piano, walking through a field of aspens. I would think, this could be the last time I hear my daughter play or see aspens turning gold.
Friends asked why in hell I was going to a place where two New York Times reporters had been kidnapped and hundreds of Americans killed? I didn't know, but something kept pulling me to commit. At times I would think, I can't handle this, I won't go, but then the world went flat and gray as it does when one "refuses the call," as Joseph Campbell describes it. Finally there was a moment when I simply knew I had to go and felt a keen instinct that no harm would come to our group.
When we all introduced ourselves at the Dubai airport, Jodie, 55, who has long, natural red hair and wears pink earrings with peace signs, said terror had come over her a few days before, despite the insouciance she'd expressed to me. "I've got white knuckles," she said, "but I had to come. It's the eighth anniversary of the U.S. invasion and I need to see--what's the result?"
Our group must have looked like a cougar team: the women were mostly in their 50s and 60s and the guy was 39. The women included a gynecologist, lawyer, photographer, teacher and a former army colonel. The lone male, Paul Kawika Martin, is political director of Peace Action and wanted to come because, he said, "I learn more from experience than anything else."
We'd been told to arrive wearing plain dark clothes that cover the head, arms and buttocks. But Medea Benjamin, 57, who founded Code Pink with Jodie, showed up in a purple short sleeve blouse and pink t-shirt. "Some people have a problem following directions," she said.
Medea is like the quick brown fox who jumps over the lazy dog. Small, blonde and wiry with lively brown eyes and an aquiline nose, she'd been to Afghanistan twice since 9/11 and witnessed so much pain that she hadn't wanted to return. "I changed my mind when I saw people were turning against the war and there was an opening to talk about it," she said.
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In the garden of our guest house, there's a twenty-foot long bird cage with thousands of chartreuse parakeets chirping so loudly we can barely hear each other speak. Afghans love birds as they love flying kites, but both passions were outlawed by the Taliban. Our guide and translator, Najib, a former war surgery medic, says the guest house is "pretty safe" because it's not near the embassies or military installations. (A month later, a guest house nearby would be attacked by Taliban and eight people killed, including six UN workers.) Two men with machine guns guard the entrance, the compound is surrounded by metal walls and the rooms are primitive but have internet connection.
Najib tells us the safety rules: don't split off from the group, don't walk on the street, even to the corner, without an Afghan escort, and don't go out after dark.
Our days begin at 8 and end at midnight, riding on a bus from meeting to meeting with a wide range of Afghans. What surprises us is that almost all say they want U.S. troops to stay, for security and to train the Afghan army. Even those who are hostile to U.S. policy say, "Now is not the time to withdraw." Mirwais Wardak, who runs an NGO for peace building, says, "I can't go to the provinces to do research. I can't go to my own village--I'll be attacked on the road driving there."
Asad Farhad, a former minister of finance, tells us that if all foreign troops are withdrawn, "This government collapses in 48 hours and we have what we had before: killing, looting, rape."
Paul is perplexed. "I'd read that only 20 per cent of Afghans want American troops to stay, but that's not what we're finding."
Sara Nichols, an attorney from L.A., wonders if we should re-think the call for a quick exit strategy.
Medea breaks in, "Let's not be so quick to change our thinking. In the first days you get bombarded with new ideas. At the end we'll see what we want to integrate in our bedrock beliefs." I ask what those beliefs are. "The military can't defeat the Taliban," she says. "Countries have to work out democracy on their own and women have to find ways to liberate themselves."
TO BE CONTINUED
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IF YOU'RE IN COLORADO, I'll be speaking about the trip and solutions for Afghanistan in January in Boulder. If you'd like to come, please rsvp to email@example.com