A portrait of youth in the Afghan countryside in 2008. A youth group in Aghanistan recently called for the end of the American occupation of their country. (Photo: maiaibing2000 / Flickr)
Two days after the Obama administration released its December review of the war in Afghanistan to a public made increasingly skeptical by the war's rising human and economic costs, a coalition of young Afghan peace activists issued their own review. The Global Day of Listening to Afghans brought together listeners from around the world, who joined sessions of a day-long conference call that offered a grassroots alternative to the official report, which has been criticized for its lack of hard facts or specifics on withdrawal.
Afghans must "demand the space to negotiate among ourselves and regional countries," said Hakim, a doctor who works with the Bamiyan-based Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers (AYPV) and acted as the group's translator for the event. The six young men participating from AYPV ranged in school level from fifth to twelfth grade. While some of their sisters are also members of the group, Afghanistan's conservative culture makes it difficult for them to gather with their brothers, said Hakim, who asked that participants' last names be withheld.
Abdulai, a young man whose father and grandfather were killed by the Taliban, said through Hakim, "My family is constantly affected by the killing. We will never get over this grief. But I want to have the opportunity to reconcile with these people, because further fighting will not help the situation. If I kill in revenge, there is no guarantee that they won't return and kill my other family members too."
After years of war, "the people of Afghanistan are starting to believe that the world doesn't see them as a sovereign nation," said Ramin, a university student from Mazar-e-Sharif and a member of Afghans for Peace (AFP), a solidarity group that is calling for withdrawal of all foreign military forces and for inclusion of the country's many ethnic and religious groups - AFP lists Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Shias, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Baluchis, Nuristanis, Pashai, Pamiris, Kurds, Aimaks, Gujjar, Tatars, Kyrgyz, Siekhs, Hindus, and Brahui, among others - in the peace process. Any attempt to change the course of the war must "make the new strategy relevant to the culture and relevant to the current situation in Afghanistan," said Ramin.
Like AFP, the AYPV is also demanding the withdrawal of US and NATO forces. Hakim acknowledged that Afghans' "experience for the last thirty years, and the on-the-ground realities, seem to indicate that civil war would break out, including warlords from many different places, including Afghan militias and local police that are armed by US forces now, and many other players that we are not aware of from regional countries," but "we want to say that despite the legitimate concerns of the Afghan people, Afghans have not heard enough of nonviolent solutions."
"Hunger is not solved by armies," said Hakim. "Unemployment is not solved by armies. Corruption is not solved by armies."
Much of the discussion reinforced perspectives that are increasingly visible in Western media. According to Ramin, "A very dangerous distance has been created between the Afghan government and the Afghan people."
"The Taliban are proceeding very intelligently both on the battlefield as well as political activities," said Ramin, attracting, for example, people disillusioned with government when their attempts to resolve legal disputes through official channels are met with demands for bribes.
"The people are so hopeless," said Ramin. "This sense of hopelessness also makes people more vulnerable toward activities you would consider terrorism."
Hakim emphasized the potential of nonviolence to disrupt the ensuing cycle that traps Afghans between violent entities. For those who have lost family and friends to the Taliban, he said "the natural response is to want a stronger military force - but when will there be a stronger military force that will not kill?"
As night wore on for listeners in the West and the day unfolded in Afghanistan, participants painted a picture of Afghan life in which civilians are not only caught in the middle of the conflict's violence, but must also navigate its ripple effects throughout their society. "The average Afghan is exploited by foreigners; they're exploited by foreign Afghans; they're exploited by local Afghans," said Spogmai, an AFP member and PhD candidate based in Ontario who has made multiple trips to Afghanistan to research and visit family.
"With the little development that you see here and there, people are interpreting this as a sign of progress," but "it's a very corrupt type of development," said Spogmai. On a recent visit to Kabul, Spogmai said, she observed a number of reconstruction projects that had been abandoned halfway through.
Ramin questioned the viability of schools that have ostensibly been built to aid development. "Constructing schools and constructing universities are not the solution," he said. "If people in a far village are hungry, [a father] will ask for his son to go and cultivate the fields; he will not ask for his son to go to school."
"If you go to the schools, you do not see any students. Why? Because many who were supposed to go to the schools are busy trying to survive."
While their stories of the realities on the ground spoke for themselves, AYPV's members did not display any of the cynicism or despair that has crept into some of the US's antiwar public. In honor of a listener's request for a song, they sang "We Shall Overcome" in Dari and recited lines from a poem: "We are like people who are sitting next to a river of peace, and the waves of peace are hitting the riverbanks and reaching us."
In response to a US listener who asked how to improve the relationship between Americans and Afghans, one of the young men replied, "When the situation in Afghanistan permits, we would love to have you come visit us and have tea with us."
Meanwhile, the daily reality of living in a war zone continues. When a student listening from the US asked AYPV how they viewed American soldiers, Ghulamai, the group's youngest member, spoke at length before Hakim began to translate and explain.
"When he sees a soldier, it makes him feel very small and not like a human being. One of the unfortunate things that happens with international soldiers is that they tend to move in convoys, and the convoys tend to speed through areas. It creates, on these unpaved roads, a lot of dirt as a trail behind the convoy. So Ghulamai gets lost in that cloud of dirt and smoke."