Category Archives: Kabul

In Afghanistan, Our Need to Rethink the Institution of War

It’s frustrating that whereas all human beings wish to live meaningful lives, we seem helpless in the face of a few individuals waging wars and exploiting our world.

But we can each do something about this insensible status quo, as ordinary folk of the People’s Peace Movement ( PPM) show us by taking one barefoot-step at a time, traveling to the Northern areas of Afghanistan to persuade fellow Afghans, whether they’re with ‘insurgent groups’ or with the U.S./NATO/Afghan forces, to stop fighting.

The People’s Peace Movement (PPM) walking barefoot to the Northern provinces of Afghanistan, led by a blind member of their group, Zindani (Photo taken from PPM’s Facebook Page)

Their action of walking without shoes suggest to us that, for us to survive today’s militarized and profit-driven norms, we have to live each day differently, and with clarity and compassion.

We’ve been thinking that we need armies to stop ‘terrorists’, but armies don’t stop ‘terrorists’. Instead, they give ‘terrorists’ reason to keep fighting.

We need to think anew.

Moreover, the roots of ‘terrorism’ lie within ourselves. We are our own source of wars.

Iqbal Khyber, a representative of PPM, told the Afghan Peace Volunteers (APVs) about how violence has taken root in all of us. “A blind member of our group, Zindani (a name he gave himself after he was blinded by a Taliban-planted roadside bomb, meaning ‘imprisoned’ ) had so much pain in him that one evening when we were camped outside the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, he pleaded with me, ‘Can I throw a pebble at the fence?’ ”

“I advised Zindani, ‘No, we need to end the anger inside us.’” Iqbal continued.

Zindani is rightfully angry because he has been hurt by all sides of the Afghan conflict, like all civilians in all wars. His father literally disappeared from his life when he was just seven, as a bomb from a U.S. airstrike in Helmand left ‘a crater so large that no trace of his father and uncle could be found’. Years later, another bomb, this time a Taliban device, killed his sister and blinded him. He not only lost his sight, but he also lost the chance to marry the teenage love of his life.

The crowd at the PPM’s meeting in Kabul on the 9th of August 2018. Zindani is determined to end war (Photo by Dr Hakim)

At a large gathering in Kabul, Zindani sat in front of a crowd of Afghans who were shouting, “We want peace! Enough war! ” He had a brown turban wrapped over his head and eyes, and a Borderfree blue scarf of the Afghan Peace Volunteers draped around his neck.

Zindani is determined to end war (Photo by Dr. Hakim)

He was quiet.

But his stand was clear. He had already walked more than 700 km from Helmand to Kabul, and he was ready to persist.

He couldn’t see the crowd before him, but he could hear them, and understand their intense desire to end the war.

What makes us think that ordinary people like Zindani, or we ourselves, cannot end ‘terrorism’ and wars through nonviolent methods? Misinformation has infected us with doubts.

One way to work through those doubts is to emulate Zindani, members of the PPM and the APVs: relate person-to-person, ask, “How can we live better?”, listen, love.

And to take courage in not doubting love when we encounter it.

“I was suspicious of their intentions. Politicians and leaders have misused the people so much we can no longer trust one another. But, when I met and conversed with these people from Helmand, I knew we could work together,” Masuma testified to the other Volunteers who had gathered on another occasion to hear from four members of the Movement.

How about fear? How do we deal with legitimate fears?

The Volunteers were grappling with multiple concerns before they went to the big meeting organized by the PPM, held just next to Ghazi Stadium, where the Taliban used to execute people publicly.

Surely, Zindani, with his past trauma of losing eight family members to war, has been afraid all through his dark journey. Fear is an emotion we can work with, like our experience of fear even in love, like Zindani did in creating two poetic lines for his teenage girl-friend:

I am too scared to even drink water
It may fade my beloved’s name on my heart.

Love triumphs over fear.

“We’ll go together, come what may,” Khalid, an Afghan Peace Volunteer who is a university undergraduate, had said. At the large gathering, Khalid was so ‘fired up’ that he overcame his usual shyness for 30 seconds on stage, delivering two lines of a Pashto poem which meant:

Whatever you destroy,
don’t destroy my thoughts and my mind.

The young want an end to war (Photo by Dr Hakim)

 

The old want an end to war (Photo by Dr Hakim)

 

The APVs, the PPM and the people want an end to war (Photo by Dr Hakim)

That’s how we can overcome fear, and end the obsolete human institution of war.

We can love.

We can think anew.

We can turn up together.

In Afghanistan, Our Need to Rethink the Institution of War

It’s frustrating that whereas all human beings wish to live meaningful lives, we seem helpless in the face of a few individuals waging wars and exploiting our world.

But we can each do something about this insensible status quo, as ordinary folk of the People’s Peace Movement ( PPM) show us by taking one barefoot-step at a time, traveling to the Northern areas of Afghanistan to persuade fellow Afghans, whether they’re with ‘insurgent groups’ or with the U.S./NATO/Afghan forces, to stop fighting.

The People’s Peace Movement (PPM) walking barefoot to the Northern provinces of Afghanistan, led by a blind member of their group, Zindani (Photo taken from PPM’s Facebook Page)

Their action of walking without shoes suggest to us that, for us to survive today’s militarized and profit-driven norms, we have to live each day differently, and with clarity and compassion.

We’ve been thinking that we need armies to stop ‘terrorists’, but armies don’t stop ‘terrorists’. Instead, they give ‘terrorists’ reason to keep fighting.

We need to think anew.

Moreover, the roots of ‘terrorism’ lie within ourselves. We are our own source of wars.

Iqbal Khyber, a representative of PPM, told the Afghan Peace Volunteers (APVs) about how violence has taken root in all of us. “A blind member of our group, Zindani (a name he gave himself after he was blinded by a Taliban-planted roadside bomb, meaning ‘imprisoned’ ) had so much pain in him that one evening when we were camped outside the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, he pleaded with me, ‘Can I throw a pebble at the fence?’ ”

“I advised Zindani, ‘No, we need to end the anger inside us.’” Iqbal continued.

Zindani is rightfully angry because he has been hurt by all sides of the Afghan conflict, like all civilians in all wars. His father literally disappeared from his life when he was just seven, as a bomb from a U.S. airstrike in Helmand left ‘a crater so large that no trace of his father and uncle could be found’. Years later, another bomb, this time a Taliban device, killed his sister and blinded him. He not only lost his sight, but he also lost the chance to marry the teenage love of his life.

The crowd at the PPM’s meeting in Kabul on the 9th of August 2018. Zindani is determined to end war (Photo by Dr Hakim)

At a large gathering in Kabul, Zindani sat in front of a crowd of Afghans who were shouting, “We want peace! Enough war! ” He had a brown turban wrapped over his head and eyes, and a Borderfree blue scarf of the Afghan Peace Volunteers draped around his neck.

Zindani is determined to end war (Photo by Dr. Hakim)

He was quiet.

But his stand was clear. He had already walked more than 700 km from Helmand to Kabul, and he was ready to persist.

He couldn’t see the crowd before him, but he could hear them, and understand their intense desire to end the war.

What makes us think that ordinary people like Zindani, or we ourselves, cannot end ‘terrorism’ and wars through nonviolent methods? Misinformation has infected us with doubts.

One way to work through those doubts is to emulate Zindani, members of the PPM and the APVs: relate person-to-person, ask, “How can we live better?”, listen, love.

And to take courage in not doubting love when we encounter it.

“I was suspicious of their intentions. Politicians and leaders have misused the people so much we can no longer trust one another. But, when I met and conversed with these people from Helmand, I knew we could work together,” Masuma testified to the other Volunteers who had gathered on another occasion to hear from four members of the Movement.

How about fear? How do we deal with legitimate fears?

The Volunteers were grappling with multiple concerns before they went to the big meeting organized by the PPM, held just next to Ghazi Stadium, where the Taliban used to execute people publicly.

Surely, Zindani, with his past trauma of losing eight family members to war, has been afraid all through his dark journey. Fear is an emotion we can work with, like our experience of fear even in love, like Zindani did in creating two poetic lines for his teenage girl-friend:

I am too scared to even drink water
It may fade my beloved’s name on my heart.

Love triumphs over fear.

“We’ll go together, come what may,” Khalid, an Afghan Peace Volunteer who is a university undergraduate, had said. At the large gathering, Khalid was so ‘fired up’ that he overcame his usual shyness for 30 seconds on stage, delivering two lines of a Pashto poem which meant:

Whatever you destroy,
don’t destroy my thoughts and my mind.

The young want an end to war (Photo by Dr Hakim)

 

The old want an end to war (Photo by Dr Hakim)

 

The APVs, the PPM and the people want an end to war (Photo by Dr Hakim)

That’s how we can overcome fear, and end the obsolete human institution of war.

We can love.

We can think anew.

We can turn up together.

Marching for Peace: From Helmand to Hiroshima

I have just arrived in Hiroshima with a group of Japanese “Okinawa to Hiroshima peace walkers” who had spent nearly two months walking Japanese roads protesting U.S. militarism.  While we were walking, an Afghan peace march that had set off in May was enduring 700km of Afghan roadsides, poorly shod, from Helmand province to Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul. Our march watched the progress of theirs with interest and awe.  The unusual Afghan group had started off as 6 individuals, emerging out of a sit-in protest and hunger strike in the Helmand provincial capital Lashkar Gah, after a suicide attack there created dozens of casualties. As they started walking their numbers soon swelled to 50 plus as the group braved roadside bombs, fighting between warring parties and exhaustion from desert walking during the strict fast month of Ramadan.

The Afghan march, which is believed to be the first of its kind, is asking for a long-term ceasefire between warring parties and the withdrawal of foreign troops. One peace walker, named Abdullah Malik Hamdard, felt that he had nothing to lose by joining the march. He said: “Everybody thinks they will be killed soon, the situation for those alive is miserable. If you don’t die in the war, the poverty caused by the war may kill you, which is why I think the only option left for me is to join the peace convoy.”

The Japanese peace walkers marched to specifically halt the construction of a U.S. airfield and port with an ammunition depot in Henoko, Okinawa, which will be accomplished by landfilling Oura Bay, a habitat for the dugong and unique coral hundreds of years old, but many more lives are endangered. Kamoshita Shonin, a peace walk organizer who lives in Okinawa, says:

People in mainland Japan do not hear about the extensive bombings by the U.S. in the Middle East and Afghanistan, they are told that the bases are a deterrent against North Korea and China, but the bases are not about protecting us, they are about invading other countries. This is why I organised the walk.

Sadly, the two unconnected marches shared one tragic cause as motivation.

Recent U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan include the deliberate targeting of civilian wedding parties and funerals, incarceration without trial and torture in Bagram prison camp, the bombing of an MSF hospital in Kunduz, the dropping of the ‘Mother of all bombs’ in Nangarhar, illegal transportation of Afghans to secret black site prisons, Guantanamo Bay prison camp, and the extensive use of armed drones. Elsewhere the U.S. has completely destabilised the Middle East and Central Asia, according to The Physicians for Social Responsibility, in a report released in 2015, stated that the U.S. interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan alone killed close to 2 million, and that the figure was closer to 4 million when tallying up the deaths of civilians caused by the U.S. in other countries, such as Syria and Yemen.

The Japanese group intend to offer prayers of peace this Monday at Hiroshima ground zero, 73 years to the day after the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on the city, instantly evaporating 140,000 lives, arguably one of the worst ‘single event’ war crimes committed in human history. Three days later the U.S. hit Nagasaki instantly killing 70,000. Four months after the bombing the total death toll had reached 280,000 as injuries and the impact of radiation doubled the number of fatalities.

Today Okinawa, long a target for discrimination by Japanese authorities, accommodates 33 U.S. military bases, occupying 20% of the land, housing some 30,000 plus U.S. Marines who carry out dangerous training exercises ranging from rope hangs suspended out of Osprey helicopters (often over built-up residential areas), to jungle trainings which run straight through villages, arrogantly using people’s gardens and farms as mock conflict zones. Of the 14,000 U.S. troops currently stationed in Afghanistan, many to most would have trained on Okinawa, and even flown out directly from the Japanese Island to U.S. bases such as Bagram.

Meanwhile in Afghanistan the walkers, who call themselves the ‘People’s Peace Movement’, are following up their heroic ordeal with protests outside various foreign embassies in Kabul.  This week they are outside the Iranian Embassy demanding an end to Iranian interference in Afghan matters and their equipping armed militant groups in the country. It is lost on no-one in the region that the U.S., which cites such Iranian interference as its pretext for building up towards a U.S.-Iran war, is an incomparably more serious supplier of deadly arms and destabilizing force to the region. They have staged sit-in protests outside the U.S., Russian, Pakistani and U.K. embassies, as well as the U.N. offices in Kabul.

The head of their impromptu movement, Mohammad Iqbal Khyber, says the group have formed a committee comprised of elders and religious scholars. The assignment of the committee is to travel from Kabul to Taliban-controlled areas to negotiate peace.

The U.S. have yet to describe its long term or exit strategy for Afghanistan. Last December Vice President Mike Pence addressed U.S. troops in Bagram: “I say with confidence, because of all of you and all those that have gone before and our allies and partners, I believe victory is closer than ever before.”

But time spent walking doesn’t bring your destination closer when you don’t have a map.  More recently U.K. ambassador for Afghanistan Sir Nicholas Kay, while speaking on how to resolve conflict in Afghanistan said: “I don’t have the answer.”  There never was a military answer for Afghanistan.  Seventeen years of ‘coming closer to victory’ in eliminating a developing nation’s domestic resistance is what is called “defeat,” but the longer the war goes on, the greater the defeat for Afghanistan’s people.

Historically the U.K. has been closely wedded to the U.S. in their ‘special relationship’, sinking British lives and money into every conflict the U.S. has initiated. This means the U.K. was complicit in dropping 2,911 weapons on Afghanistan in the first 6 months of 2018, and in President Trump’s greater-than-fourfold average increase on the number of bombs dropped daily by his warlike predecessors. Last month Prime Minister Theresa May increased the number of British troops serving in Afghanistan to more than 1,000, the biggest U.K. military commitment to Afghanistan since David Cameron withdrew all combat troops four years ago.

Unbelievably, current headlines read that after 17 years of fighting, the U.S. and Afghan Government are considering collaboration with the extremist Taliban in order to defeat ISKP, the local ‘franchise’ of Daesh.

Meanwhile UNAMA has released its mid-year assessment of the harm done to civilians. It found that more civilians were killed in the first six months of 2018 than in any year since 2009, when UNAMA started systematic monitoring. This was despite the Eid ul-Fitr ceasefire, which all parties to the conflict, apart from ISKP, honoured.

Every day in the first six months of 2018, an average of nine Afghan civilians, including two children, were killed in the conflict. An average of nineteen civilians, including five children, were injured every day.

This October Afghanistan will enter its 18th year of war with the U.S. and supporting NATO countries. Those young people now signing up to fight on all sides were in nappies when 9/11 took place. As the ‘war on terror’ generation comes of age, their status quo is perpetual war, a complete brainwashing that war is inevitable, which was the exact intention of warring decision makers who have become exceedingly rich of the spoils of war.

Optimistically there is also a generation who are saying “no more war, we want our lives back”, perhaps the silver lining of the Trump cloud is that people are finally starting to wake up and see the complete lack of wisdom behind the U.S. and its hostile foreign and domestic policies, while the people follow in the steps of non-violent peace makers such as Abdul Ghafoor Khan, the change is marching from the bottom up.

Okinawa to Hiroshima Peace Walk (Photo by Maya Evans)

On Purpose, In Kabul

Writing this week for the Chicago Tribune, Steve Chapman called a U.S. Government report on the war in Afghanistan “a chronicle of futility.” “The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction” report says the U.S. spent large sums “in search of quick gains” in regional stabilization – but these instead “exacerbated conflicts, enabled corruption and bolstered support for insurgents.”

“In short,” says Chapman, the U.S. government “made things worse rather than better.”

Gains, meanwhile, have certainly been made by weapon manufacturers. On average, during Trump’s first year in office, the Pentagon dropped 121 bombs per day on Afghanistan. The total number of weapons – missiles, bombs – deployed in Afghanistan by manned and remotely piloted aircraft through May this year is estimated at 2,339.

War profiteers deliver hellish realities and futile prospects, but the Afghan Peace Volunteers have not given up on bettering their country. In recent visits to Kabul, we’ve listened as they consider the longer-term question of how peace can come to an economically devastated country where employment by various warlords, including the U.S. and Afghan militaries, is many families’ only way to put bread on the table. Hakim, who mentors the APVs, assures us that a lasting peace must involve the creation of jobs and incomes with a hope of sustaining community. Inspired by Mohandas Gandhi’s calls for self-sufficiency, and the example of his Pashtun ally, Badshah Khan, they resist war by fostering education and creating local cooperatives.

Miriam is a student in the APVs’ “Street Kids’ School,” which prepares child laborers to pursue schooling while helping their families stay afloat with monthly rations of rice and oil. Sitting with me in the garden of the APVs’ Borderfree Center, her widowed mother, Gul Bek told me of the hardships she faces as a single mother of five.

Each month, she struggles to pay for water, rent, food, and fuel. Some years ago, a company installed a water pipeline leading to her home, but every month a representative from the company comes to collect 700 – 800 Afghanis (about $10.00) in payment for the family’s water consumption. An impoverished household – even free of war’s ravages – can’t easily spare $10. She tries hard to conserve. “But we must have water!” says Gul Bek. “We need it to clean, to cook, to do laundry.” She knows how important hygiene is, but she doesn’t dare go over her budget for water. Gul Bek fears she might be evicted if she can’t manage rent. Would she then go to a refugee camp in Kabul? She shakes her head. I asked if the government helps at all. “They know nothing about how we live,” she said. “At the beginning of Ramadan, we couldn’t even have bread. We had no flour.” Her two eldest sons, age 19 and 14, are beginning to learn tailoring skills and they attend school part time. I asked if she ever considers allowing them to join the military or the police to earn something closer to a living wage. She was adamant. After working so hard to raise these sons, she doesn’t want to lose them. She won’t allow them to carry guns.

Visiting a refugee camp several days later, I could understand her horror of moving into a camp. The camps are overcrowded, muddy, and dangerously unsanitary. An elder from the camp, Haji Jool, was entrusted with the keys to a control room for a well that two NGOs recently installed. On that day, the valves weren’t functioning. 200 of the 700 families in the camp depend on that well for water. I looked at the worried faces of women who had been waiting, since early morning, to collect water. What would they do? Haji Jool told me that most of the families had come from rural areas. They fled their homes because of war or because they lacked water. Kabul’s battered infrastructure, in desperate need of U.S. reparations for fifteen years of war, simply can’t sustain people.

Our APV friends, recognizing the need to create jobs and incomes, have begun forging ahead with impressive work to establish cooperatives. In early June, they initiated a shoemaking cooperative, led by two young men, Hussein and Hosham, who’ve already been trained and have taught their skills to Noorullah. They named their store “Unique.” A carpentry co-op will soon be up and running.

The APV are grateful to the many internationals who, over the past six winters, have assisted their annual “Duvet Project” to bring much-needed blankets to Kabul residents lacking protection from harsh winter weather. The “Duvet Project” has donated winter blankets to some 9,000 destitute families in Kabul and has offered a winter income to as many as 360 seamstresses. Yet, the APV have grappled with a persistent plea from seamstresses who, while appreciative of the seasonal project, express their acute need for an income throughout the year.

This year, APV are forming a seamstresses’ cooperative which will manufacture clothing year-round for inexpensive local sale and will also distribute duvets.

The U.S. exerts massive power from the skies of Afghanistan, raining down hellfire in ever greater quantities. Its Security Zone and its military bases, within and near Kabul, help to drain the local water table faster than wells can be dug. It persistently causes hatred and harm. Meanwhile, it might sound like a cliché, but in imagining a better world our young friends are helping to build one. With sustainable projects to support the neediest, they embrace Gul Bek’s refusal to cooperate with war. Their simple, small actions do strengthen Kabul.  They give themselves over to compassion, to strengthening their neighbors. They plant the seeds that may or may not grow a forest there – they use, rather than wasting, what power they have. They aren’t rewarded with the titanic achievement of having shaped and ruined a country, but instead with purposeful intent to stop the vicious cycle of war and resist the cruel hierarchies attempting to prevail. We at Voices are grateful for the chance, with them, to reject despair. In supporting their projects, we can make reparations, however small, for the persistent futility of war.

Girls and mothers, waiting for their duvets, in Kabul (Photo by Dr. Hakim)

A Mile in Their Shoes

This past Friday in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province, Hazara girls joined young Pashto boys to sing Afghanistan’s national anthem as a welcome to Pashto men walking 400 miles from Helmand to Kabul. The walkers are calling on warring parties in Afghanistan to end the war. Most of the men making the journey are wearing sandals. At rest stops, they must tend to their torn and blistered feet. But their mission grows stronger as they walk. In Ghazni, hundreds of residents, along with religious leaders, showed remarkable readiness to embrace the courage and vision of the Helmand-to-Kabul peace walk participants. It seems likely that ordinary Afghans, no matter their tribal lineages, share a profound desire to end forty years of war. The 17-year U.S. war in Afghanistan exceeds the lifetimes of the youngsters in Ghazni who greeted the peace walkers.

On June 7th, Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, declared a week-long halt to attacks against the Taliban. Spokespersons representing an undetermined number of Taliban affiliates accepted the ceasefire on June 9th, with the U.S. also agreeing to suspend attacks against Taliban fighters.

Can the declared cease-fire lead to negotiations and an end to the war? Given the desperate circumstances I saw during a visit to Kabul in early June, it seems clear that a lasting peace will require finding ways to employ people and enable them to provide food and water for their families.

Destitution has caused numerous Afghan people to enlist in military forces, pro-government or insurgent. It’s extremely difficult to earn a living wage in Afghanistan, but military and paramilitary units, answerable to various warlords, including the U.S., pay wages which many Afghan families can’t afford to dismiss. My young friends in Kabul assure me their family members who joined military groups don’t want to cause bloodshed and they don’t want to be killed. They simply don’t have other viable options.

Almost 54 percent of Afghan citizens live below the poverty line, according to Afghanistan’s Tolo News coverage of a recent joint survey undertaken by the Central Statistics Organization and an international NGO.

The Afghan Peace Volunteers (APV), who welcomed me as their guest last week, want to help build a more egalitarian economy that will provide basic human needs. This year, they’re forging ahead in establishing worker cooperatives. During my visit, they celebrated the opening of a shoe-making cooperative. They’ve also devised a one-year plan for seamstresses to form a tailoring cooperative and explored possibilities for a carpentry cooperative.

“Once up-and-running,” their blog explains, “these worker cooperatives will pledge part of their earnings to the long-term, self-reliant work of the Afghan Peace Volunteers.”

The APV find inspiration in the story of Badshah Khan, sometimes referred to as “the Muslim Gandhi.”

After meeting Gandhi in 1919, Badshah Khan educated and organized members of the Pashtun (or “Pathan”) tribe, in an area that is now a border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, steadily building a movement to rebel against British occupation.  The “khidmatgyars” – Servants of God – refused to cooperate with the British and instead practiced self-reliance. They created their own constructive projects and persisted even when British repression became increasingly brutal.

Describing the growth of the “Servants” movement, Michael Nagler writes: “After perpetrating a terrible massacre in 1930 in Peshawar, the British saw the ranks of the Servants swell from several hundred to 80,000.” They continued rejecting armed struggle, choosing instead to experiment with Gandhi’s methods of nonviolent resistance. To the astonishment of onlookers, they were a key element in the eventual liberation from British rule.

Badshah Kahn’s preferred method of transportation was walking. He trod along paths linking mountain villages and small towns, relying upon goodwill and the truth of his cause, not on weaponry, for his defense.

A likeness of Badshah Khan decorates the entrance to the APV center in Kabul. Stenciled underneath is his fundamental belief: “My religion is truth, love and service to God and humankind.”

I worry that in my country, the U.S., the dominant religion has become militarism. Rather than extending a hand of friendship to people in other lands and, in the case of Afghanistan, paying reparations for the terrible suffering we’ve caused, the U.S. continues to seek security through dominance and military might. It’s a futile effort. The Helmand to Kabul peace walkers display a better means of securing peace: the path of fellowship with our neighbors on this planet, of living simply so that others might simply live, and of willingness to share, even partially, in the human hardship and precarity others face.

I hope those walking for peace, working for equality, and imploring a different way forward can be heard and celebrated not only in Afghanistan, but in every country and amongst every group that has ever caused bloodshed and ruin in Afghanistan.

One of several murals being created by Kabul’s “ArtLords painters to welcome the Helmand to Kabul peace walkers.

Where on Earth is the Just Economy that works for all, Including Afghan Children?

Political and business leaders have refined the art and science of lying about the economy. From their suites, chauffeur-driven limousines, private yachts and jets, they aren’t too concerned about whether the economy works for everyone, except in speeches and elections. As they tuck into their next fine dining experience, they know that it’s easier and more profitable to mummify the paralysis of spectacular inequality.

How grossly and mathematically unjust is this inequality? In 2017, Oxfam calculated that the world’s eight richest individuals has as much wealth as the poorest half of the world.

We need only simple math to see through the financial subterfuge adults put on like power dressing. On the 11th of April 2018, David Daniel Oldfield, Asia Development Bank Principal Economist for Central and West Asia, said this of Afghanistan’s economy:

… your economy is growing too slowly, if you have two percent growth that you had in some years, and your population growth is three percent or higher you cannot keep people out of poverty.

Afghan children who help carry the brunt of this poverty understand the complicity of all in this GDP charade, not through numbers, but through daily labour and universal conscience.

An April 2018 report by Afghanistan Human Rights Commission shows that of the 1.2 million child laborers in the country, 16 percent of them are subjected to some form of abuse, of which 43 percent is physical abuse.

In this context, it is revolutionary education and understanding at the Borderfree Street Kids School in Kabul that has enabled Habib to testify towards the end of a video:

Before this school, I had no particular hope in life. My hope was in money. I wanted to be the richest man in the world. I’m gradually losing the desire for money. As I understood nonviolence and what it means, my interest in money diminished.

The revolution we need to save ourselves is to understand the fake-ness not only of news today, but the fake-ness and fable of today’s monetary systems. The money we have manufactured is killing our own kind, and Mother Earth as well.

Habib’s difficult story is not atypical. After Habib’s father was killed in a suicide bomb attack 7 years ago, Habib started working in the streets to help make ends meet. For a miniscule fee, he had a weighing scale that showed passing pedestrians how obese or undernourished they were. He has gone through severe personal trauma in the years since, including ‘escape’ from extremists who tried to recruit him into their militant ranks. Now, daily, through relationships among the Afghan Peace Volunteers, Habib is recovering gradually – grieving, doubting, imagining, feeling and daring to live again, towards a liberated purpose and meaning.

Clearly, the corrupt, corporate and militarized economic system is not designed to offer anyone a fair chance to live decently. Instead, it promotes business-as-usual, making people like Habib fight for ‘capitalistic scraps’. While the U.S. has spent US$32 million dollars an hour since 2001 to push their wars around the world, including in Afghanistan, the everyday economic experience of ordinary Afghans is one of slog and slavery.

Zakia, a new volunteer teacher for the street kids, and second-year sociology undergraduate at Kabul University, recounted her almost unbelievable extended family tragedy:

Over the past five years, my extended family of close and distant relatives have lost 46 young members of their families in this worsening war. They were soldiers and policemen. None of them wanted to risk being killed, but there are simply no other jobs. My mother has so much grief that she’s always ill.

Advocacy and protest aren’t enough.

In such pilfering times, environmental, economic justice and peace groups need to pool their energies together, and give Habib, Afghan youth and billions of impoverished people around the world alternative avenues for education and work.

Afghan children and youth, like those you see in the photos below, need ‘new’ schools and universities, as well as ‘new’ jobs and livelihoods. They need a surviving opportunity to learn and live as ‘new’ human beings.

If we bank on the ‘fate’ that these ‘new’ schools and ‘new’ livelihoods will miraculously arise from war-driven governments and their machineries, we are fantasizing. We will continue to witness the migration, enslavement and demise of large numbers of fellow human beings.

Why can’t we hear what Afghan street kids and youth are telling us? There aren’t any places which intentionally teach them life-affirming, nonviolent knowledge and skills. There are very few living-wage, life-giving jobs.

It isn’t that Afghan children and youth or entire generations don’t wish to choose peace.

There are no choices.

Notes on the Borderfree Street Kids School

The mission of the Borderfree Street Kids School is to share creative and critical thinking and learning skills with 100 Afghan street kids, so they can care for Mother Nature, the human family and all of life, and so they can become students and practitioners of nonviolence.

On 20th January 2015, Zekerullah and street kids organized a walk and asked for a school for 100 students. Though an Afghan official had spoken about the lack of government resources for such a school, their dream was fulfilled when the Afghan Peace Volunteers started the Borderfree Street Kids School on 21st March 2015.

The school enrolls 100 street kids and vulnerable kids for a period of three years, during which they have Dari, Math and nonviolence classes. They also have the chance to learn a livelihood skill to be tailors/seamstresses, plumbers or electricians.

To help the families of the students with their basic needs, each student is given a monthly food gift of rice, oil, beans, lentils and chickpeas.

The first 3-year batch of street kids graduated recently in March 2018,

The school has 14 volunteer teachers, and is coordinated by a living wage staff of the Afghan Peace Volunteers, Masuma.

The students have Dari, Math and nonviolence lessons, including nonviolence towards the environment.

The first batch of 100 street kids graduated in March 2018 and 100 fresh street kids and vulnerable kids have been enrolled for the next three years till 2021.

Some of the street kids are continuing as Afghan Peace Volunteers.

Newly enrolled students also came to the event, filling the hall with more than 200 people

Habib testified on graduation day about how his learning in the school had changed him. He wants to be a doctor and a peace activist

Teen Solidarity Against the Merchants of Death

Here in Kabul, as the rising sun begins to warm our chilly rooms, I hear excited laughter from downstairs. Rosemary Morrow, a renowned Australian permaculture expert, has begun teaching thirty-five young students in a month-long course on low-resource farming.

In war-torn Afghanistan, there’s a desperate need to rebuild agricultural infrastructure and help people grow their own food. People verging on despair feel encouraged by possibilities of replenishing and repairing their soil.

The night before, over dinner, one of the students discussed news from his home town in Afghanistan’s Wardak province about U.S. aerial attacks. “The blasts have become so frequent,” he said, “that people can’t find spaces to bury their dead.”

During breaks in the class, I tell some of the Afghan Peace Volunteer students about the school shootings in the United States, and the remarkable determination of teenagers from Florida to demand that lawmakers take action on gun control.

These Afghan students have also heard about Black Lives Matter activists who have been tear gassed and beaten when they’ve demonstrated against police brutality. The Afghan teens identify with the activists facing danger, but still standing up to insist on change.

I asked if they thought that the U.S. media and government would heed Afghan young people raising their voices asserting their anguish and fear regarding U.S. aerial attacks and drone assassinations.

“You’re dreaming,” said Hamid. He flashed me a warm smile and shook his head, saying, “no one will ever listen to us.”

The outrage now directed toward the National Rifle Association should also challenge all assaults made by the U.S. military.

Nasir, a third-year university student who majors in mapping technology, tells me he thinks teens in the United States have a chance to be heard. Like Habib, he doubts that the same is true for Afghan voices seeking to end the sixteen-year-old war.

But Zainab, a high schooler in the permaculture class, added that she thinks it would be great to record a vigil of teenagers in Kabul sending their support for U.S. teenagers who’ve survived school shootings in the U.S. and who’ve begun shaming the adult world into action on the issue of gun violence.

People often tell me they believe the U.S. military remains in Afghanistan because it wants to eventually control mineral wealth and other resources. But right now, weapon manufacturers like General Atomics and Boeing — which supply the U.S. base in Kandahar with drones, missiles and bombs — are profiting from the perpetuation of war. This profit gives them common cause with arms manufacturers like Sturm Ruger and Sig Sauer earning millions from equipping U.S. police forces as well as deranged killers in U.S. classrooms.

Yesterday, I read about U.S. aviation brigades training in Colorado’s Fort Carson for possible Afghan deployment: 2,000 troops, part of an exercise called “Eagle Strike,” are preparing for attacks with ground-pounding weapons. The Kandahar base in Afghanistan now has three squadron’s worth of MQ-9 Reaper drones. Costing $65 million each, these drones are outfitted to carry 560-pound GPS laser-guided bombs as well as Hellfire missiles.

Why fill the landscape of any country with craters and graves? What could we possibly hope to harvest?

Zainab tells me she thinks the teenage generation is changing and that more young people believe in training individuals and nations to avoid killing.

“Why can’t we devise sustainable ways to bring about peace?” she asks.

I consider the idea that international teen solidarity could challenge both the U.S. military and the National Rifle Association to end assaults on human life. “Our goal must be to demand that every person around the world agree to stop producing and using weapons,” says Nasir.

I sit with them, and reflect on these courageous, clear-eyed Afghan and U.S. youth working in both countries to sow seeds that bear needed fruit, hoping they can change the adults as well.

AVPs and others celebrate International Day of Peace, September 2017

• This article first appeared in The Progressive magazine.

Hotel Intercontinental Siege: Is Kabul Falling?

Afghanistan is now facing mortal danger. It has to survive, but it is not clear how it can manage.

Hotel Intercontinental in Kabul, which was attacked by gunmen last Saturday, used to fit like a glove, like a grandmother’s couch. Outside, the war has been raging. Millions of Afghan lives were aimlessly broken, hundreds of thousands lost. The price of more than 16 years of NATO occupation has exceeded $1 trillion, but instead of bringing peace and prosperity, it has reduced Afghanistan to rubble.

My room in hotel

All that is still functioning in the country are structures and infrastructure built before and during the Soviet era, like irrigation ducts, canals and bread factories. Other tangible assistance came recently from China and India, but almost nothing was provided by the NATO occupation countries, except countless fences, wires and military installations.

Soviet water pipe in the village, Nargarhar Province

Even before the siege at the Intercontinental Hotel, which left more than 20 people dead, Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani confessed to 60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan that he is unable to protect his own capital.

But it is not only the capital, of course. The entire country is spiraling into chaos. It is clear that it will soon be impossible to control it anymore, at least as one entity, from Kabul.

It can be heard more and more often on the streets of Kabul, Jalalabad and Herat that reducing this country to perpetual conflict and chaos may be the exact plan of the occupation forces.

Reception at Intercontinental

I used to joke about Hotel Intercontinental – ‘This place feels like a Soviet three-star hotel in some provincial Siberian town. Bent shower bars, stained but otherwise clean carpets, indifferent but somehow friendly staff – you could wave as much as you wanted, but the waitress in the hotel’s cafe would only move after you’d come to her personally, smiled broadly, and pointed your finger at some particular item from the limited assortment of sweets.’

Stunning view from hotel

Despite everything, Hotel Intercontinental Kabul was always there, standing. It was crumbling, but still somehow majestic, full of history and old-fashioned charm. Its lobby was decorated with traditional Afghan landscapes and portraits. The vistas from the hotel rooms and balconies were breathtaking: the old Bagh-e Bala Palace with its vast public park, then the entire capital city down below as though sitting in a crater, and the great mountain range rising towards the sky right behind that urban sprawl.

During breakfast hours, a few tables near the window in the hotel restaurant were almost always occupied by Russian-speaking pilots and crew members from an Afghan passenger airline, Kam Air. I don’t know whether these people were Russian or Ukrainian, but they spoke Russian among themselves, and also to me. They were tall and muscular, as pilots operating in a war zone are expected to be.

We always exchanged greetings, as well as one or two jokes. No deep discussions, just that – a few jokes and a few very warm smiles.

Some time ago, I had to fly to the ancient city of Herat, and was traveling early in the morning with Kam Air on the same flight as the crew. My driver was late and I approached the airline minivan, which was just about to depart for the airport.

“Would you please take me with you to the airport, boys?” I asked.

“Yes, of course, of course – just jump in!” they grinned.

We were all part of a big family. Foreigners staying at Intercontinental – not rich and not poor, not part of any ‘government initiative’ or wealthy NGO. This hotel was for ‘working people’ – journalists, filmmakers, pilots. Those who required ‘special protection’ were staying behind the enormous concrete walls of their embassies, or in the only truly luxury hotel in the country – Serena.

Two hours later, we were flying over tremendous Afghan mountains and tiny ancient villages made of mud, miles below the wing. I was taking photographs, while imagining that insane US “mother of all bombs” that was dropped just a few days earlier on an identical hamlet, killing who knows how many innocent people.

The two powerful engines of an old but reliable MD-82 were purring reassuringly at the rear of the plane. Then, at some point, I closed my eyes and fell asleep. The next thing I experienced was a gentle pat on my shoulder, followed by friendly whisper: “Kofeiku ne khotite? Rebyata tut tol’ko cto svezii svarili” (“Would you like some coffee? The guys here just brewed a fresh one…”)

I drank the aromatic brew, looking down at those stunning, enormous mountains covered by snow. Russian-speaking pilots were in the cockpit, steering the plane with great experience and confidence.

I thought: “If there is one crew in the world that is qualified to fly over this beautiful but complex and dangerous terrain, then it is this one.”

It was one of those moments when I felt totally happy and alive, drunk with passion for what I had been doing: working in Afghanistan, exposing crimes committed there by the Western countries, falling head over heels in love with this ancient and proud nation, flying over its peaks into one of the most interesting cities of Central Asia – Herat.

On January 20, 2018, in the intensive care unit of Tokyo’s St. Luke’s Hospital, I was fighting for my life, months after my year-old foot wound reopened in Afghanistan, and had since refused to heal.

Through the fog of fever and IV, I observed coverage from Kabul on a television screen that was hanging above my bed. ‘My’ Intercontinental Hotel had been attacked. In fact, it was overrun by what was allegedly one of the most vicious branches of the Taliban, known as the Haqqani Network. At least that is what was tweeted by Javid Faisal, a spokesman for the Afghan government’s chief executive.

At least 21 people lost their lives during the 14-hour standoff. Almost immediately, several pilots and crew members from Kam Air were murdered in cold blood. So were two Venezuelan pilots. None of these people were ‘supporters of the government,’ nor were they collaborators with the invading NATO force.

They were simply a group of romantics, a group of rugged, brave but also very kind and gentle men who adored flying and who, like myself, fell in love with Afghanistan. I know this because they told me, and because it was just so obvious!

In case anyone is wondering, ‘my hotel in Kabul’ has nothing to do with the luxury US chain of the same name. It used to be part of the ‘real’ Intercontinental, but only from 1969, when its doors first opened, until 1980 (shortly after the Soviet Union intervention in Afghanistan). Now, it is a state-owned property, described as ‘luxury’ only by outsiders who are covering Afghanistan from afar. You can get a room there for a mere $50 if you negotiate very hard, and for $60 if your bargaining skills are somewhat limited.

Classical musicians at hotel

The hotel had already been damaged on several occasions, particularly during the civil war of the 1990s, when it is said that at one point only 85 out its 200 rooms were inhabitable. As recently as 2011, 21 people died here during an attack for which the Taliban claimed responsibility.

Despite its macabre history, however, Intercontinental is still the favorite property of many locals and some foreigners in Kabul. This is where many conferences are held, and – during the fasting month of Ramadan – fast is broken here by members of local elites, close to the swimming pool overlooking the city. And there is music here almost every night: true Afghan traditional music, with local instruments and singers trained by renowned masters.

Guard posts around the hotel

Security is, of course, everywhere. To return to this property from the city, I always have to go through three full security posts with my car. After all, Afghanistan is now considered to be one of the most dangerous countries on Earth for foreigners.

In just one week, three deadly attacks shook Afghanistan: one in Kabul, another outside Herat, and a third inside the city of Jalalabad, in which ISIS targeted the NGO, Save the Children.

Last year, I traveled to many corners of this scarred, ancient land. I spoke to people, including those in the villages that were at least partially taken over by Taliban. People are increasingly realizing that they are living in perpetual conflict. Refugees (or internally displaced persons) from the east are talking about the carnage that comes with the arrival of ISIS.

Hard drugs and poppy seeds are everywhere in the center of Kabul, right under the nose of the US occupiers – poppy fields literally surround Bagram Airforce Base.

Soviets and Russians are now remembered with love and great nostalgia; something that I already described in my previous essays from the country.

Very soon, no foreigners will be left in Afghanistan. That may be the main goal of the latest attacks. No witnesses, no alternatives, no solutions.

Who will benefit? Definitely not the devastated Afghan people. Perhaps the warlords, the extremist mullahs, and the occupiers.

Kam Air crew, flying passenger jets all over the country, and the dilapidated Intercontinental were some of the last symbols of normality – a weak promise that one can still come and see what is really happening in this country.

From now on, there will be hardly any foreigners in the country. It will be only us – war correspondents, as well as foreign soldiers and mercenaries.

Internally displaced woman shares her pain

Afghanistan is now facing mortal danger. It has to survive, but it is not clear how it could manage. Those who love it should return, no matter what risk we’d be facing. A news blockade should be prevented. Alternative (non-Western) information has to flow. By all means, at any price.

• Photos by Andre Vltchek

• Article first published as an Op-Ed by RT

Welcome to Kabul

It is a dream come true being back among friends in Kabul! Streams of dented Toyotas (They are all Toyotas!) with windscreens cracked like bolts of lightning still jockey for position on roads where traffic lights and common sense hold little sway. Carts of vegetables drawn by donkeys or dragged by men without dreams continue clotting the already stuttering traffic, forcing it almost to a standstill. Stucco houses remain stapled to mountainsides, one tripping over the other as they race to the top. And smog, as thick and foul-smelling as only winter in Kabul can conjure up. It felt wonderful being home!

As a team-building exercise, three of us chose this afternoon to clean the chimney of one of our wood stoves. Four lengths of sooty pipe and two elbow joints later, the stove was ready to re-fire and all three of us needed a good bath. We laughed (mostly young ones) and swore (mostly me) in almost equal proportions.

As we got ready for bed last night, we heard a sustained series of what most of us thought was gunfire. The wail of a siren followed shortly thereafter and caused us to wonder if we should head to the basement for a bit. We waited it out on the second floor. We were brave, or not.

This morning brought rumors of three explosions nearby. We scrambled for information, but little was forthcoming. Later, we were forwarded an email from a friend working near us. The attack, it appeared, had centered on a Shia mosque. “It is more than sad,” our friend said. “Latest update showed 45 people killed and 85 wounded. Going to the scene, there is nothing more than blood, flesh, meat, dust, and fear. We again see Afghans die for nothing and families lose their loved ones because of ongoing US-backed war.” My young co-workers are physically okay.

Tonight, after dinner, I had the chance to talk with a young Afghan friend about his family. Married for just a brief period, his wife conceived. They were happy. Their families rejoiced. One night during their son’s fourth month, he woke up sick enough to be taken to the doctor’s. After an examination, the doctor gave the boy a number of injections, and the family was sent home. Later that same evening, the child’s condition worsened, and the parents took him to a hospital, where he died. My friend and his wife still do not know what claimed their son’s life.

Welcome to Kabul.

A Mike Ferner Photo of Kabul

An Escalating Afghan Crisis of “Profit” Over “Life”

Surkh Gul with her daughter.

“My family’s water well has dried up,” 18-year-old Surkh Gul said.

“Ours too,” echoed 13-year-old Inaam.

A distressed Surkh Gul lamented: “We have to fetch water from the public well along the main road, but that water is muddy, not fit for drinking. I get bottled water for my two-year-old daughter. At least someone in the family should stay healthy.”

Inaam chipped in: “Fortunately, for now, the water that we fetch from a nearby mosque is clean.”

A U.S. and Afghan Geological Survey of Kabul Basin’s water resources found that about half of the shallow groundwater supply could become dry by 2050 due to declining recharge and stream-flows under projected climate change.

For years, the Danish Committee for Aid to Afghan Refugees has also highlighted this water crisis to the Afghan government.

But, the U.S./NATO/Afghanistan coalition and mainstream media have been so occupied with the business of a failed ‘war on terror’ that basic human development and needs are glossed over or ignored.

Because of worsening security, Surkh Gul’s husband and in-laws left Afghanistan to seek asylum in Europe, abandoning her and her daughter in Kabul. Surkh Gul can’t find any job. She stopped schooling when she got married, and though she re-enrolled herself in school this year, she couldn’t attend classes on many days. “I have to take care of my daughter and find some income sewing ‘odds and ends’ for people in the neighbourhood.”

It’s no wonder that on some days she feels like she’s going mad. Sometimes, when she visits us, we can tell she’s stressed and moody: she speaks in edgy bursts, her voice is harsh and her eyes are restless, underlined by tear stains.

Heavy piling and digging for a new well at the rented house Zekerullah stayed in. Photo by Dr Hakim

“Last year, the 28-metre-deep well in the house we rented dried up. The rich landlord hired well-diggers, whose cranes and shafts are everywhere these days. They dug 70 metres below ground to reach the dropping water table,” Zekerullah recounted. As such, Zekerullah had immediately understood the threat which an oil pipeline poses to the water resources of the Standing Rock community. On behalf of the Afghan Peace Volunteers, he sent a video message in solidarity with Standing Rock’s ‘water protectors’. “The oil companies and the U.S. government are just thinking about money,” Zekerullah concluded.

Other than token words, little is being done to address climate change or to save the people of Kabul from running out of a basic requirement of life — water. Instead, to extract profitable minerals like copper, the elite are ready to compromise on water protection.

President Trump had suggested that Afghanistan’s vast mineral wealth can be a good justification for the continued U.S. war.  He was in discussion with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, ex- World Bank staff, about this war-mineral business opportunity.

In 2013, the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage and an Afghan resident ‘requested‘ for an investigation of the World Bank’s management, oversight and funding of the copper mine at Mes Aynak just outside Kabul.

Supported by 110,000 Afghan signatories, the ‘requesters’ stated that the World Bank’s negligence “in not ensuring that environmental safeguards are in place, imminently endangers the health of the population living there, the quantity and safety of their water supply and (…) the Kabul River….. The mine will cause “heavy losses’’ to community members and to the culture and history of Afghanistan.

A Panel evaluated the ‘Request’ and concluded that it does not recommend an investigation” of the World Bank.

Mes Aynak is the site of ancient ruins that have been compared to Pompeii. (Photo from the film ‘Saving Mes Aynak’)

We have ample evidence of the lack of transparency and integrity in such enterprise in many parts of the world. In the recently leaked 13.4 million documents called the “Paradise Papers”, Glencore, a huge Anglo-Swiss mining and commodity trading company involved in copper and other mining in conflict-ridden DR Congo,      had made a loan to a corrupt Israeli billionaire middle man with close ties to the DR Congo government, asking him to negotiate for mining rights.

The eyes of potential investors and benefactors, corporations and governments alike, are fixed on ‘profit’, not on the potentially disastrous pollution and depletion of the water supply to Mes Aynak and Kabul residents! This does not auger well for Surkh Gul, Inaam, and the estimated 6 million residents of Kabul.

Crises like these have roots in our capitalistic belief that a ‘bottom-line’ policy of generating ‘profit and growth’, private or government, is good for a country’s economy, and that this would benefit everyone. But math, science, evidence and experience prove that this predatory ‘profit’ is inequitably directed to the pockets of the ‘1%’, many of whom are corrupt, leaving the vast majority of people deprived even of their basic human needs. Such profit is often secured from wars, and from exploiting Mother Earth and Nature. Wars have destroyed many irrigation and water retention systems. Only 2% of Afghanistan is forested, her trees extensively cut down through logging.

Kabul’s life-threatening water crisis will not illicit any action unless we dismantle our oligarchic practices and understand that when fellow human beings like Surkh Gul and Inaam don’t have access to water, each of us will hurt too, if not now, then eventually. We, Mother Nature and the human family, are all related.

We can empathize, just as Inaam did, with villagers in Zambia, whose drinking water, rivers, streams and underground aquifers have been contaminated by a London-listed copper mine. Inaam remembers the photos of turbid water he saw in the nonviolence class at the Borderfree Street Kids School he attends.

Drinking water in a Zambian village contaminated by a copper mine. (Photo by The Guardian)

I asked Inaam why governments and big businesses don’t respond to such images and human tragedies. Inaam answered:  “Because they’re only concerned about their own profit.  They never think for the people.”

I thought, “Don’t I have a responsibility to create a kinder and fairer world for children like Inaam and Surkh Gul’s daughter to live in?”

I fear for the decent survival of Afghans, our Earth and the human family, as we have become so attracted to ‘profit’ that we mistake it for ‘progress’. Such ‘profit and progress’ have no respect for science or life, so it may very well lead to our species’ eventual extinction. Stephen Hawking warns us that we may need to vacate to another planet in the next 100 years. More than 15,000 scientists have warned us that our current ways of living could destroy us.

If our ‘thinking as usual’ and ‘business as usual’ continue, we will leave no historical traces at Mes Aynak or Kabul except for mining and digging machines, in a parched desert of war ruins.

Surkh Gul, her daughter and Inaam will have to flee for their lives, but where to, on our warming and warring Earth?

• All photos by Dr. Hakim Young unless otherwise identified