Several years ago, I had the opportunity to work with Suraia Suhar, an Afghan-born woman who now lives in Toronto, Canada. At the time, Suraia was organizing with Afghans for Peace (AFP), and I was serving on the board of directors for Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW).
Back in 2012, NATO held their annual summit in Chicago, where thousands of antiwar protesters showed up to support AFP and IVAW, and to protest NATO’s ongoing and ever-expanding militarism. The rallies and actions culminated when members of IVAW discarded their medals, echoing the actions of Dewey Canyon III in 1971, when Vietnam Veterans Against the War threw their military mementos on the steps of the Capitol in Washington D.C.
The anti-NATO protests were the last massive antiwar demonstrations to take place in the U.S. Since then, and even in the preceding years (2008-2012), the antiwar movement has been all but absent. However, even when the antiwar movement was active and visible (2002-2007), the war in Afghanistan was a taboo topic. In short, progressives and leftists in North America have never come to terms with the fact that the war in Afghanistan was, is and will always be catastrophic and immoral.
No less than a few weeks ago, as most people know, the U.S. military bombed a civilian hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing 12 members of the health organization, Medecins Sans Frontieres, along with 10 Afghan civilians who were being treated for illnesses linked to NATO’s ongoing occupation. Without doubt, the horror continues for the Afghan people, with no end in sight, as Obama decided that he would keep 5,500 troops in Afghanistan until he departs office in January, 2017.
Recently, I had the chance to briefly speak with Suraia, who currently works with anti-racist organizations in Toronto. When asked about the bombing in Kunduz, Suraia said that the world should support Medecins Sans Frontieres’ current campaign and hopefully use this brutal event to apply political pressure, both in the U.S. and abroad. What’s needed, according to Suhar, is an independent investigation. As IVAW showed with its Winter Soldier hearings, the U.S. military will not properly investigate their own. When the military does investigate and occasionally prosecute, low level enlisted servicemen and women are the ones who face the music, not higher ranking officials.
Regarding Obama’s recent announcement concerning U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, she said, “It’s just an extension of the ongoing occupation. Concerning the future, well, I think a lot of that will depend on who’s elected after Obama leaves office.” In other words, “Obviously Trump would have a different approach to foreign policy than Sanders. And given her reputation, I’m worried that a Clinton administration would lead to more war hawk policies abroad than Obama’s failed policies.”
But what about the Afghan women? Suraia isn’t buying it. “This is a tired and debunked orientalist argument. Given that we live in the Information Age, my hope is that those who believe and repeat these claims make the effort to read statistical reports on the quality of life for women in Afghanistan, and how much of the progress, albeit with flawed results, had little to nothing to do with military warfare.” Turns out, bombs aren’t conducive to gender equality or political rights – imagine that.
In fact, NATO’s bombs and raids have created more insecurity. “The entire occupation has been rife with corruption, escalations of violence, preventable casualties, and further disempowerment of the Afghan people. The high numbers of internally displaced people and rise in refugee populations is evident of the deteriorating security in Afghanistan.” Indeed, the situation continues to deteriorate in Afghanistan.
“Afghanistan was considered the good (legal) war, and a justified response to 9/11. Almost immediately fear-mongering was fueled with a rise in Islamophobia, xenophobia, and the media had no trouble propagating anti-terrorism rhetoric in the form of jingoism.” Further, Suhar notes that, “When the Afghanistan war was escalated at the end of 2009, a Democrat (Obama) was in power, so the anti-war movement subsequently, and cowardly I might add, dissipated. It was disappointing to say the least.”
Biting criticism? No doubt. But true nonetheless. I can personally attest to the cowardly position many antiwar organizations took with regard to the war in Afghanistan. Even on the Left, people never understood how to deal with the “good war.” Part of the problem, at least from my perspective, is that we did a poor job of educating peace and justice activists about American Empire, its history and the legacy of so-called humanitarian interventions and counterinsurgency operations.
As far as the antiwar movement is concerned, I asked Suraia what advice she would have for those seeking to rebuild the movement, or better yet, build a new movement to oppose militarism and empire. “I can’t stress enough the importance of working alongside people from Afghanistan who are well informed, experienced, and already doing community organizing. This goes for all conflict regions that the anti-war movement is involved with.”
Moreover, according to Suhar, “I also think it’s important to know how to counter and find alternative solutions to military warfare, so better understanding long-term sustainable development, restorative justice and reparations would tremendously help the peace movement.” Additionally, “The anti-war movement should be aware of the problems that can arise from certain areas of identity politics. A prime example of this is celebrating diversity in the US military, when that military is still serving the interests of the US government and corporations.”
At the end of the conversation, I asked Suraia what life has been like for her, an Afghan woman living in Toronto, who’s outspoken and public:
I think more people are becoming aware that the current climate of Islamophobia and racism has been used to support police state policies, wars abroad, and laws against civil liberties, so there’s been a growing resistance to it. To be clear, being a publicly outspoken Afghan woman living in North America in the post-9/11 world hasn’t been without its challenges.
Running into misinformed and heavily biased views aside, one thing I’ve noticed has been consistent sexist criticisms directed towards myself and the Afghan women I’ve worked with, which has come from many sources – pro-warlord Afghans who support the NATO mission, neoconservative media figures and their followers, and racists in general. Keep in mind, I’m talking about Canadians here. They’ve targeted us with vitriolic harassment and online stalking for being vocal Muslim women from Afghanistan with a political opinion, which of course differs from theirs. This reveals their hypocrisy in claiming to support women’s rights and liberation through Western wars. It’s unavoidable, so I’ve come to expect that it happens. I realize the intent is to silence dissent, but it’s a cowardly tactic. A good defense is transparency and allied support.
Suraia’s advice and reflections are very similar to the guidance and reflections I’ve heard from other Afghans and Iraqis over the years. In short, these activists need solidarity and true allies – allies who are willing to put aside petty differences in the pursuit of ending U.S. Empire abroad and Islamophobia and militarism at home. After all, we’re talking about war, so let’s get serious my friends, because our brothers and sisters abroad require our solidarity and commitment.
Vincent Emanuele can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org