Before Tahrir Square happened almost nobody predicted that President Hosni Mubarak would be forced out of office by a movement that didn’t pick up a gun. Had President Barack Obama expected that outcome, he might have publicly backed Mubarak’s departure before, rather than after, Mubarak stepped down.
Obama can be seen as overcompensating for that performance in Libya, but there he is placing faith in weapons. Anybody can do that. Egypt still has a long way to go on its path to a just society. But the question of whether Tunisian-Egyptian movements will find success elsewhere is the question of whether people can take the far more challenging step of placing trust in nonviolence.
Those who believed a nonviolent movement, one that would involve youth and women, could gain power in Egypt, worked for years to make it happen. Those saying it couldn’t be done were not permitted to get in the way of those doing it. Nonviolent strategists like American Gene Sharp advised the organizers of a force that developed completely beneath the U.S. media’s radar. What burst forth earlier this year appeared to be spontaneous. It was not.
It will come as a surprise to most Americans, and indeed to most Afghans, that a dedicated group of Afghan youth has begun building a principled and disciplined nonviolent movement for peace, independence, and unity in Afghanistan. By independence, the Afghan youth mean independence from the United States and NATO, but also from Pakistan and Iran and all other outside control, as well as independence from rule by the Taliban, warlords, and oligarchs of all stripes. By unity, they mean national Afghan unity inclusive of all ethnicities.
Bringing Cairo to Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, will not be achieved by occupying a central square this week and gradually increasing the crowd size for months and years as Afghans come to appreciate the value of the movement. Taking over the streets of the capital, if that tactic is employed, will not happen until a great deal of groundwork has been laid. That groundwork will likely involve several steps that have been identified by those working on this project.
First, ethnic divisions will have to be healed. Afghanistan is 42% Pashtun, 27% Tajik, 9% Hazara, 9% Uzbek, and smaller percentages of several other ethnic groups. As long as these groups are rivals, it will be more difficult for the people as a whole to challenge corrupt oligarchs. A newspaper editor in Kabul told me he believed that even legitimate, credible elections — something Afghanistan has not had — would not produce a just and stable representative government, because any president would be from one ethnic group and not the others.
Afghans should be so lucky as to have that problem! The reality is that until the ethnic groups unite, and other progress is achieved, Afghans are unlikely to be able to compel their government to hold open and verifiable elections.
Ramazan Bashardost, a member of the Afghan Parliament, finished third in the official count of the 2009 presidential election. He is Hazara, and the first and second-place finishers were Pashtun and Tajik respectively. But Bashardost told me that he received more support from outside his ethnic group than from within it. Bashardost is a proponent of Gandhian nonviolence, ethnic unity, and national independence. He employs no security guards, cruises around town in a beat-up old car, and holds court in a tent in an empty lot in a particularly poor neighborhood.
Bashardost favors political reforms that would empower the legislature and disempower the president as well as political parties, thus allowing greater representation of minority groups. Bashardost is a powerful voice on the inside of the Afghan government for peace and nonviolence. Here is video of an interview I conducted with him. But Bashardost is not an activist or an organizer. He is a unifying figure, but he is a politician.
Teck Young Wee is another story. He is a medical doctor and a native of Singapore who began working with Afghan refugees in Pakistan 9 years ago and moved to Bamiyan Province in Afghanistan seven years ago. He was taken in by an Afghan family and given the name Hakim. Bamiyan is relatively free of U.S. forces and therefore something of a success story in terms of suffering low levels of violence.
Hakim has been mentoring youth in Bamiyan and elsewhere. The Bamiyan youth, primarily Hazara and Tajik, primarily boys and young men, but including girls and young women and other ethnic groups as well, have established the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers (AYPV). Peace is a radical idea, and apparently frightening to some. Hakim received threats from unidentified sources, and the people of Bamiyan created a warning system to protect him that involved plans to put their own bodies in the path of any violence. The threat has faded.
AYPV have taken steps toward ethnic unity, controversially arranging for college students from every ethnic group to room together. A similar approach of using housing rental policies to integrate the country on a larger scale is something I’ve heard advocated by professors in Kabul.
Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers from Bamiyan in the north have made particular efforts to reach out to Pashtun youth in the south. Peace volunteers hand made cell phone cases from second-hand leather and hand sewed the word ‘Peace’ in the Dari language on them. They sent these to Pashtun youth in Kandahar along with a video message. Then they phoned Pashtun youth leaders to say they had done this out of love and a desire for reconciliation. A Pashtun leader, in Hakim’s words (here’s video), "said this is impossible – he couldn’t believe it." He said "this is a love you have shown us and we will never forget it." That’s a powerful statement in a country where the things you most commonly hear people say they will never forget are acts of violence.
Hakim stresses that part of eliminating ethnic divisions will have to be recognizing and addressing the forces that strengthen them, namely the violence of warlords backed by the United States and NATO. Here, as elsewhere, is a chicken-and-egg dilemma. Unity is needed to drive out the occupiers, but the occupiers are a barrier to unity. Yet, this is always the way, and such traps have been opened before.
WOMEN BEHIND THE WHEEL
A second part of the groundwork that is probably needed is the empowerment of women. A nonviolent peace movement stands a far greater chance of success, experts say, when it includes women and embraces a movement for women’s liberation.
An Afghan film director Sahraa Karimi has produced an engaging and illuminating documentary called "Afghan Women Behind the Wheel". When she told me the title with a bit of an accent, I thought the last word was "Veil." It could almost as well have been. The film is about the limited rights and options of women in a country that is not just poor and war-ravaged, but in which many men passionately believe women to be inferior.
The movie has great footage for anyone wondering what life in Kabul looks like, and it tells the stories of a number of women who learn to drive. In a scene that drew laughs from all the Afghans watching it with me, a driving instructor tells them "Another important thing is traffic lights, even though we don’t have any." He goes on to explain what red, yellow, and green mean. I’m told there are a few traffic lights, but I haven’t seen them.
Something else you won’t see much of is women drivers. The women in the movie are violating a taboo. When they begin driving, vicious rumors are spread about them, including that they are working!
It’s actually very hard for anyone to find a job in Afghanistan, and driving lessons cost a good percentage of the average annual income. Some of the women in the movie are in fact working, one in a health clinic, one in a school, and one decides to become a taxi driver. She describes an unloved childhood and a forced marriage to a man 18 years her senior, a man who abused her. She enjoys the sport of Kabul driving, not a skill easily learned by anyone. Her story resembles the others’ — fathers prefer sons, sons inherit property, marriages are forced.
The taxi driver sees driving as the one thing she is able to do, and she is terrified of not being able to afford the gasoline to continue doing it. She dreams that cars might run on water. The same woman builds a house herself and loves it, but is afraid that her stepfather next door might hurt her or her children, and so lives in an apartment. Better times and changes come into her life, which is quite touching and revealing.
I certainly hope to see many more women driving in Afghanistan. If women are going to lead a movement, as they must, to reject both the U.S. occupation and the Taliban, they cannot remain in the position of children always asking for a ride.
THE YOUTH WILL LEAD
A third part of a successful movement will be the educating and organizing of youth. In Afghanistan, 68% of the country is under age 25, and the life expectancy at birth is 44. A nation this young will rise or fall with the actions of youth.
This is almost certainly an advantage, in that youth have fewer years of trauma, bitterness, and ideologies of vengeance to overcome. While some of the leading members of AYPV lost family members to the Taliban, it is the youth more than their elders who carry less weighty memories and resentments. Watch this video of Afghan kids at an orphanage and you will feel more confident about Afghanistan’s future whether you want to or not. Watch this one of Afghan shepherd boys with slingshots and the possibility of David nonviolently halting Goliath’s assaults may appear within reach.
While Hakim is their mentor, the young men of AYPV are the leaders of this budding movement. They are thoughtful, experienced beyond their years, relentlessly energetic and upbeat. Abdullah, age 15, whose father was killed by the Taliban, recently explained his desire for peace and nonviolence from all sides to a defender of the US/NATO occupation. The icy response was that the Taliban ought to have killed him as well. Abdullah was told that he was too young to know real suffering. But the younger man was the wiser in this conversation, responding without anger or hatred and opposing the maintenance of a vicious cycle of violence.
One morning earlier this month, four members of Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers spoke to a college class in Kabul. The professor with the loudest voice argued that the United States and NATO wanted the good of all people. Faiz, age 20, was among those who spoke up in response. Speaking to elders is not part of the tradition these young men have grown up in, but they believe it has become necessary. Some eyes were opened. About half the class, by the end of the session, seemed to believe that peace might be possible.
A fourth important step is precisely that of persuading Afghans who have no experience with peace that peace is indeed possible, and that the nonviolent tools of peace are powerful enough to bring it about and to resist violent seekers of power, whether Afghan or foreign.
The U.S. military encourages Afghans to believe that only foreign violence can prevent domestic terror. Here’s a video showing U.S. advertisements for war in Afghanistan. A poster shows an Afghan baby with the words "suicide bomber or doctor?" The Peace Volunteers reject the notion that one violent force is needed to hold off another.
Afghanistan’s history has much to draw on in countering the idea that violence is inevitable. In particular, there is the history of a nonviolent Pashtun army under the leadership of Badshah Khan resisting the British occupation of what was then the Northwest Frontier of India and is now Pakistan. A new film telling this story should be viewed by all Americans, but more importantly by all Afghans.
Imagining peace in Afghanistan is made difficult by decades of war, by traditions of honor and vengeance, by the current ubiquity of violence, but also by factors that dominate the lives of Afghans while often slipping from the minds of the rest of us. Afghans are hungry, miserable, suffering, and scared. Many have little or no electricity, healthcare, or potable water. In Afghanistan 850 children die every day.
There is no difficulty in motivating Afghans to protest in anger. But organizing a disciplined campaign of nonviolence moved by justice, while free of anger, may prove — as it usually is — more of a challenge.
A fifth factor is the building of alliances abroad, something the AYPV have been busy with, hosting dozens of foreign peace activists in Afghanistan, scheduling global conference calls on Skype, and sending messages far and wide. Here’s a video of U.S. peace activist Kathy Kelly speaking in the United States last week about her visits to Afghanistan.
The U.S. embassy has refused visas to members of AYPV who have been invited to visit and speak in the United States. What possible harm can the U.S. State Department believe would come from Americans meeting a few Afghans face-to-face and hearing about their plans for nonviolent activism and peace? Former Afghan member of Parliament Malalai Joya recently had a visa to the United States accepted following intense public pressure; so such reversals are possible.
THE REVOLUTION HAS BEGUN
Whether a nonviolent movement will succeed in Afghanistan we have no way of knowing. Whether the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers and others inspired by them will play a major role, I certainly can’t say. Briefly visiting Afghanistan has imprinted the views of a small unrepresentative sample of Afghans on my mind in a way that no reading about the nation can do; and even those who live there are unable to predict the future. If a nonviolent movement achieves power, the basic sequence of events is hard to foresee. The U.S. military could be forced out before a representative government is established, or vice versa. Or everything could come at once. The point I want to make is that such a thing is completely possible and that it may have already begun.
The small group of thoughtful, committed citizens that Margaret Mead said can change the world has already begun working toward peace and justice in Afghanistan. They’ve begun small. Here’s a video of the Peace Volunteers installing an illuminated sign with the word for ‘Peace’ on the side of a mountain. Here they are planting trees for peace last month. Here’s a candlelight vigil. And here is a slideshow from what I hope will be the first of many marches for peace in Kabul — this one held on March 17th of this year.
The march was covered by all of the local television stations in Kabul as a startlingly new phenomenon. Peace? Who even dreams of such a thing, much less proposes a strategy to build it? Police surrounding the marchers with batons and riot gear were a less unusual sight.
Of course, there have always been marches and protests in Afghanistan. As in the United States, such events receive far less media attention than do acts of violence. But most such demonstrations do not propose nonviolence, peace, and love. They oppose particular campaigns of violence and are generally considered at risk of spawning violence of their own. When I was in Kabul earlier this month, students at Kabul University held a march against the U.S. occupation. I would have loved to attend and speak against the crimes of my own government, but as an American I was strongly urged to go nowhere near an event at which being an American could get me killed.
The Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers have sought to send their message of nonviolent opposition to war to the heart of the empire. Here’s a video of U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry in Bamiyan telling the AYPV that he will deliver their message to President Obama. Here’s a video of Congressman Keith Ellison promising the same.
The messages send out by the AYPV are eloquent and important. The immediate actions they advocate include establishing an international mediation team, a cease fire, a peacekeeping force, crisis teams, a unity campaign, restorative justice, and clean elections.
In another direct appeal the Afghan youth implore:
"Humanity has taken too long and lost too many in implementing non-violent, civil ways to resolve human conflict. We human beings can do better than repeatedly resorting to force and war to address human hurts and needs. Stop the killings, stop killing one another, stop killing the people. Stop killing us."