Resistance to the Endless War

Interview with Saba Maher, Suraia Sahar and Samira Sayed-Rahman of Afghans for Peace

Barack Obama claims that he is winding down the U.S. war on Afghanistan–already the longest in American history. But a closer look at the plan he unveiled during a surprise visit to Afghanistan in May shows that the “withdrawal” date has been put off another two-and-a-half years–and that after this “pullout,” tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers and private contractors will remain in Afghanistan.

Three leaders of the international group Afghans for Peace, Saba Maher, Suraia Sahar and Samira Sayed-Rahman, attended the week of action against the NATO summit in Chicago in mid-May, bringing their unique antiwar voice to the People’s Summit conference and the mass march on May 20. Suraia and Samira are Afghan Canadians from Toronto; Saba is an Afghan American from Ohio.

The three spoke about the disastrous consequences of the U.S./NATO occupation, the role of the Obama administration in managing the war, and their group’s efforts to oppose the occupation.

Ashley Smith:  A lot of people accept the idea that Barack Obama is an antiwar president. What do you think of that?

Saba Maher: Just look at his record since his election and inauguration. Yes, he pulled out troops from Iraq, but he redirected them to Afghanistan. How can you call him antiwar when he’s put more troops in Afghanistan? When there have been more drone attacks not just in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan as well? He launched another war in Libya. He’s also continued to fund the Israeli war machine.

Let’s look at this so-called withdrawal from Afghanistan. In the strategic partnership he signed with Afghanistan, Obama actually pledged to keep thousands of troops in the country for the next 12 years. As an Afghan and a U.S. citizen, I cannot call him an antiwar president. I am very disappointed in his decisions, which have only brought more war, more violence, and more death.

Samira Sayed-Rahman: Obama has only furthered the conflict in Afghanistan. Since he has come into office, the casualties have consistently risen and, as a direct result of his actions, the country has spiraled into even more instability. In no way, shape or form would I call him an antiwar president. In fact, I would put him lines in the same category as George W. Bush.

I think the same of my government in Canada. Steven Harper has reduced the amount of troops in Afghanistan so that there are now only a couple thousand. However, these figures don’t include the Special Operations Forces in the country. They have taken part in night raids, which terrorize the population.

The Canadian government celebrates that they are mainly there in a training capacity. But who are they training? They are training the 350,000-strong Afghan Army, which only exists to repress people inside the country. Harper also continues to fund that war machine. He has been one of the biggest supporters of the war in Afghanistan, and he’s been one of the biggest supporters of Israel.

AS: What do your allies in Afghanistan, like the Afghan Peace Volunteers, think of Obama?

SSR: The Afghan Peace Volunteers have gone so far as to call Obama a war criminal. They see him to be on the same level as George W. Bush. They don’t see him as any kind of antiwar president, because their lives have further worsened during his presidency. They say that everything Obama does is without the consent of ordinary Afghans. He signs these agreements without asking what the Afghan people want. They feel completely invisible.

SM: In their statement, they say, “We feel like trash, we are completely voiceless, we are nonexistent to the world. We are merely seen as collateral damage.” They are targets for night raids and drone attacks, they have their bodies desecrated, and used as war trophies. Their names are not known. Their faces are not shown. They are just collateral damage.

AS: What do you make of Obama’s promise to bring an end to the war in Afghanistan in 2014?

SSR: It’s a lie. He’s not ending the occupation in 2014. Under the strategic partnership agreement, 20,000 troops will remain in the country up to 2024. Lord knows that deadline will probably be extended. They are promising to shift the troops from combat to non-combat roles. I’ll believe that when I see it.

And the Special Operations forces are not counted as part of those numbers –they don’t fall under the strategic partnership agreement in any way, shape or form. These forces are still allowed to conduct night raids and attack Afghan civilians.

SM: We will only see more atrocities like Sgt. [Robert] Bales’ massacre of 16 men, women and children in Panjwai. There are still many unanswered questions about that massacre. As Afghan youth in America and abroad, we put out a petition demanding answers to questions surrounding that massacre.

AS: Obama justified his surge in Afghanistan, saying that it would develop the country for Afghans. Is there any evidence to back up this claim?

SSR: Where do we see development? The situation has been steadily deteriorating over the past 11 years. Since Obama’s surge, the situation has gotten even worse. Afghan girls and women are still in the same unsafe situation they used to be in.

SM: Maternal mortality is the highest it’s ever been in Afghanistan. It’s actually the highest rate in the world.

SSR: It is the second most unsafe place for a child to be born. They claim that they’re sending little girls to school. What schools? I was in Afghanistan two summers ago. As you travel through the country, you can see the projects that various organizations are undertaking. They are building empty buildings. They’re empty shells. There are no teachers, no books and no supplies. A building does not provide a child an education.

Suraia Sahar: A lot of what is being built doesn’t help ordinary Afghans. They are building four-star hotels, palaces for warlords and roads that only NATO vehicles are able to use.

SM: Here’s an example that shows how ridiculous their claim of development is. There’s a hospital that’s named after Barbara Bush! But it’s a hospital in name only. It’s entirely devoid of medical equipment and staff. It’s another empty building. We have a lot of empty buildings in Afghanistan.

SS: Canada does the same thing in Afghanistan. One of our associates, Dr. Mike Skinner, went to Afghanistan in 2007 to look for projects that the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) has built with taxpayers’ money. He went to their office in Afghanistan, and it was an empty building with a sign of the name of the agency. It was completely abandoned.

SSR: I know people who worked with CIDA. They told me about a school CIDA was building in a “safe location” for kids in a particular village. But this “safe location” was way outside the village. There are no roads to get to the school. It’s built in the middle of nowhere, completely inaccessible to the kids. So it’s ended up as another empty building.

AS: If  the U.S. is not developing the country, why is Obama committed to continuing the occupation till 2024?

SS: I don’t believe that it’s for any of the reasons that they claimed, whether that’s fighting al-Qaeda, enforcing democracy, promoting women’s rights or training the Afghan army. There are fewer than 100 al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan, so that is a huge joke for us. These are just excuses to stay in Afghanistan longer.

SM: Let’s not forget Afghanistan’s geopolitical location. It’s a landlocked country, surrounded by many key players internationally. There are valuable resources, and there is an incredibly hydrocarbon-rich area up in the north.

SSR: Afghanistan has always been a major factor in the plans of the imperial powers. Take a look at the Great Game between Britain and Russia in the 19th century. Take a look at the Soviet invasion of the 1980s.

It has always been a strategic location, from the time of the Silk Road to what they’re calling today’s “New Silk Road”–the energy pipelines. The occupation provides a lot of money for American companies, for American mercenaries. The very same money that’s going into the country is leaving it in the pockets of wealthy Americans and wealthy Afghans.

AS:  The Obama administration has now admitted that it won’t really improve the conditions in Afghanistan. They are now saying that it will be “Afghan good enough.” What do you think of that?

SSR: The phrase “Afghan good enough” is one of the most appalling, racist statements I have ever heard in my life. One Obama official even said, “It won’t be like Switzerland, but it’s good enough for the Afghans.” What does that even mean, “good enough for the Afghans”? It treats us as people who deserve less than others. Good enough prior to when you came in?

The U.S. invasion has destroyed Afghanistan. “Afghan good enough” means leaving the country in a worse state than when they came in. That is not “Afghan good enough” for me or for any other Afghan.

SM: “Afghan good enough”? Take a look at our history. We have not always been in such a horrible situation. We lived in far better conditions in the past. We had departments for agricultural, public health, development and sustainability.

My grandfather was head of the Department of Public Health, and he eradicated smallpox in Afghanistan, when much of the developing world was still suffering from it.

It’s only in the last few decades that we’ve been suffering from war at the hands of the Soviets and now the U.S. and NATO. So please don’t tell me that it is “Afghan good enough.” Afghan people are intelligent, beautiful and strong, and just because we’re at war does not mean that these conditions are the best we can have or the best we deserve.

AS: How did Afghans for Peace come into being, what kind of projects have you been involved in, and what kind of relationships do you have with other antiwar forces?

SS: Many of our members had been involved in the antiwar movement as individual Afghans, but there was no actual Afghan-led peace movement speaking out against the war, certainly not one outside of Afghanistan.

I myself had been waiting for years for our community to do something. So finally when Obama announced the troop surge, a few of us who met over Facebook formed Afghans for Peace.

For about a year, we were doing our own thing and not really involved with other groups. There was a lot of distrust of working with other groups. We also had trouble trusting other Afghans.

I had reached out to other Afghan organizations, but they brushed me off because I am young and female, and for having grown up in Canada. Many didn’t like touching on politics either. We faced a lot of obstacles getting started–Islamophobia, racism, sexism, xenophobia.

SM: We faced a lot of racism as very young people. When the war started, I was 13 years old. I felt I had to do something to help the Afghan victims of the occupation so I went straight to the principal at my school and I asked, “Can we please raise money for Afghans in Afghanistan?” My fellow students responded saying just awful things like, “Why don’t we just nuke them off the map?” So we as a community had a lot of prejudice and fear to overcome.

SS: A turning point in collaborating with antiwar groups came at the G20 demonstrations in Toronto. There I saw all these different organizations working together and I thought that maybe there was a chance to unite with them.

So I reached out to the Canadian Peace Alliance and the Toronto Coalition to Stop the War. Soon after, they invited me to speak on a panel they organized with Malalai Joya.

After that experience, we felt more comfortable collaborating with other organizations. It’s been a very positive experience and they’ve worked with us to take the lead in the struggle.

SSR: In Chicago, we’ve had an incredible experience working with Iraq Veterans Against the War, Veterans for Peace and many other groups. This has helped get our message out. We are at the forefront of the Afghan-led movement against this war and occupation.

Our group is made up of young people because our elders have other responsibilities and they have been reluctant to become activists because of their experiences as refugees. They fled the Soviet occupation. We’re the daughters of refugees. Suraia is a refugee.

SM: It’s a key thing to understand in terms of understanding the Afghan-led movement. Our parents fled a war in the 1980s. They have seen what the effects of war can have on people. Our families died at the hands of the Soviets. They’ve been imprisoned.

So they want to stay out of it as much as they can. They are understandably afraid. They’re not in their homeland. In their own homeland they faced persecution that drove them abroad. They’re not ready to speak out here. It’s intimidating.

We all get asked, “Where are you from?” You know, even me, being born here, I’m asked this right off the bat. “Where are you from? Where are you really from? What’s your origin? Your family’s origin?”

We’re not accepted as a people right off the bat, we’re considered foreign, and we cannot just easily speak out. Our families don’t want to see us suffer discrimination or be victimized for our political views.

AS:  So what’s been the reaction of the Afghan community to Afghans for Peace?

SM: It’s been very difficult to connect with the Afghan community because we are broken up in a large diaspora. We are broken up all over the world. We are the largest refugee population in the world. The Palestinian refugee population comes second to the Afghan refugee population. The youth have been using social media to connect, and that’s only very recently.

SS: It’s been a very gradual process of building up Afghan for Peace and getting the Afghan community to join our actions. Only in the last year have we seen larger numbers of Afghans respond. Now they look to us in representing their voice against the occupation.

It really began to change after the Panjwai massacre. There had already been so many atrocities. But when Sergeant Bales killed 16 innocent people, and we immediately called for action, the Afghan community responded and showed their support.

SM: We even had adults who were fearful before, who would tell us to cancel our events. But after the massacre, when I organized a demonstration, my own mother found out and said, “Enough is enough. I’m coming with you.” She never comes with me to anything. She tried to get me to cancel the statewide rally for Gaza when Israel attacked Gaza in 2009!

SSR: The same thing happened to me. My parents had never come out to any of our events. But when Afghans for Peace group hosted a vigil in Toronto, I hitched a ride went down from Hamilton where I’m in school. When I got to the vigil I found my parents there! I couldn’t believe it.

I think Afghan people were really, really fed up. This massacre struck a chord with the Afghans. Afghans for Peace launched a call for vigils worldwide. We had vigils all across North America, Europe and many other places around the world.

AS:  What are you doing to build Afghans for Peace?

SS: We do actions and educational events often in collaboration with other antiwar groups like we did here in Chicago. One important thing we’re doing now is helping to organize the Global Day of Listening with the Afghan Peace Volunteers. It’s through Skype and anyone from anywhere in the world can call and speak with Afghans both in and outside of Afghanistan.

These have been important for connecting us with the peace movement inside Afghanistan and globally. We’ve had Noam Chomsky on the calls. We’ve had people from Palestine and Iraq. I remember listening to youth in Iraq and the Congo share war stories with youth in Afghanistan. It’s amazing.

SSR: We have other projects that we want to do, but often we can’t work on them, because we have to respond to some new atrocity in Afghanistan. One thing that we have really just begun to discuss is what solutions do we have to offer? I think that’s what we need to start working on next.

What can we do as Afghan youth, children of refugees, outside the country to help people inside the country? We need to find ways to provide that humanitarian help that these governments are not providing. Many of us are considering going to Afghanistan and use our education to help the Afghan people.

SM: We want to offer peaceful solutions and alternatives. As an Afghan-led movement from abroad, we want to be part of the development and sustainability process in Afghanistan. We feel it is a duty to help our brothers and sisters back home.

AS:  One of  the horrible things the U.S./NATO occupation has done is exacerbate the ethnic and religious divisions in Afghanistan. How have the Afghan Peace Volunteers worked to overcome these divisions?

SS: The ironic thing is that the U.S. made all these divisions worse and now they are using them as an excuse for continuing their occupation. They have instilled fear that civil war will break out if the troops withdraw. But we don’t hear about the efforts being made to promote unity and solidarity by the ordinary people inside Afghanistan.

That’s what the Afghan Peace Volunteers are doing. It’s incredibly courageous. They are primarily young Hazara and Tajik students. They’ve been traveling around southern Afghanistan in cities like Jalalabad speaking to Pashtun youth. They’ve organized meetings saying, “Let’s work together. Let’s make peace. Let’s find solutions and overcome our divisions.”

I believe the Afghan Peace Volunteers are the most important symbol of hope and lasting peace inside of Afghanistan. But they get no coverage and very little help in their effort, which offers a path that could potentially save the country.

SM: We as Afghans for Peace are at the earliest stages of the peace movement for Afghanistan. We are at the forefront of it but we want to work with other Afghans, other organizations and movements to organize for a better Afghanistan.

We have responsibilities as Afghans living in Canada and America. Our tax dollars fund the war machine that’s destroyed our country. We’re also Afghans who are war refugees. We feel the direct results of what’s happening over there and we have a responsibility to mobilize our people to provide a better future for Afghanistan. So, what’s good enough for Afghanistan? Not the occupation.

SSR: That’s for sure. It’s also not good for the countries we live in. While they waste all this money destroying our country of origin, unemployment is skyrocketing and our tuition fees are going up like crazy in the U.S. and Canada.

We are paying taxes for a war machine that is killing my people in Afghanistan. I can’t stand that. I don’t accept “Afghan good enough” and I don’t accept “Canada good enough.” I want a better Afghanistan and a better Canada.

AS:  What kind of message do you want to convey to the antiwar movement in North America?

SM: Let it be known that your governments and corporations are profiteering from the war. This is blood money. This is money that they’re earning with the blood of the people being spilled. This war is not in your interest, nor mine.

We as Afghans for Peace will not remain silent. We will stand up against these injustices again and again and again wherever they occur in the world.

SS: We are Afghans for Peace and we call for an end to the occupation and war in Afghanistan. We call on all the leaders of the world to listen to our voices and refocus their priorities toward peaceful, nonviolent alternatives and solutions.

We stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Afghanistan like the Afghan Peace Volunteers, and the entire antiwar movement around the globe who share our message.

• Transcription by William Crane and Royall Spence

• Originally published in Socialist Worker.

Ashley Smith is a writer and activist from Burlington, Vermont. He writes frequently for Socialist Worker and the International Socialist Review. He can be reached at Read other articles by Ashley.