Afghanistan: Malalai Joya vs Washington's warlords

Friday, August 29, 2008 - 10:00

Afghanistan lives in fear of US-sponsored warlords.

These hated warlords are not scared by the Taliban monster raising its head in the south. But ironically, they live in the fear of an unarmed women in her late twenties: Malalai Joya.

To silence Joya's defiant voice, the warlords who dominate the national parliament suspended Joya's membership for three years in 2007.

Earlier, at almost every parliamentary session she attended, she had her hair pulled or was physically attacked, and called names such as "whore".

"They even threatened me in the parliament with rape", she says.

But she neither toned down her criticism of the warlords ("they must be tried") nor the US occupation of her country ("the 'war on terror' is a mockery").

Understandably, she's been declared the "bravest woman in Afghanistan" and even compared with Burma's Aung Sun Suu Kyi.

A household name in Afghanistan ("Most famous woman in Afghanistan", according to the BBC), Joya shot to fame back in 2003 at the loya jirga ("grand council", a meeting of political and tribal leaders) convened to ratify Afghanistan's new constitution.

Unlike the US-sponsored clean-shaven fundamentalists, Joya was not nominated but elected by the people of Farah province to represent them.

She stunned the loya jirga and journalists present when she unleashed a three-minute vitriolic speech exposing the crimes of the warlords dominating that loya jirga.

Grey-bearded Sibghatullah Mojadadi, chairing the loya jirga, called her an "infidel" and a "communist". Other beards present also shouted at her. But before she was silenced by an angry mob of warlords, she had electrified Afghanistan with her courageous speech.

During these three fateful minutes, the course of Joya's life changed.

In her native province of Farah, locals wanted her to represent them in elections. It takes guns and dollars to contest an election in Afghanistan's electoral battlefields. Joya had none.

But she could not turn down the hundreds of supporters who daily visited her, urging her to stand. She decided to run for the wolesi jirga (the lower house of the national parliament).

Danish filmmaker Eva Mulvad, immortalised Joya's courageous election campaign and subsequent victory, in Enemies of Happiness.

I met Joya in January unexpectedly at a dinner when she reached Peshawar in Pakistan on her way to Canada. Since her passport has been confiscated and she is on Afghanistan's "exit control list", she had travelled to Pakistan in disguise.

Politely refusing my request for an interview on the plea that she had to catch a flight early next morning, she promised to catch up with me in Kabul in March.

Three months later, we met again in Kabul. As an MP, Joya is entitled to rent a villa in a posh neighbourhood designated for MPs. However, plagued with death threats, Joya hardly visits it.

Her comrades discreetly pointed to the villa when we were driving past this neighborhood on our way to an underground home Joya sometimes uses to meet visitors.

In an interview, interspersed by a delicious Afghan dinner, this brave woman shared her hopes and fears. Here are the excerpts.

@question = Have you gone to court against your suspension? Did you contact Afghan President Hamid Karzai to protest against your suspension?

Here in Afghanistan, we have a mafia running the system. It is the same warlords in the parliament who head the courts. These Northern Alliance warlords dispense justice.

I was suspended because I called the Afghan parliament as a stable full of animals. Though I think animals are useful. The warlords want me to apologise for this comment.

I refuse to apologise for telling the truth aloud. I don't see a chance in a court dominated by warlords to do me justice.

However, another reason was, for the fear of personal security, no advocate was ready to plead my case. Now a lawyer has agreed to plead my case [she went to court in April]. However, I will tell the court that it is not me but warlords who should be in the dock.

As far as Karzai is concerned, he has been shamelessly silent on my suspension by an undemocratic parliament. I never contacted him. He should have contacted me.

On the other hand, there were demonstrations across Afghanistan against my suspension. Karzai's police proved good only at breaking up these demonstrations.

But also what could Karzai have done? He is ridiculed by the people of Afghanistan as mayor of Kabul since his control does not extend beyond Kabul.

@question = How come Karzai is in power and why do you keep declaring Afghan parliament undemocratic when it has been elected in general elections?

Well, this is a parliament in which 80% of the members are warlords or drug lords. They either snatched their places in parliament at gunpoint or bought these seats with US dollars.

In some cases, both guns and dollars played a role.

Even Human Rights Watch has accused some leading members of this parliament of war crimes. But this parliament, in a unique move, granted warlords an amnesty against crimes committed during the war. Even [Taliban leader] Mulla Umar can benefit after this amnesty.

Karzai, who was voted in as a lesser evil, has been cooperating with these criminals all the time. Hence, no wonder he is unpopular today.

But he is sustained in the presidential palace by the US and all the warlords cooperate with the US.

By the way, one hears more about Karzai's brother in Kabul than Karzai himself. Every other posh real estate project or every second case of corruption is attributed to the younger Karzai. He is also named when it comes to drug peddling.

Corruption and drug trafficking have become big issues. In my view, security is the biggest issue. After that, it is corruption.

The so-called "international community", which in fact is the US government and its allies, has sent a lot of money. This amount was enough to build two Afghanistans. But even Karzai himself confesses that the money has ended up in the pockets of ministers, bureaucrats and members of parliament.

On the other hand, one hears about a mother selling her daughter for [US]$10. Foreign troops have been allegedly involved.

@question = Really? Any proof? Press reports?

Yes some press reports have pointed that out. For instance, Russian state TV has hinted at US troops' involvement in drug trafficking. That was reported in the press here.

But this is an open secret. Karzai in one of his speeches last year said that it was not only Afghans who are involved in drug trafficking. He hinted at foreign connections. Though he did not name any country or troops, people in Afghanistan understood what he meant.

Now Afghan drugs are finding their way to New York and European capitals. Hence, it is no wonder Afghanistan today is producing 90% of the world's opium.

This is taking its toll on women. Now we hear about "opium brides". When harvests fail, peasants are not able to pay back loans to drug lords; they "marry" their daughters off to warlords instead.

@question = Why is the US letting all this happen?

The US wants the things as they are. The status quo. A bleeding, suffering Afghanistan is a good excuse to prolong its stay.

Now they are even embracing the Taliban. Recently in Musa Qila, a Taliban commander Mulla Salam was appointed as governor by Karzai.

The US has no problem with the Taliban so long as it's "our Taliban".

Not merely Karzai, but also all these warlords have been sustained in power by the US. That is why, when there are demonstrations against the warlords, they are also demonstrations against foreign troops. People here believe that the warlords are cushioned by the US troops.

If the US leaves, the warlords will lose power because they have no base among our people. The people of Afghanistan will deal with these warlords once US troops leave Afghanistan.

@question = Don't you think security situation will get even worse once foreign troops leave?

Maybe. But tell the people in Sweden that Swedish troops are helping implement the US agenda in Afghanistan.

The democracy-loving people of Sweden should instead support democratic forces in Afghanistan, and instead of sending soldiers Sweden should send doctors, nurses, teachers and build schools and hospitals.

[Farooq Sulehria is a Labour Party Pakistan member who lives in Sweden. This interview first appeared in the the Swedish radical weekly Arbetaren (Worker).]

From GLW issue 765