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The Capital Times (Wisconsin)

Afghan Woman Knows Why US Policy is Failing

OSLO -- The debate about the Obama administration's plan to surge more than 20,000 additional troops into Afghanistan has been so vapid that you will still hear suggestions that this approach is necessary to protect the people -- particularly the women -- of Afghanistan from oppression.

Those who argue this brief would be well to consult Malalai Joya. Selected to serve in Afghanistan's Constitutional Loya Jirga in 2003 and then elected to the Wolesi Jirga (parliament) in 2005 as one of the top vote-getters in the western province of Farah, she is widely seen as the most courageous political figure in the country. This is because, from the start, she has dared to object to the crude political calculus -- imposed and supported by the U.S. -- which grants amnesty to warlords who have been linked to well-documented war crimes and ongoing corruption.

Joya has also sought -- sadly, without success -- to block the restoration by the U.S.-backed Afghan government of laws restricting the legal rights of women. And she has complained, loudly and consistently, about U.S. bombing raids that are responsible for horrifying death tolls among civilians.

For her dissents, the youngest member of the parliament has been banned from the Jirga, threatened with rape by fellow legislators, and hounded by violent groups and individuals closely tied to the ruling establishment. She must move from house to house in Kabul and requires constant protection. Even when she travels abroad, she is in danger.

Yet Joya continues to speak out, as she did last Wednesday at the opening ceremony of the Global Forum on Freedom of Expression, where we were both among the speakers.

Despite six years of U.S. presence, Joya says, "In Afghanistan, religious extremism controls the society ... human rights and democracy are omitted."

Joya's message is blunt and uncompromising.

"Billions of dollars spent in our country only make the warlords and the abusers of human rights more powerful," she says.

Joya is withering in her criticism of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who she dismissed as "the choice of the White House" and "another puppet" who fails to seriously challenge violent warlords at home or the failed policies of foreign countries that provide military and political support to some of the worst players in the country.

As a result, she says, "There are no human rights or democracy in Afghanistan because (the government) is infected with fundamentalism."

This remarkable woman, who pleads the cause of liberal democracy, pluralism and women's rights in her homeland with a passion that is as inspiring as it is well-reasoned, has received support and encouragement from six women Nobel Peace laureates. Shirin Ebadi, Mairead Maguire, Rigoberta Menchum, Betty Williams, Jody Williams and Wangari Maathai -- who joined us at the Oslo conference -- have issued a joint appeal for Joya's reinstatement in the parliament.

The Global Forum on Freedom of Expression was sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the foreign ministries of Norway and Finland and the Open Society Institute, among others, and a wide range of international human rights and free speech groupings. The conference highlighted dissident voices that should be heard.

In truth, Joya is heard in much of the world.

But she is not heard enough in the United States, and that is a dangerous disconnect.

It is true that the mess of U.S. policy in Afghanistan was stirred up by George Bush and Dick Cheney, in collaboration, it should be noted, with many Democrats who adopted the fantasy that the Afghan conflict was America's "good war" -- in contrast to the "bad war" in Iraq. The ethical and logical compromises of the Bush/Cheney era created a situation where, Joya explains, "In our country, to express your point of view is to risk violence and death."

But President Barack Obama's expansion of a misguided occupation will ultimately give him ownership of the mess.

Obama's instincts may be noble. But to surge more troops into Afghanistan without a plan, and without taking serious steps to address the failures of the occupation up to this point, is folly.

There is no question that the United States has profound responsibilities to the people of Afghanistan. But those responsibilities are not met by maintaining flawed policies of empowering extreme fundamentalists, supporting corrupt warlords and inept politicians, and encouraging a circumstance where one of the most worldly members of the country's parliament says that "there are no human rights or democracy in Afghanistan."

Obama and his advisers should listen to Malalai Joya before they presume that expanding the occupation along the lines established by the Bush administration -- or, frankly, along any lines -- is going to help the great mass of people in Afghanistan.

The same goes for members of Congress -- especially those who say they are concerned about the women of Afghanistan -- who, for the most part, have gone along with the Bush and Obama administrations rather than asking the right questions or mounting the necessary dissents.

There is much that can be done to help Afghanistan repair itself. There are smart aid and development initiatives -- many of them grass-roots based -- that can expand access to education for women and girls and that can build respect for human rights and democracy. But an occupation that serves the interests of the occupiers rather than the people of Afghanistan has created what Malalai Joya refers to as "a mafia state."

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