Through a Keyhole Darkly

A first-hand account of life in Afghanistan

They will kill me but they will not kill my voice,
because it will be the voice of all Afghan women.
You can cut the flower but  you cannot stop the coming of spring.
— Malalai Joya

Within weeks of my leaving Kabul in mid-August 2011, the US Embassy there was shelled by rocket-propelled grenades. The Embassy then “canceled all trips in and out of Afghanistan for its diplomats, and suspended all travel within Afghanistan.” ((14 Sept. 11 Associated Press.))

In my 30 days in Kabul I never saw another westerner outside guarded compounds – except in military convoys. Such fear reveals how illusory any US claims of “progress” have been over these past ten years – despite the hundreds of billions of dollars squandered. Not to mention all the orphans and the numerous number of limbs and lives lost.

In the States, only now do we seem to be waking up to the absolute failure of this war – by any standard except that of generating mega-profits for certain “defense” corporations. Few, including our leaders, have firsthand knowledge of Afghanistan. Few can conceive of the tenacity of the armed  resistance, its willingness to risk, its willingness to sacrifice.

Few of us have any idea how the Afghan people suffer from our ten-year invasion and from our hamstrung occupation. Those of us opposing war need to better understand war and its toll on human beings.

Haunted by this gap in my own education, I went to Afghanistan  with a small Voices for Creative Nonviolence delegation. Among us were two vets – one, Jacob, a paratrooper and explosives specialist, had done three tours of duty in Afghanistan.

Nervous Armed Men

Early on we learn that, according to the Red Cross, security is worse here than it’s been in the last 30 years of war. In Kabul life is lived opaquely — except for the internal refugees’ mud huts, homes huddle in compounds behind thick metal doors and high walls topped with barbed wire.

Kabul is a city of sandbags and nervous, armed men, both on foot and in big, shiny, urgently honking vehicles. Approach the international airport and Afghan soldiers will have you out of your vehicle three times, patting you down before you even reach the parking lot.

Our delegation is restricted in our movements. Do we avoid venturing forth from the clipped lawns and rose gardens of our guest house compound? Hardly. But every morning until our driver arrives, we stay inside those high walls, never lingering together outside on the street. Then we scoot into his van. With preternatural reflexes, Imam plunges us into what must be some of the densest, scariest, least-regulated (no traffic lights) traffic on the planet.

We’re off to visit a primary school, a women’s co-op, a photo gallery, a de-mining museum, a refugee camp. Or we tour the Kabul zoo – with its pack of scrawny wolves and its flock of vultures. On one of the few occasions we stay out after dark, we attend a US Embassy-sponsored film festival showcasing young Afghan filmmakers.

We have 40 or so meetings with teachers, journalists, editors, social entrepreneurs, and with the staff of various NGOs — internationals, Afghan-Americans, and Afghans. Whether guarded or candid, perplexing or illuminating, each encounter provides a piece (a figment?) of the puzzle. We glimpse complexities and contradictions — and tragedies — some beyond our sheltered imaginations.

I journeyed to Afghanistan expecting to hear what Afghans think about Reaper drones. I think the Reaper is cowardly. Here in Central New York at Hancock air base, young technicians  pilot these robot planes – equipped with Hellfire missiles and 500-pound bombs – over Afghanistan, frequently killing civilians.

I expected to meet with drone survivors. But staff at Kabul’s no-questions-asked Emergency Hospital (Italian-run, specializing in war wounds) tell us that drone victims would be treated elsewhere – if at all – closer to where drones prey. And where we westerners dare not go.

One human rights NGO staffer allows that, yes, drones kill civilians, but—ta da! — they also destroy madrassas (Islamic schools). I wince at this functionary’s equanimity: rural Afghans may be rather less cavalier about such aerial terrorism.  But few of our contacts seem  interested  in drones. Instead they’re angered by the US military’s night raids on homes – terrorism stalking Kabul itself.

Malalai & Ian

Several of  those we meet with are inspiring. Malalai Joya (a pseudonym) is a young woman barely five feet tall. She was elected to Parliament from a remote region, but was drummed out of that august body for publicizing the war crimes of her parliamentary colleagues. While this notoriety led to international speaking tours, it also led to assassination attempts. Malalai only survives by moving with her guards from safe house to safe house.

To find her, we get our directions via several cell phone calls en route; we don’t know our exact destination until moments before we arrive. Through heavy metal doors, we enter one of those unmarked compounds on a nameless unpaved street (typical of Kabul) and are met by two armed men. One stands a few feet off, gun poised, while the other frisks us — and has us snap photos with our cameras and write with our pens to confirm that these aren’t disguised weapons.

Malalai comes out to greet us and invite us inside. Immediately I’m captivated by the care and courage she radiates.  Malalai’s remarks to us suggest why she is a marked woman:

~ If more US troops leave, one more enemy will be gone – no more bombing, no more white phosphorus….

~ The US military are expanding military bases here. They won’t leave us. They work for Balkanization….It’s a big lie that the U.S. will leave by 2014. [In fact, the US is quietly lobbying the Karzai government to agree to permanent US bases.]

~ When you are in the heart of Asia, you’re surrounded by other countries with oil and gas. From here these can be controlled.

~ Under the UN the Taliban have been replaced by the war lords.

~ Afghan and foreign NGOs are corrupt. [She refers to  them as “NGO lords.”]

~ Afghanistan has the second biggest copper mine in the world.

~ Under the Taliban 185 tons of poppy were exported; now over 4000 tons are exported. [Hmmm. Who gets the lion’s share of  drug traffic profit – Afghans or Americans?]

In her “Message on the Tenth Anniversary of NATO’s War and the Occupation  of Afghanistan,” Joya declares:

Ten years ago the US and NATO invaded my country under the fake banners of women’s rights, human rights, and democracy. But after a decade, Afghanistan still remains the most uncivil, most corrupt, and most war torn country in the world. The consequences of the so-called war on terror have only been more bloodshed, crimes, barbarism, human rights and women’s rights violation, which has doubled the miseries and sorrows of our people. ((7 Oct. 11,

Malalai, it’s clear, is not one of those who entwine their interests with those occupying her country. Check out her memoir,A Woman Among Warlords [Scribner, 2009].


Ian Pounds is a long-term volunteer at one of the several orphanages we visit. Ian tells us that Afghanistan has over a million orphans. He notes that “the US is part and parcel of the drug trade.” He goes on, “The US has no intention of leaving Afghanistan. The US is here to pressure Iran….The US was ready to go into Afghanistan before 9/11; it’s not here to save the women.”

Now “80% of the girls don’t go to school and many end  up in forced marriages.” The women’s prisons here “are full of women who have been raped and therefore accused of having sex out of marriage.” (For an extended  report on Afghan women, especially those in prison, see Ann Jones’ grimly eloquent 2006 book, Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan.

Shortly after our visit Ian emails us some stats drawn from the Afghanistan section of Save the Children’s July 2011 report on the “State of the World’s Mothers.” Among them:

~ Fifty women die in childbirth each day.

~ One in five children die before age five.

~ One in three women are physically or sexually abused.

~ Women’s life expectancy: 44 years.

The report declares Afghanistan the worst country in the world to be a mother.

Staring Through the Keyhole

To begin understanding this harrowed land you must see its teeming capital. Yet Kabul provides only an incomplete and, indeed, distorted picture of the country as a whole.

From our too few day-trips outside the capital, it’s clear that Kabul bears little resemblance to the hinterland. One might as well try to imagine an elephant having only seen its trunk. Or one might seek to understand the US by visiting only Washington or New York…or Syracuse.

Swollen with internal refugees, Kabul is said to now have about a fifth of Afghanistan’s population. Kabul’s social structures are not those of the countryside. Nor do urban agendas and interests—or security issues—reflect those of the rural areas where most Afghans live.

I belabor this point because I’m taken aback by how many of those we meet in the capital seem to favor an ongoing US military presence (or do some – not knowing us – say what they think visiting US Americans must want to hear?) Perhaps some prefer the devil they’ve come to depend on to other, less well-heeled, devils? Many surely fear chaos if the US leaves and its corrupt puppet government dissolves – “within three days,” an academic and former US Embassy contractor tells us.

They fear the ensuing civil war — as if for years the invader hadn’t been making night raids, humiliating women, detaining and  torturing their male relatives, arming fundamentalist warlords, fostering corruption, promoting ethnic hatred, paying off the Taliban, displacing hundreds of thousands, waging air war…and  testing its high-tech weapons systems on the Afghan people.

Some, especially among the NGO strata, have a stake in the status quo. Why not? In a region where many earn less than $2 a day, the status quo seems to work well enough for those Kabulis with internationally-derived incomes. Without the invader such emoluments would vanish. But I keep wondering how rural Afghans — already savaged by the occupation and by those resisting the occupation — would see things. Mostly confined  to Kabul, how are we to know?


My few weeks in Afghanistan reinforce what I already do know: US taxpayers must face our complicity in the terror of US militarism. As the war on Afghanistan is now into its eleventh year, we must overcome our chauvinism and uncritical thinking. We must get beyond our bubble.

This past century teaches that no war truly ends. Its consequences endure and ramify. As with the people of Viet Nam and Iraq,  the Afghan people – the orphaned, the widowed, the amputated, the displaced, the heartsick, the driven mad – will continue to suffer long after the last US soldier leaves, the last base is closed, the last drone is grounded.

Even then our responsibility to the people of Afghanistan will remain. We must provide reparation for the wounds we have inflicted. Dollars cannot compensate for the lives lost or the infrastructure devastated. Nonetheless, we must give our utmost. We must get out of the way of Afghans and (judiciously) provide the economic support they need to rebuild their country and their lives.

We must also begin the overdue reparation of ourselves. We must end our worship of violence. We must mend our hearts that have tolerated so long what we’ve been doing to the Afghan people. We must fully support the healing of our returned soldiers who, maimed in body and soul, are doomed to live out their days having experienced what we have done. And we must hold accountable those who conned us into invading Afghanistan and those who keep us there.

We must convert our war-besotted economy to one that profits from life, not death. We must dismantle our bloated military. To stop subverting and invading the Islamic oil lands, we must own up to  our Islamophobia and  break our addiction to oil. We must struggle to free not only Afghan children, but our own, from the destitution and killing that threatens to engulf us.

We must no longer avert our eyes.

Ed served 14 months in federal prisons for his civil resistance against the SOA. More recently he has been one of the “Hancock 2,” the “Hancock 15,” the “Hancock 33,” and the “Hancock 38.” Reach him at: Read other articles by Ed.