Interview with Malalai Joya

joyaThere are currently more than 100,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, about 65,000 of which are American. U.S. General Stanley McChrystal is asking for more, perhaps as many as 45,000 soldiers. However, there is rising opposition to the war in the United States and several NATO countries. The Taliban now have a permanent presence in 80% of Afghanistan, up from 72% in November 2008, and are spreading their influence to the north. The recent elections have been marred by fraud, and it is still unclear how and when the problems will be resolved. Obama has a lot on his plate and hears many conflicting voices on what should be done. But what do Afghans actually think?

Malalai Joya is Afghanistan’s youngest member of parliament, well known for openly challenging the US/NATO, warlords, and the Taliban. She spent her childhood in refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan, and returned to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s, where she worked for underground organizations helping women.

She was elected to parliament in 2005 but was suspended in 2007 after saying it was worse than a stable, because at least “in a stable we have animals like a cow which is useful in that it provides milk, and a donkey that can carry a load.”

In her recent book Raising My Voice, Joya writes that “today the Afghan people are tragically sandwiched between two enemies — the Taliban on one side and the US/NATO forces and their warlord friends on the other.” Afghans, she urges, should reject all three and, instead, empower progressives such as herself, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), and others.

Joya dissents from the conventional view that the only options in Afghanistan are the Taliban or the U.S.-backed government. She depicts the latter as infested with warlords and fundamentalists — as a direct result of U.S. policy. She says that some members of parliament are not even literate. She once saw a fundamentalist commander sitting in front of her with his newspaper open as if he were reading, but he was holding the paper upside down. Human Rights Watch has estimated that “up to 60% of deputies in the lower house, are directly or indirectly connected to current and past human rights abuses.”

Individuals like Joya, on the other hand, are virtually ignored. Worse, progressives are threatened or killed by those who hold power in Afghanistan.

In her book, Joya proposes the delivery of real humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, the disarming of the warlords, and the withdrawal of all foreign troops. In the following interview, conducted in late September, she expands on some of these views.

JULIEN MERCILLE: Can you give us an update on the situation regarding your suspension from the Afghan parliament?

MALALAI JOYA: I’ve filed a case against my unlawful suspension from the parliament, I have a defense lawyer. But there is no justice in Afghanistan, and the judicial system of Afghanistan is also infected with the virus of fundamentalism and corruption, so the court has kept silent on my case. The last time my lawyer reported to the complaint commission, they told him, “We didn’t punish her the way we should have!”

JULIEN MERCILLE: We have heard many reports of fraud in the recent elections. Can you describe Afghans’ perceptions of the elections? To what extent do you think the United States and NATO influenced the elections? Who do you think is Washington’s favored candidate?

MALALAI JOYA: Talking of elections in the world’s most corrupt, mafia-ridden, and occupied country like Afghanistan is ridiculous. And as seen, the turnout has been very low because apart from severe insecurity, people had no interest in participating in elections where such infamous elements were candidates and they know that the future president is already chosen in the White House.

A majority of Afghans have come to the conclusion that these elections were just a dirty game that the United States and NATO (who heavily influenced the elections) played with the fate of our people, much more undemocratic and fraudulent than the previous one. I think these elections are just efforts by the United States to give legitimacy to its puppet regime in Afghanistan. Everyone knows that there could not be a free and fair election while the Taliban have a presence in 80% of Afghanistan, the rest of the country is controlled by brutal warlords, and the government has no control at all.

I cannot name a specific favored candidate but it is quite obvious that three of the main candidates (Karzai, Abdullah, and Ashraf Ghani) all have long and deep ties with the United States, and are considered U.S. agents in Afghanistan. If any of them come to power, they will first of all serve U.S. interests and not the Afghan people.

JULIEN MERCILLE: Have Afghan lives improved since 2001, compared to the Taliban years? In particular, how have women’s lives changed?

MALALAI JOYA: Afghan lives have been getting worse since 2001. The current situation of Afghanistan is a disaster and is getting worse.

People suffer from such extreme insecurity that many have stopped sending their children to school, especially girls, fearing that they might be kidnapped or raped.

The cultivation and trafficking of narcotics and the rule of the drug mafia is among the biggest challenges Afghans face today. In the past eight years the production of opium was increased by over 4,400% and now Afghanistan is the opium capital of the world. Many of the top drug dealers are part of the Karzai government and they enjoy immunity.
Fundamentalist terrorist bands of the Northern Alliance and the Taliban are much more powerful today than eight years ago, and they are a big danger for Afghanistan.

Severe poverty is another factor hitting Afghanistan very hardly. It is so extreme that people sell their children for as low as $10 for a piece of bread! 20 million people out of the roughly 30 million population of Afghanistan are living below the poverty line, and the rate of unemployment is over 50%.

Appalling corruption is another factor Afghans suffer from a lot. Millions of dollars donated to Afghans are soaked up by the ministries and NGOs and simply fatten the wallets of the warlords. Today the Afghan government is the most corrupt in our whole history and the third most corrupt in the world.

Women’s conditions in some cities have slightly improved since the Taliban regime. But if we compare it with the era before the rule of the fundamentalists in Afghanistan, it has not changed much. Afghan women had more rights in the 1960s to 1980s than today. Rapes, abductions, murders, violence, forced marriages, and violence are increasing at an alarming rate never seen before in our history. Women commit self-immolation to escape their miseries, and the rate of self-immolations is climbing in many of the provinces. Afghanistan still faces a women’s rights catastrophe.

Every aspect of life in Afghanistan today is tragic, and I don’t know what to mention first here.

The root cause of this ongoing catastrophe in Afghanistan is that the government is controlled by fundamentalists of both brands (jihadis and Taliban) who are constantly nourished by the United States and its allies.

JULIEN MERCILLE: You have vocally opposed warlords and their grip on Afghan politics for a number of years. How sincere do you think Hamid Karzai is in attempting to reduce their power? Why do you think the United States has adopted a policy of supporting warlords and fundamentalists since 2001? Have you ever received offers of aid from the United States or other NATO powers?

MALALAI JOYA: Karzai is not at all sincere about reducing their power! Rather, he is taking every possible step to give them maximum immunity, support, and seats in the government. Most recently, he chose Qasim Fahim and Karim Khalili as his vice presidents, both of whom are warlords implicated in many war crimes and brutalities against our people.

The policy of supporting warlords and fundamentalists did not originate in 2001 but was adopted since the 1980s, during the Cold War. The United States has invested billions of dollars in nourishing Islamic fundamentalism in the region. The U.S. government knows that these warlords are ready to serve U.S. interests very well if money is poured into their pockets. Meanwhile, no democratic-minded and progressive group will betray Afghans by supporting the devastating U.S. policies in Afghanistan. The United States has found by experience that these warlords are the best group to support because they are head-to-toe lackeys who agree to every command of their foreign masters.

No, I have not been offered any aid by the United States or any of its allies. And it is worth mentioning that no anti-fundamentalist, democratic-minded group or individual in Afghanistan has been supported by them. Rather, the United States and allies have devoted efforts to marginalize and put pressure on our democratic forces.

JULIEN MERCILLE: The Bush and Obama administrations have declared their intention to fight drugs in Afghanistan, pointing to the fact that the Taliban obtain millions of dollars from production and trafficking. Do you think Washington really cares about eradicating drugs in Afghanistan, or does the “war on drugs” hide other motives? What do you think is the best way to deal with the drugs problem?

MALALAI JOYA: The opium industry of Afghanistan is solely designed by the United States. The drug business started long before in the 1980s during the Cold War, and the CIA worked hard to promote it in the areas under the control of the mujahideen. It is a joke when they are talking about counter-narcotics efforts while everyone knows that the production level goes up every year.

If they had been serious about fighting the drug business, they would not have installed the biggest drug-traffickers like Ahmad Wali Karzai, Qasim Fahim, Rashid Dostum, Atta Muhammad, Daud Daud, Burhanuddin Rabbani, and many others in the key positions of the puppet government.

Besides opium, Afghanistan is also tops in cannabis production. Actually the United States and its allies (especially the United Kingdom) gain the most out of the multi-billion drug business. Without their hidden support and encouragement, Afghanistan could never produce such a high level of drugs. What poor Afghan farmers and Taliban get out of the drugs is like a drop in the ocean!

No one in their right mind can believe that a superpower supported by over 40 counties is really unable to stop opium production in Afghanistan, while a small, ignorant, and backward force like the Taliban could easily ban it in 2001 and were able to reduce the production level to only 185 metric tons. But under the United States and its allies Afghanistan now produces over 8,500 tons of opium every year.

The best way to deal with the drugs problem is to end the U.S. occupation because these were the “gifts” of the occupation forces to Afghanistan. As long as occupation, druglordism, and warlordism (of both the Northern Alliance and Taliban) continue, the opium industry will flourish.

JULIEN MERCILLE: Polls show that a majority of Afghans now want U.S. and ISAF/NATO troops out of the country. However, in the years immediately after 2001, foreign troops had more popular support (in contrast to the situation in Iraq). How do you explain the early support and its subsequent decline?

MALALAI JOYA: In 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan with many promises and loud slogans of freedom, democracy and human and women’s rights. Our people, being tired of fundamentalists like the Taliban (and earlier the Northern Alliance), favored the United States and had high expectations and hopes. But soon when they saw that the United States was again installing another set of criminals and terrorists like the Northern Alliance, they knew they were badly betrayed. Now, the situation of Afghanistan is disastrous, with the United States itself committing many war crimes. These eight years were more than enough for our people to know their real intentions, and now there is an urgent call from our people for the withdrawal of troops. Afghans know now very well that the United States and its allies are once again trying to sacrifice Afghans in their great game in Asia.

JULIEN MERCILLE: You have called for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. Some progressives (for example, members of RAWA) have proposed that a United Nations peacekeeping force might replace NATO/ISAF in order to reduce the level of violence that might arise among the warlords and the Taliban once foreign troops leave. Do you think this could be a viable option?

MALALAI JOYA: It cannot be a viable option because the UN has not played a positive role in Afghanistan during all these years. Sunk in corruption and in collaboration with many warlords, the UN cannot play a constructive role. And, as we have observed in Bosnia, Somalia, and East Timor, peacekeeping forces have failed.

Afghans are very much fed up with the UN, which is spending much of the aid on luxury and high salaries while having no tangible role in helping the poor people. It was under the UN-administrated meeting in Bonn that the warlords of the Northern Alliance were given key positions in the government. In the past few years the UN completely failed to disarm armed militias despite spending much funds on the DIAG (Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups) and DDR (Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration) processes and did not take any step toward the implementation of transitional justice, as promised to Afghans.

JULIEN MERCILLE: Popular support for the Taliban is increasing in Afghanistan, and polls show that a majority of Afghans would like to negotiate with the Taliban. However, you have strongly opposed negotiating with them because, as you argue in your book, the Taliban and the warlords are a “photocopy” of each other. But even if the Taliban have a record of human rights abuses, couldn’t negotiating with them and reintegrating some of them within the government bring a reduction of violence in the country and constitute a relative improvement for Afghans?

MALALAI JOYA: First, I have to clarify that I do not believe in these polls because they are not independent and are biased. Such polls distort public opinion. Negotiations are not sprouting now. All these years they have been negotiating with the Taliban and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s party and some Taliban, and many Hekmatyar key men are even part of the government and parliament. Furthermore, the Taliban do not want to be part of the government.

Negotiating with the Taliban is a very wrong policy because our people have suffered a lot under their regime. No matter how tired and hopeless they may be of the war, the Afghan people may well lead a decisive struggle in annihilating these dinosaurs.

Still, the wrong policies of the United States and its allies, which fostered the warlords and the criminals, pushed many people into the ranks of the Taliban and enabled the Taliban to increase their influence in many regions of Afghanistan.

JULIEN MERCILLE: It has been suggested (for example, by Jonathan Steele in The Guardian in his review of your book Raising My Voice) that although your opposition to warlords and fundamentalists on moral grounds is admirable, you could perhaps make more compromises with those who think differently in order to build broader political alliances and make common cause on tactical issues. Do you think this is a fair criticism of your activist and political strategies?

MALALAI JOYA: I am following the exact same line as suggested by Jonathan Steele. I am ready to make alliances with those who are anti-fundamentalist, pro-democracy, and anti-occupation. These are my main principles and I cannot compromise on them. If their thinking differs from mine in other matters it is absolutely acceptable to me and we can make alliances while having some differences. This is what defines democracy. I am happy to say that I have a large number of supporters, friends, and well-wishers across Afghanistan. Their support and solidarity gives me energy and courage to carry on my struggle for justice and democracy in Afghanistan.

JULIEN MERCILLE: An outside observer might get the impression, given all the talk of the Taliban, warlords and militias, that there are not many groups in Afghanistan working for progressive change. Yet in your book, you state that “Over the last thirty years, we [Afghans] have lost almost everything, and I think in many ways that the only positive thing we have gained is our people’s political consciousness.” Could you assess the state of progressive movements in Afghanistan and point to some of the key groups and individuals?

MALALAI JOYA: There are groups in Afghanistan, but they are scattered. The current situation does not give them the chance to unite for a common purpose, because the United States and its allies have continuously tried to marginalize progressive movements and individuals. They believe that if they are not stopped, it might lead to the mobilization of people against them.

After 2001, many progressive publications came out in Afghanistan. But they all had to close one by one since they weren’t supported by any source and were constantly pressured and threatened by the warlords who have the upper hand in Afghanistan and are strongly supported by the United States.

I don’t want to name any individual for security reasons, but there are some progressive groups like RAWA, the Solidarity Party of Afghanistan, and the Freedom-Fighters Organization of Afghanistan, etc.

Julien Mercille is lecturer at University College Dublin, Ireland. He can be reached at jmercille [at] gmail [dot] com.