Kabul, Afghanistan - The United States, on the verge of shutting down its own government for lack of funds, just forked over another $50 million for a peace jirga (or council) to negotiate peace in Afghanistan or at least sponsor an upcoming conference in the United Arab Emirates and - perhaps more so - bribe Taliban fighters to temporarily stop fighting.
Talking is always preferable to bombing, and anything with the name peace in it has at least that going for it. But this particular boondoggle may not have much else. To almost all Afghans, the hard-core Taliban are vicious killers and the United States/NATO foreign occupiers have their own deceitful motives. Afghans who want independence, sovereignty and democratic self-rule want power over their country kept out of the hands of the United States, the Taliban, Pakistan, Iran, and anyone else who is not the Afghan people. While many fear a Taliban takeover following a US withdrawal, they also resent the idea that a foreign power and its puppets should be negotiating the future of the country with its murderous criminals and offering those criminals a chance to share power with more US-friendly war lords and drug lords. Forgiveness and reconciliation is one thing, they say, but power sharing is something else all together. Offering serious investment in infrastructure would be appropriate, many think, but offering power to criminals who are greatly feared is unacceptable.
A nonviolent movement that could take over power for the people of this war-torn land could take a decade to develop, development that would have to include reconciliation among the various ethnic groups of Afghanistan. That's the view of Teck Young Wee, a medical doctor and native of Singapore who began working with Afghan refugees in Pakistan 11 years ago and moved to Bamiyan Province in Afghanistan nine years ago. He was taken in by an Afghan family and given the name Hakim.
The view of the Afghan youth with whom Hakim is now working to build a nonviolent movement for peace is that, while peace and democracy may be years away, the US military should leave immediately. Most Afghans oppose the Taliban, but most Afghans have family members who were horribly killed by the Taliban. The fear has to be overcome, Hakim says. Afghanis drove out the Soviets and the British and others before them. They can block Taliban rule with nonviolent resistance and develop a stable, peaceful and just government. But, first, they will have to come to believe that peace - something they've never seen, and a name applied to a deal-making gathering of war lords (not to mention a Nobel Prize for someone dropping bombs on them) - is truly possible.
Hakim believes Afghans have the courage and ability to build a nonviolent movement for independence and peace. He has, therefore, been mentoring youth in Bamiyan and elsewhere, creating the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers (AYPV).
Health care, Hakim came to realize a few years ago, is not enough without peace. He led a college workshop on peace, and began bringing youth together. When death threats came, the people of Bamiyan created a warning system to protect him that involved plans to put their own bodies in the path of any violence.
The youth of Afghanistan have a couple of advantages, even if lacking some of what the youth in Egypt and Tunisia began working with years ago. In Afghanistan, 68% of the country are under age 25, so there is an advantage in numbers. And while some of the leading members of AYPV lost family members to the Taliban, it is the youth more than their elders who carry less weighty memories and resentments. Women, too, as they assert their rights, have the potential to lead this nation, in partnership with the youth.
There are a dozen core members of AYPV, boys and young men ranging from age 8 to 20. Girls and young women and members of multiple ethnic groups are members as well. On March 17, 40 members of AYPV held a march for peace, nonviolence and ethnic unity in Kabul that was covered by all of the local television stations as a startlingly new phenomenon. Peace? Who even dreams of such a thing, much less proposes a strategy to build it? Police surrounding the marchers with batons and riot gear were a less unusual sight.
While Hakim is their mentor, the young men are the leaders of this budding movement. They are thoughtful, experienced beyond their years and relentlessly energetic and up beat. Hakim early on asked Abdullah, now aged 15, whether he could stand up to 49 coalition countries, and Abdullah said he didn't think so. But then he volunteered that he could stand up to one of them. Which one? Abdullah thought about that and replied: "The United States."
Left to right: Abdullah, Ali, Gulenai.
Abdullah, whose father was killed by the Taliban, recently explained his desire for peace and nonviolence from all sides to a defender of the US/NATO occupation. The icy response was that the Taliban ought to have killed him as well. Abdullah was told that he was too young to know real suffering. But the younger man was the wiser in this conversation, responding without anger or hatred and opposing the maintenance of a vicious cycle of violent force and vengeance.
Older Afghans, many of them traumatized by years of war and horrific incidents, often assert that an unbroken tradition of centuries of violence makes peace impossible. But that erases the memory of Pashtuns' nonviolent resistance to the British. And it overlooks the enthusiasm of the young who know less and, thereby, manage to know better. Crossing ethnic lines comes more easily for the young. The AYPV, who are mainly Hazara and Tajik, handmade cell-phone holders which they sent with messages of peace, love and friendship to Pashtun youth, who replied with overwhelming shock and gratitude. Older Afghans will tell you that overthrowing President Karzai will be the work of a few days, while resisting the Taliban will be impossible, even though Karzai has more support than the Taliban. Young active and informed members of AYPV will tell you that a group opposed by the vast majority will be defeated, but must be defeated by Afghans, not by foreigners.
The AYPV have issued statements in support of peace and delivered them to top US and UN officials. They've found allies and members around the country and abroad. They've held vigils. They've placed a lighted peace sign on the side of a mountain. And above all, they have educated and opened minds. They have a long way left to go.
On a recent morning, four members of AYPV spoke to a college class in Kabul. The professor with the loudest voice argued that the United States and NATO were here for the good of all people. Faiz, age 20, was among those who spoke up in response. Speaking to elders is not part of the tradition these young men have grown up in, but they believe it has become necessary. Some eyes were opened. About half the class seemed to believe peace might be possible.
"What is it with old people?" I asked some AYPV young men. The experience of the Taliban has crippled them with fear, said Abdullah. Some 60 percent of Afghans suffer post-traumatic stress disorder or other serious psychological damage. Faiz said that in fact the government works very hard to make people believe they are powerless. Ali said that as soon as people are able to all stand together, it would be that easy. Gulenai added that extreme distrust must first be overcome through relationships and friendships.
Last year, two of these young men went to the US embassy bearing an invitation letter from the Fellowship on Reconciliation. They had a terrible experience. The embassy waiting room television aired military propaganda interspersed in a movie about women in bikinis. There were a lot of doors and guards to go past before speaking with someone. And the officials were rude and insulting. Before they could obtain visas, the young men had to explain what message they had for the American people. The questioner laughed and made fun of their answers. Their visas were rejected.
Former Afghan member of Parliament Malalai Joya recently had a visa to the United States accepted following intense public pressure. When these young men next apply to visit, I hope we will be able to provide the necessary support and pressure. Their stories could move the majority of Americans who oppose this war to take the necessary steps to end it.