Abdul Aziz Yaqubi works in the office of the American Friends Service Committee, the Quaker-founded aid and advocacy group, in Kabul, Afghanistan. Sam Diener, co-editor of the AFSC journal Peacework interviewed him via e-mail in November 2008. The interview was conducted with assistance from AFSC staff members Peter Lems, the program director for Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran; and Patricia Omidian, the acting country representative for AFSC in Kabul and a faculty member of the Aga Khan University in Karachi, Pakistan.
In the Christian Science Monitor recently, an article described a growing peace movement in Afghanistan, saying “The National Peace Jirga…organized a series of peace assemblies in recent months, drawing thousands of people. The meetings often feature fiery speakers who condemn international forces for killing civilians but who also criticize the Taliban.” What are your feelings and thoughts about these peace jirga initiatives?
Afghans are absolutely tired of war and violence. We want to live and raise our families in peace. We also know we are pawns of the US policy against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s forces, and that our government is corrupt and only acting in its own self-interest. We are caught between the warlords, the drug lords, corrupt government officials, international armies, and the Taliban. None of these major players have an interest in peace.
The peace jirgas are critically important and need to be fostered, but they also need some teeth. Without some process of reconciliation and restorative justice, nothing will change. Leaving aside the extremists and the outsiders of the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda, the anti-government groups have legitimate complaints. All these need to be listened to and brought into the discussions. The Afghan Taliban are Afghans and have the right to talk. As long as insecurity and lack of resources continue, the insurgency will have traction.
If there are talks between the current Afghan government and the Taliban about ending the killing, do you see potential for common ground? What kinds of ideas might the two sides agree upon? What kinds of ideas might be resisted by both these powerful forces, but might be good for the people of Afghanistan?
I think the mistake was the US pushing for the party system that was set up in Afghanistan. What was needed was a system like the first Loya Jirga that was based totally on local models of governance—tribal. In that system villages selected a representative that was sent to the next level and upwards until there were representatives at the national Loya Jirga in 2002. It worked and they made decisions. But the US did not accept their decisions and the delegates went back to their villages knowing that they did not really have any say in their government.
I think one of the first things that has to happen is a tightening up on corruption in the government. Government officials are as bad as their counterparts in the insurgency, or worse. But there are people on both sides who have integrity and those need to be brought in to talk.
Please describe the work being done by the AFSC office in Kabul.
AFSC is working to promote peace by giving people the emotional tools to deal with their trauma, suffering, and losses, while helping them rebuild communities from the inside—social connections and networks. We work mostly through schools, teacher training, and the training of interns (university students in the psychology department).
What women’s rights work going on right now do you believe is particularly effective?
I think this is an area of incredible gains and incredible mis-steps. Local women moving the situation forward with the help of foreigners is productive. Foreigners coming in and demanding changes causes a backlash. Training women is great but men have to change too, so the training needs to target men as much as women. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs has been mostly ineffective because it is easy to relegate it to the sidelines. In some ways it does as much to keep women from gaining parity as it helps. It has a very tarnished image in the country, and is seen as more like an NGO than a ministry. It tends to do programs rather than set policy.
Are there sectors inside of Pakistan that also support the kinds of peace initiatives you advocate? What is your impression of Pakistan’s Awami Party, which opposes the violence of the government and the Taliban? Since the party routinely invokes Ghaffar Khan and he, in addition to being a devout pacifist, was a Pashtun nationalist (members of the the Pashtun ethnicity make up about 40% of Afghanistan and 15% of Pakistan), does the Awami party’s work have appeal to Afghans?
The Awami party of Pakistan is not a party of Afghanistan’s politics. It is moderate but it is in a very precarious position because of the hugely powerful and armed Pakistani Taliban. As you see in the news, there have been many incidents in Peshawar, Pakistan, of late. The whole of North West Frontier Province (NWFP), where the Awami Party won a provincial election in the Spring of 2008, is now in a situation similar to Afghanistan’s.
The cross-border effects of the Afghanistan war are astounding but the government of Pakistan has continued over the years to use Taliban extremists to keep Afghanistan unsettled and at war. This policy has now come back to bite them. And the people of NWFP are really caught between the army and the anti-government groups.
The Awami party does have the support of most people in the region. Ghaffar Khan is gaining attention and there are a number of groups trying to revive his legacy, showing that within Pashtun culture there are nonviolent traditions.
How is the government of Iran currently involved in Afghanistan and how might it be engaged to play a more constructive role?
Iran is using Afghanistan in a proxy war against the US. But it could help reconstruct this country since it has the best education and health systems in the region.
What do you think of the idea of channeling the poppy crops into pain relievers for hospitals (instead of going to make heroin)?
This is controversial but it would work. I would like to see it promoted.
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have threatened to escalate the US military role in Afghanistan. What do you think the results of such a military escalation would be?
More of the same. This is not a war that will be won militarily. Please read the history of Russia’s attempts to control Afghanistan militarily.
What is most important for peace movement advocates in the US to understand about the current situation in Afghanistan that we might not know much about?
This is not Iraq. The solutions won’t be the same. Remove the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (militarized “aid” workers) and be willing to talk to anyone. The Quakers and Mennonites have the right attitudes. Do not bring in missionaries but bring in people who know Islam and who can talk in local terms.
The solutions lie within Afghan culture and character. Using the peace messages of Islam is a key, as is giving tools for reconstructing communities—psychosocial models adapted to the local culture. We are helping people and groups find ways to make peace happen on our own terms and in our own culture.
This interview first appeared in the December-January edition of Peacework.
American Friends Service Committee
“Afghanistan’s emerging antiwar movement,” Christian Science Monitor, Oct. 20, 2008
“Obituary: Abdul Ghaffar Khan, 98, a Follower of Gandhi,” New York Times, Jan. 21, 1998
“Let a Thousand Licensed Poppies Bloom” by Maia Szalavitz, New York Times op-ed, July 13, 2005
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Reprinted by World War 4 Report, Feb. 1, 2009
Reprinting permissible with attribution