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Hope in Afghanistan: An Interview With Malalai Joya

Malalai Joya. (Photo: AfghanKabul / Flickr)

Malalai Joya is an Afghan activist, author and former politician. She served as an elected member of the 2003 Loya Jirga and was a Parliamentary member of the National Assembly of Afghanistan, until she was expelled for denouncing other members as warlords and war criminals.

She has been a vocal critic of both the US/NATO occupation and the Karzai government, as well as the Taliban and Islamic fundamentalists. After surviving four assassination attempts, she currently lives underground in Afghanistan, continuing her work from safe houses. After the release of her memoir, “A Woman Among Warlords,” she recently concluded a US speaking tour.

The following is an edited transcript of a filmed interview with I did with Joya from April 9 in San Francisco. She speaks about the US occupation, the inspiration found in the Arab uprisings and the Afghan social movements. You can view an 11-minute, edited selection of the video here:

David Zlutnick: Could you please start by giving your name and a bit of background about yourself?

Malalai Joya: My name is Malalai Joya. I was an elected member of the Parliament, but because our Parliament was quite non-democratic, these warlords, drug lords who were in the Parliament, they wanted to make me silent. As they couldn't, they expelled me from Parliament, which was a quite illegal act and despite international condemnation, did not allow me to go back there. But, now, I'm an underground activist for women's rights, human rights and the struggle against occupation, for democracy and peace in my country.

DZ: You've talked a lot about the hope that Afghans had when the Taliban was overthrown, that a brighter future may have lain ahead for the people of Afghanistan. What was your position on the invasion in 2001, what hopes did you have for a post-Taliban Afghanistan and how have those hopes stood up against the past near decade of US/NATO occupation?

MJ: You know, as an activist, as part of the war-generation, we have a powerful history that we have never accepted occupation – three times the British wanted to occupy [Afghanistan], then Russia, the superpower, wanted to occupy our country and faced the resistance of our people. So, we had no good memory about foreign countries – I mean, rule by foreign governments. That's why I had suspicions after 9/11 of the US government and NATO. But as an activist I had close contact with my people, I looked at how there was a ray of hope alive in their hearts, because they thought maybe because of the 9/11 tragedy, that blood of innocent people had been shed – innocent people of the US – maybe this time foreigners will be honest with the Afghan people.

But after 9/11 and the [December 2001 Bonn Agreement] they re-saw that the US and NATO pushed us from the frying pan into the fire, replaced Taliban with fundamentalist warlords who are mentally the same as Taliban, but only physically different. That's why, today, the roots of all these miseries, problems in Afghanistan, are these warlords and now [NATO and the Karzai government] are negotiating with the Taliban as well. After ten years of occupation and this brutal war, they have only proved for the people around the world that their minds are carbon copies of each other.

And the third part of your question?

DZ: The hopes that you had for a post-Taliban Afghanistan and how your mind has changed since the 2001 invasion?

MJ: After occupation? Yes, because day by day [NATO] is bombing from the sky and killing innocent civilians – most of them are women and children – even bombing our wedding parties, what they did in Nangarhar and Nuristan. In my own province last year, these occupation forces – American troops – they bombed 150 civilians in one day, even used white phosphorous. And also most of them were women and children. In Kunar province recently, 65 innocent civilians have been killed by these occupation forces. Again in the same province, in another village, nine children have been killed when they were collecting wood and they were bombed and brutally killed. This list can be prolonged, a list of these massacres.

And that's why, day by day, our people believe that maybe they want to take revenge for those innocent American people that were killed [on 9/11] on the innocent people of Afghanistan – not the Taliban, not the warlords. And also, day by day, they prove to our people – and not only our people, people around the world – this is not only a so-called war on terror, this is a war on innocent civilians – occupation. Because these ten years they wasted the blood of their soldiers, their taxpayer money, billions of dollars, and now they invite these terrorist Taliban also to join this puppet corrupt mafia regime. I think justice-loving people from the US, from around the world, they agree with my people – democracy never comes by military invasion, by war, by occupation, by bombing our wedding parties, killing innocent civilians, by supporting the sworn enemies of their values.

And we wish that it was not a military invasion; that it was an invasion of schools, clinics, hospitals. But they occupied my country, keeping the situation lawless, unsafe and dangerous like this for their own interests – regional, economic and political interests.

DZ: So, is it your wish to see NATO's immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan? What do you see as happening in the near- and long-term following a NATO withdrawal?

MJ: Now, my people, they're squashed between three powerful enemies: warlords, Taliban, occupation forces. With the withdrawal of these external enemies, my people will fight two internal enemies. They will fight steadfastly till the end because of the hatred that they have for the Taliban and also the warlords. In this presence of these occupation forces in Afghanistan, they double our miseries and make these warlords and Taliban more powerful. They make our struggle for justice, for democracy and women's rights much harder, as it now seems like Taliban times …

The mainstream media mainly and the politicians say civil war will happen if the troops leave. But nobody is talking about today's civil war. Today itself is a civil war. And those were involved in the civil war in Afghanistan from '92-'96, these warlords, alone in Kabul they killed 65,000 innocent people and destroyed our national unity; many other crimes they committed, similar to the Taliban. But with bloody hands, suit and tie, [they were] imposed on my people. And the second civil war – if they are worried if the troops leave – I think will not be more dangerous, more difficult, more risky than this civil war. At least one enemy gets lost – the backbone of the warlords and Taliban will break. And there's no question if we want the withdrawal of the [NATO] troops. So, I am asking for solidarity from justice-seeking organizations, peace-loving organizations, human rights organizations and intellectuals, the anti-war movement, democratic-minded politicians internationally – they are the ones who should join their hands with our people.

DZ: You and many others have called the present situation in Afghanistan an extension of the “Great Game” that has been played between imperial powers for centuries to control this region. How do you see the Great Game in effect today?

MJ: For ten years, they've been playing this chess game and they are still playing it. And they are just shifting these warlords after the crimes they have committed in the past. They are killers and it's an open secret for people around the world. And [NATO] occupies my country because of the geopolitical location of Afghanistan. We are so proud that we are in the heart of Asia, but, sometimes, we think maybe it's our curse that we are in the heart of Asia. Because if Afghanistan is under their control, very easily they can control other Asian powers – Russia, China, Iran etc. – then very easily they have access to the gas and oil of the central Asian republics.

Also, today 93 percent of [the world's] opium is produced in Afghanistan. And even The New York Times gave a report – the brother of Hamid Karzai, Ahmed Wali Karzai, is a famous drug trafficker and also on the payroll of the CIA. My people call him “small Bush” in Kandahar Province. Since 2001, there's been a 4,400 percent increase in opium production in Afghanistan. During this ten-year occupation, they've changed Afghanistan. Now, Afghanistan is the second most corrupt country in the world, while Karzai's regime has received more than $30 billion. Most of this money went into the pockets of these warlords, drug lords and these criminals. Even one document of WikiLeaks exposed that the Vice President of Karzai, Zhia Mehsud, carried $52 million from Dubai – from Kabul airport to the Dubai airport. But nobody stopped him and asked him, “How did you get this money? From where?”…

Millions – Billions of dollars. Today, Afghanistan could be like heaven if they gave a chance to democratic-minded people, the activists of my country, high-educated professors – we have a lot. But they've wasted billions of dollars on this bunch of killers – warlords and Taliban. You can see on the Human Rights Watch web site, Amnesty International web site. Many books have been written about them – “Ghost Wars” [by Steve Coll]; “Bleeding Afghanistan” [by Sonali Kohatkar and James Ingalls]; “Devil's Game,” a book Robert Dreyfuss wrote; it will help you better know the CIA's role not only in Afghanistan, but in countless Muslim countries. They created fundamentalists, supported them, through them eliminated democratic-minded movements, parties, intellectuals and people. Suppress the people – same in Afghanistan; these ten years of occupation they've played a game of Tom and Jerry with the Taliban. And now they invite them formally to join the government …

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And also, they brutally kill Afghan people and make fun of their dead bodies. Maybe you heard the Der Spiegel magazine report [about the US Army “kill teams”]. But to deceive people of the West, put dust in their eyes and try to bring these few cruel soldiers to the court – it's not enough. It is better they should have brought to the court, [Secretary of Defense] Robert Gates and General David Petraeus, who order these troops who kill innocent people. These troops themselves are the victims of the wrong policy of the warmongers. Barack Obama should be questioned for this wrong policy that he has. Maybe he did something positive for the American people, but for my people, during this two years he's been in power, in fact he proved himself as a second and even more dangerous Bush.

Just a few examples why his policy is more dangerous than [that of] Bush: He invites the terrorist Taliban to join the [Karzai] regime. [Afghan warlord and occasional Talbian ally] Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – the Bush administration at least put a price on the head of this terrorist, if anybody finds the live or dead body of this terrorist. But the Obama administration invites him [to join the government]. And the surge of troops – the outcome of the surge of troops was more massacres, more miseries, more tragedies and sorrows for my people. And he's expanding war in Afghanistan, in Yemen, in Pakistan – drone attacks have taken the lives of too many people.

DZ: In recent writings, you've stated there has been an emergence of a resistance to the Karzai government completely independent of the Taliban armed resistance, including student movements, women-led movements, movements of the poor etc. taking to the streets. Can you talk more about these bottom-up demonstrations and how it's come about?

MJ: Yes, right now there are two kinds of resistance going on in my country: one is the reactionary resistance of the Taliban. But another resistance, a second resistance, is the resistance of ordinary Afghan people. Men and women, innocent people, victims' families, students of the university, democratic-minded parties, the few we have. They come on the streets and have demonstrations. This is hope. This resistance is the resistance of ordinary Afghan people. And it shows the hatred of our people against occupation …

And Karzai's puppet regime was talking about permanent US military bases in Afghanistan and wanted to expand their military bases there, military bases of the US. When people heard this news, [the Afghan Solidarity Party] this democratic-minded party organized demonstrations in Herat and Kabul and Farah and Mazar-i-Sharif and Jalalabad. And they even invited me as well to join their demonstration. For security reasons, I couldn't go. Hundreds of people joined their demonstration …

And this massacre that killed 150 civilians [mentioned above] – One student of the university got news that 19 members of his family in one day died in this massacre. The students of the university heard this news; they called together a camp in the streets, most of them with a banners against the occupation. And there are many other examples of the resistance of the people that mainstream media never covers. Day by day, it grows. But in my country it takes time.

DZ: Do you see this being at all related to the mass uprisings throughout the Arab world? How do you view this growing movement in the Middle East and how do you see this affecting Afghanistan?

MJ: I believe it's a good example of the big power of the people. Always I believe – I strongly believe that no nation can donate liberation to another nation. History shows that only the nation can liberate itself. And when you see these countries, dictators in power – everywhere there are dictators – they cannot be in power forever. Day by day, people stand up against these dictators. And the positive point is that this glorious uprising happened [in the Arab world]. The dictators' regimes are being removed, but unfortunately the system is still there. And I cannot see a united leadership in these countries. And this is the constant point.

But, of course, this glorious uprising gives strength and hope to my people as well. Of course, it's had a huge positive impact in neighboring countries like Iran; earlier and now again, people, they are standing up, men and women, the young generation, even their blood has been shed. And, still, in the jails of Iran they are hanging this young generation, brave activists, freedom-loving fighters. Because they raised their voice against these dictators and this fascist regime that they have. And the same happened in these other Middle East countries, the North African countries. It's a source of hope and inspiration for millions, not only for my people.

But, of course, in my country it takes time. Most people are unemployed; they don't have jobs; they are poor; they don't have food to eat. They are working very hard just to feed their families. Most people are not educated. This half of the population [that are] women, more than 80 percent are illiterate. That's why I believe education is the key.

In my country we don't have a very powerful party, [nor a] united leadership. So, it takes time in our country. That's why in this cause we are working, because people are fed up from the occupation, fed up from warlords and Taliban; they hate them. We are working in this cause – democracy, for peace, against the occupation. Hopefully, one day in the future, the same glorious uprising that happened in [the Arab] countries will also happen in my country.

DZ: Part of the justification for the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan was to liberate the women of Afghanistan and to prevent the continued abuse and oppression of women. Can you discuss this topic and what the situation is like now, even in government-controlled parts of the country?

MJ: You know, today, fortunately, we all know about the Taliban and these terrorists – misogynist terrorists. At that time, there was no school and education at all for the girls and women. But now, after 9/11, [the US] built a few schools and universities, especially in some big cities, just to justify their occupation. There's even official reports that hundreds of those schools have been closed and millions of girls and women cannot go to school for security reasons. For example, now the girls that go to school in Kandahar, twice these terrorists threw acid on their faces …

And, also, even the girls going to school in Kabul, in Afghan-Turkish schools, recently, tens of girls became poisoned. And in a few other provinces, girls became poisoned, as the media reported. How can their families send them back to school tomorrow? Young girls, when they go to school, 12 years old, 14 years old, they get brutally raped … For example, a ten-year-old girl, her name's Bashira, when she was going to school in Sar-e-Pul province, one member of the Parliament, his son, with a few other warlords, kidnapped this young girl and brutally raped her. Then, this brave girl stood up against them, and this so-called lawmaker, his name is Haji Payinda, changed the age of his son – listed him as under 18 so that he would not be punished. After that, 12 more rape cases in the same province, in Sar-e-Pul province, happened. Same like Taliban times, we have a jungle condition. Two women were accused of prostitution and publicly beaten with lashes in Ghazni Province. Then – one of them was even pregnant – they shot them in the head and killed them brutally. Same like Taliban times. This list can be prolonged.

And, also, there's even a misuse of the miseries of the woman. The story of Time Magazine, Bibi Aisha – the headline says, “What happens to women if we leave?” But they never write what's happening to women while they are there. They never bring those women disfigured by cluster-bombs, white phosphorous, for treatment to the Western countries because their crimes would be exposed.

My life story – when you compare, as an activist, the dark period of the Taliban with now, it was risky under the burqa, but, now, despite [hiding under a] burqa and having bodyguards, it's not safe. This disgusting burqa, which is a symbol of oppression, now gives safety and life to many women of Afghanistan – especially activists. I received – they did many assassination attempts, and alone my life story is enough to know about the mockery of democracy and mockery of the War on Terror in Afghanistan.

DZ: An article by Afghan academic Nushin Arbabzadah was recently published in The Guardian in response to an article of yours where she criticized your stance on the NATO occupation of Afghanistan, saying, “her categorical rejection of the US intervention in Afghanistan is unfair. After all, without US intervention, Joya would not have been able to own a passport, let alone travel abroad. Equally, without the international community's interference, there would not have been the 2003 Loya Jerga where she first gained international fame.” What would you say in response to her comments?

MJ: This woman – they can never understand, these Western women, these Afghan women living in the West who support – who are pro-occupation, pro-war – they never understand the sorrows and pain of the women of my country, those families of the victims who get raped. [Joya shows a photo of a young girl.] Here you can see this seven-year-old girl, who was brutally raped by these warlords. I met her. If she was the daughter of Nushin, would she still support this war and these warlords, this occupation? These children, you can see [Joya flips through a book of photos showing dead and wounded Afghan children], they are children that they kill. These few beautiful children – they are bombing, killing them. Many, many other photos. They are not terrorists. They kill innocent people, shamelessly decrease the number of civilian deaths to the mainstream media, call them insurgents, terrorists. They are terrorists? No.

Those who got fame and wealth from this occupation, they also write against me. Day by day, I see my distance between these warmongers. And I'm happy for this. Because day by day I get closer to my people. And it will be proof for them how much distance I have from [the warlords]. If [the people] will support me is a big question… All governmental women, men and these warlord Taliban and their foreign masters, as much as they want they can stay against me. But my people – my message to them is that ordinary people of my country, activists, others, always I'm saying to the great people around the world: As much as you want you cannot support me, don't support me. But if you don't go with the warlord, you expose them, you stand against the occupation, against the brutalities, against the brutalities of these Islamic fundamentalists, Taliban and warlords. I love you; I respect you. I'm just a person; I do my responsibility.