When Medea Benjamin stood up in a Kabul meeting hall this weekend to ask Masooda Jalal if she would prefer more international troops or more development funds, the cofounder of US antiwar group Code Pink was hoping her fellow activist would support her call for US troop withdrawal.
She was disappointed.
Ms. Jalhal, the former Afghan minister of women, bluntly told her both were needed. "It is good for Afghanistan to have more troops – more troops committed with the aim of building peace and against war, terrorism, and security – along with other resources," she answered. "Coming together they will help with better reconstruction."
Rethinking their position
Code Pink, founded in 2002 to oppose the US invasion of Iraq, is one of the more high-profile women's antiwar groups being forced to rethink its position as Afghan women explain theirs: Without international troops, they say, armed groups could return with a vengeance – and that would leave women most vulnerable.
Though Afghans have their grievances against the international troops' presence, chief among them civilian casualties, many fear an abrupt departure would create a dangerous security vacuum to be filled by predatory and rapacious militias. Many women, primary victims of such groups in the past, are adamant that international troops stay until a sufficient number of local forces are trained and the rule of law established. (Read more about Afghan women's concerns here.)
During their weeklong visit here, in which they met with government officials, politicians, ministers, women activists, and civil society groups, the small team of Code Pink members had hoped to gather evidence to bolster their call for US troop withdrawal within two years, and capitalize on growing anxiety back home about the war.
While the group hasn't dropped its call for a pullout, the visit convinced them that setting a deadline isn't in Afghanistan's interests, say Ms. Benjamin and fellow cofounder Jodie Evans.
"We would leave with the same parameters of an exit strategy but we might perhaps be more flexible about a timeline," says Benjamin. "That's where we have opened ourselves, being here, to some other possibilities. We have been feeling a sense of fear of the people of the return of the Taliban. So many people are saying that, 'If the US troops left the country, would collapse. We'd go into civil war.' A palpable sense of fear that is making us start to reconsider that."
Code Pink says it will continue to oppose sending more troops to Afghanistan – a move facing heated debate in Washington – and advocate for more funding for aid and humanitarian projects instead.
The group's visit coincided with a "peace trialogue" organized last week by the Delhi Policy Group that brought together women of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Some participants of the meeting, who have traditionally seen demilitarization as a key to peacebuilding, also faced strong opposition from local activists when they tried to include demilitarization in a statement published at the end of the gathering.
"In the current situation of terrorism, we cannot say troops should be withdrawn," Shinkai Karokhail, an Afghan member of Parliament and woman activist, told them. "International troop presence here is a guarantee for my safety."
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