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'Liberation Was Just a Big Lie'

Outspoken Afghan MP says Canadian mission is a big waste of time

by Olivia Ward

She sleeps in safe houses, with a rotating squad of bodyguards securing the doors. She goes out only in a billowing burqa. Even her wedding was held in secret.

Malalai Joya, who was in Toronto to promote her book, A Woman Among Warlords, says Canada and the United States should pull their troops out of Afghanistan as soon as possible. (Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star) Elected the youngest member of the Afghan parliament – and suspended for her outspoken criticism of the country's top officials – Malalai Joya has been labelled the bravest woman in Afghanistan.

Small, soft-spoken and now 31, she has survived at least four assassination attempts and is angry at the oppressive life she is forced to lead, dodging enemies she has denounced as bloody-handed warlords and drug kingpins.

As Afghan President Hamid Karzai is inaugurated Thursday for another four years in office after a fiercely disputed election, she says his term is already tainted by the corruption, criminality and violence of those around him.

"(Prime Minister) Stephen Harper says this election was a success," she said. "But Karzai has not only insulted, but betrayed the Afghan people."

Karzai has vowed to launch anti-corruption investigations under pressure from Washington. But, Joya insists, Canada is wasting blood and treasure on keeping his government in power.

"Canada should pull its troops out now," she said in Toronto on Wednesday, where she was promoting her book A Woman Among Warlords, co-written with Canadian peace activist Derrick O'Keefe.

And, she says, U.S. President Barack Obama, who is considering a surge in troop levels to battle Al Qaeda and the Taliban, should think again.

"The United States should go, too. As long as foreign troops are in the country we will be fighting two enemies instead of one."

Yes, she says, there is a risk of civil war, as happened when the Soviet Union gave up the fight against U.S.-backed Afghan Islamists 20 years ago. But it would still be better than "night raids, torture and aerial bombardment" that killed hundreds of Afghan civilians while the Taliban made steady gains.

"Liberation was just a big lie." Joya believes Afghans are now better prepared to battle the Taliban alone – if the warlords are disarmed, and the international community helps build a society that can push back against extremism.

It is a tall order, she admits. But "resistance has increased, and people are becoming more aware of democracy and human rights. They need humanitarian and educational support."

But not, she adds, at the point of a gun.

Joya has firsthand experience with the Taliban, as well as the brutal warlords who forced her family into refugee camps after the exit of the Soviets in 1989.

As a teacher in the secret schools that educated girls – strictly banned by the Taliban – she walked around western Afghanistan at the end of the 1990s with books hidden beneath the enveloping burqa.

"Once we were stopped and searched but the burqa saved me," she recalled in her book. "They ordered me to stretch out my arms but because they did not pat me down they never found the school books."

But after the Taliban's violent repression of women, Joya says, Karzai's Afghanistan has done little to ease their plight.

Religious extremism is rife, and even a 25 per cent quota for women in parliament has produced few female politicians who are willing to fight for women's rights.

That is what makes Joya an inspiration for those who greet her tearfully on her heavily guarded visits to clinics, community groups and an orphanage she supports.

It has also made her a target for radicals, as well as the warlord factions she denounces. Since she called for the prosecution of highly placed warlords and drug smugglers in a landmark 2003 meeting on the country's constitution, the threats have not stopped.

When Joya returns to Afghanistan this month, she will resume her perilous career as a rallying point for the country's downtrodden and disenchanted – and hope she will live to see genuine change.

"It will be a long struggle," she wrote. "A river is made drop by drop ... you can kill me, but you can never kill my spirit."

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