Afghanistan's 25-Year Tragedy

— an interview with Tahmeena Faryal

[ON DECEMBER 3, 2001 MEMBERS of the Boston-based Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia and the Boston College Faculty for Social Justice and a Humane Foreign Policy hosted Tahmeena Faryal.  The following are excerpts from the conversation that took place between members of these organizations, independent individuals and a member of Solidarity.]

Q: Some key legislation on women's rights was passed under [former king] Ammanullah and Zahir Shah. What are your thoughts on this question in light of the recent discussions to institute a U.S.-backed monarchy?

Tahmeena Faryal: In 1933 we had a king who is now in exile [Zahir Shah] and is now at the Bonn meeting.  The first constitution that mentioned women and women's equal participation in society was in 1964.  He was the king for forty years.

Prior to that, Ammanullah [king from 1919] was very different in many ways. The first school for women was established when he was the king. His wife had a major role in that. But after that, during Zahir Shah's reign women were also in a much better situation, though he was definitely not as progressive as King Ammanullah.

Q: That is why RAWA is supporting him right now?

T.F.: [Yes].  We support him only when there is a comparison between him and the Soviet-backed regime, the puppets, and the fundamentalists.  The people in Afghanistan compare [i.e.  contrast] the years under which he was the king with the Soviet invasion and fundamentalist domination .

Q: We are interested in your reflections on the PDPA [Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan, the Communist party, which seized power in 1978].  Would you say one of the reasons it forfeited mass-based support, especially in the rural areas, is because it attempted to institute compulsory women's education in rural and urban areas?  What is the political history of RAWA in relation to the PDPA?

T.F.: Of RAWA?  We have always opposed them.

Q: Can you talk about the three- or four-year period before the actual Soviet invasion.  I mean, do you see a major difference there between what was happening before and when the Soviet Union really started to treat Afghanistan as a client state, which finally led to the invasion?

T.F.: Well, the PDPA [factions] became known as Khalq and Parcham.  They were established in the 1960s.  But from the very beginning they were very much influenced by the Soviets.  The Soviets, the Russians, helped them to have a coup against Daoud [Mohammad Daoud was president after King Zahir Shah was overthrown by the military in 1973] because they realized that Daoud would not be their puppet.

I think maybe in the beginning the Soviets did not want to have a military invasion, thinking that maybe with the coup and having their puppet regime they could achieve what they wanted.  But [from] the very first days [of] their bloody coup [the PDPA imposed] a very suffocating political situation especially for those who opposed them.

The environment was not tolerable for most of the intellectuals.  They put many of them into prison, they removed them from their jobs, it was in some ways much more risky than for example under the Taliban.  Most of them were KGB trained people.  The Soviets realized that without a military invasion they could not achieve what they wanted, although unfortunately they had not learned that even a military invasion cannot work in Afghanistan.

From the very beginning RAWA opposed the PDPA as a puppet party, one that actually betrayed some of the words like democracy, the rights of women, freedom.  Today we have problems because of what they did in the name of those words, the same as what the fundamentalists did under the name of Islam.

Q: We were wondering about the PDPA and its seemingly progressive politics particularly towards women, canceling debts of rural peasants, freeing them from all kinds of oppression putting up lots of schools—the kinds of things that the United States published in its country study report even as it was opposing the PDPA and pumping in billions of dollars.

T.F.: They did some reforms in Afghanistan, there is no doubt about it. They took land from the landlords and distributed it: land reform.  But obviously this was not the way that things could be done in Afghanistan, especially with their policy towards women.  They had their women's organization.  But their agendas were very different from ours. They never wanted to make women realize their real potential and abilities, but rather wanted western values and culture for Afghanistan in order that Russian culture would prevail.  Many families were affected by the PDPA because of the crimes that they committed.  In just a few months they killed 20,000 people, most of them intellectuals and university students, for [the sake of] these reforms.  They [the PDPA] were never acceptable and will never be acceptable to the people.  The PDPA is known as the party that sold Afghanistan to the foreigners.  People know, especially those who are a bit familiar with the political history of Afghanistan, that they were the beginning of the tragedy in Afghanistan—that today's Taliban are a consequence of their coup and the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan—and for that they will never ever forgive them.

Q: Could you comment on whether the people in the Northern Alliance would even be marginally accepted?  And who are their social base?

T.F.: Well, basically the people who are now in the Northern Alliance are those we call fundamentalists that were created and supported during the Cold War by many countries including the United States.  Most of the people and most of the fighters in the Northern Alliance are with them because of the money.  Obviously they have their main leaders and commanders who were the ones supported during the Cold War and have the fundamentalist mentality.  Not all of the 15,000 soldiers are of that background.

Q: Are most of them from a rural background?

T.F.:The soldiers, yes. Most of them are not even educated, at least not well educated.  The leaders of the Northern Alliance come from different backgrounds, different ethnic groups, [supported by] different countries.  That is part of another [problem], what makes the political situation more complicated because different countries are involved.  Each and every one of them have their own interests, and for each interest they have their own group that fought in Afghanistan, and that's another reason that we didn't have stability in Afghanistan after the Soviets left.

Q: I read in an interview today with a representative of RAWA in which she was saying that the Northern Alliance actually carried out many acts of brutality specifically aimed at women.  I was wondering if you have any comments on that, and also given that they are probably going to form the next government, how is that going to affect your strategy?

T.F.: The Northern Alliance and their main leaders and commanders are criminals, as criminal as Milosevic.  The people of Afghanistan want them to be brought to an international court of law, now they are the future rulers, again.  It is very scary that the different countries and the United Nations rely on the Northern Alliance again in its bombing campaign in Afghanistan.  The provinces that were captured by the Northern Alliance have already been looted, where they did the same thing that they did from 1992 through `96.  Q: What kind of possibilities are there right now for an independent democratic movement in Afghanistan?  Are there political organizations [in Pakistan or Afghanistan] that you can ally yourself with?

T.F.: In Afghanistan there are definitely many individuals, if not many organizations, who would say the same as RAWA does, or at least would agree on a broad-based government that should be based on democratic values.  Well, the Northern Alliance also talks a lot of democracy, but it's important to know which groups did not have their hand in the blood of the people.

Q:Are there any other organizations that represent a democratic force in Afghanistan?

T.F.: As an organization we don't know any. Especially as a women's organization unfortunately RAWA is the only one. We have women from different backgrounds.  We have women from urban areas, from rural areas, from very remote corners of Afghanistan, who started with RAWA with literacy classes and now they are members.

We have women from very different ethnic groups.  That is one of the main issues that we try to consider, especially the way it has been used and misused by the different warlords.  Anti-fundamentalism and obviously anti-terrorism, for a democratic government, rights and freedom of women, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, against all the criminals in the more than two decades of war in Afghanistan—those are important for us. It is not important if these people come from Pushtoon, Tadzik, Hazara, Turkmen, Shia, Sunni [backgrounds], whatever language they speak, that is not important to us at all.

Q: Is there a political party that RAWA would support, substantially support to come into power?

T.F.: The parties that we have are not acceptable to RAWA.

RAWA will be part of the women's summit in Brussels that will actually take place tomorrow [December 4, 2001].  RAWA is part of that, it's an Afghan women's summit for democracy.  There are women coming from different backgrounds.  Some of them are in coalition with the Northern Alliance, directly or indirectly, openly or secretly but we know that they are Northern Alliance women.  Because we believe that this is another form of struggle for us, RAWA also has a member at the Bonn talks, not as RAWA but as part of the King's delegation.

Q: In a period of civil war and massive repression, how did you grow, how did you organize during the last twenty years?  What kind of linkages perhaps RAWA has had with other movements in South Asia in Pakistan, India and Iran which are supportive of your goals?

T.F.: RAWA is not a unique phenomenon in the world.  We are witness to many other countries in war for decades.  Obviously where there is suppression there is definitely resistance, you can't really stop resistance.  It was very difficult for us to organize our activities and to conduct our projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  But we managed it. And obviously it was taking risks.  We lost our founding leader Mina, and that can happen to other members also. We've always been inspired by other organizations, especially women's movements, in countries like Iran that we have in some ways similar background, history, and obviously language and their struggle against fundamentalism.  In Pakistan we have contacts and relationships with women's organizations, democratic organizations, in whatever ways we can. Unfortunately, as you may know in Pakistan there are not many grassroots women's organizations as there are in India.  That makes our contacts a bit limited.  They are usually very surprised by our activities.  They say, "how you can organize a demonstration with 2,000 women?" or "how you can organize a women's day function of 2,000 women or men?" They are very surprised.  But it's really great to have the support of women like Asma Jehangir and Hina Jillani [two prominent human rights activists in Pakistan] who have been very outspoken and also risked their lives in order to bring up especially the "honor killings" in Pakistan [the murder of women by their own families in response to women asserting their freedom, especially sexual freedom].  We have to be even more careful with contacts in India, because of the relationship between Pakistan and India.  We have sometimes been labeled by the Pakistani government as agents of India.  Especially RAWA is sometimes confused with RAW [the Indian intelligence agency, similar to the CIA].

Q: I have a question about civilian casualties, we have been hearing conflicting reports of the number of people killed.  I was wondering if you have any independent sources who could confirm these numbers?  What is RAWA's analysis?

T.F.:We don't have any confirmed number.  It's definitely in the hundreds; maybe two weeks ago [there was an article] by Associated Press confirming 400 civilian casualties, it's apparently more than that by now. About the current bombing, we think that this is how the people think (because many people told us): On the one hand, this rooted out Taliban, or terrorist camps and terrorism and Osama in Afghanistan.  On the other hand, the civilians there were also the victims and we have thousands and thousands of people fleeing Afghanistan.  At least in Pakistan after 11 September more than 100,000 people came. And when they came to Pakistan they had nothing, no food, no clothing, no shelter, nothing.  The citizens are so fed up with more than two decades of war, they think that if this could root out terrorism and fundamentalism this would be a positive sign. And people see the Taliban almost rooted out, but definitely they are not happy with the arrival of the Northern Alliance.  And in that case they don't see any difference.

from ATC 96 (January/February 2002)