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'A Woman among Warlords'

Afghan author and firebrand Malalai Joya on Canada's mission, Obama's Nobel, dodging assassination, and more.

Blake Sifton 16 Nov

Blake Sifton is a Vancouver-based journalist with an international focus.

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Joya was booted from parliament for opposing both the Taliban and Karzai's warlord allies.

Malalai Joya is the epitome of who Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan are supposed to be fighting to protect. She is an educated and empowered young woman who shed her burqa, spoke out against fundamentalism and rose to prominence when the Taliban were ousted in 2001. Yet while she detests the Taliban and the Afghan warlords, she is also a vocal opponent of the U.S. and NATO occupation of Afghanistan.

While her father fought in the mountains with the mujihadeen against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the early 1980s, Joya fled with her mother and siblings to refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan. When the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in 1996, Joya did the unthinkable -- she returned to her country and set up a clandestine school for girls under the noses of the Islamists. Along with her underground activities came the ever-present risk of arrest and execution.

Taking advantage of the new freedoms offered by the Taliban's fall from power, Joya became the youngest person ever elected to Afghanistan's parliament in 2005. She immediately used her position to publicly denounce the warlordism she says is destroying her country. However, many of the warlords and drug traffickers Joya spoke out against were also her fellow MPs. In May 2007 she was suspended from parliament for offending them.

Joya's work entails considerable personal risk and she has already survived four assassination attempts. Urged by her supporters to go into exile abroad, she has refused to abandon her country in the face of fear.

She is the author of the new book A Woman Among Warlords and last weekend launched a cross-Canada speaking tour in Vancouver. Just before she traveled to B.C., I reached her at the New York hotel where she was registered under a fake name for security. Here is what she had to say...

On the Afghan presidential election mess:

"An election held under occupation and the influence of corruption and warlordism has no legitimacy at all. It is impossible for there to be a democratic election in Afghanistan right now.

"Hamid Karzai is a corrupt puppet who is betraying our people and Abdullah Abdullah was the preferred candidate of the warlords. Both of their policies are similar -- they both called the Taliban 'brothers.' They are both traitors."

On what most Afghans think about the election:

"Ordinary Afghans don't have security or even food to eat. They don't trust the candidates and often they hate them. It's hard for true Afghan democrats because elections are supposed to be a hallmark of democracy and we want to believe in them. In the lead up to the election Afghans had a saying. They said that whatever the result we would have, [it was] 'the same donkey with a new saddle.'"

On U.S. President Obama's Afghan policies:

"I was hopeful when Obama was elected but unfortunately when he came to power his message to my people was that there will be more war. He increased troop levels and wants to send even more soldiers to Afghanistan. This will only bring more conflict. It is impossible to bring democracy through military occupation and the barrel of a gun.

"His policies are quite similar to that of the Bush administration. His drone attacks in the border area with Pakistan are killing innocent civilians and they have killed hundreds of Afghan civilians with cluster bombs and white phosphorous. They even bomb our wedding parties.

"Despite all of this, somehow he received the Nobel Peace Prize. I don't understand how they could give it to a president who is pursuing wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan."

On what would happen if NATO pulled out of Afghanistan:

"We are stuck between two enemies -- the occupation forces killing innocent civilians, and the Taliban and warlords. Many people say that if the troops leave Afghanistan, civil war will happen. But we have a civil war now. As long as the U.S. and NATO are here, the civil war will continue because they are supporting the government and the warlords. If they end the occupation of my country then we, the true democrats of Afghanistan, will be fighting one enemy instead of two."

On the sacrifice of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan:

"The United States, Canada and the other NATO countries are wasting their taxpayers' money and the blood of their soldiers to support a completely corrupt and illegitimate system.

"I am sorry for the Canadian families who have lost their sons in Afghanistan. The soldiers are themselves victims of their government's policies, just as our civilians are. Their families should raise their voices against the misguided policies of their governments... they must turn their sorrow into strength."

On how she would define global support for the people of Afghanistan:

"When I say that we don't want your soldiers I don't mean that we don't want your help. We are honoured to have the support and solidarity of democratic people in Canada and around the world.

"Please put pressure on your governments to change their policies and demonstrate in your cities to help end our occupation. No one's drones will bomb you and no one will shoot you.

"Moral support and humanitarian support will help us in the difficult and long struggle against the Taliban and the warlords. Support intellectuals and democratic-minded people of my country and support education in Afghanistan. Education, and especially women's education, is a key to democracy and our emancipation."

On the failure to effectively combat the Afghan opium trade and its impact on North American society:

"After eight years, the U.S. and NATO have failed so badly that now Afghanistan exports 93 per cent of the world's opium. In 2001, the Taliban almost destroyed the opium trade in Afghanistan. The Taliban! These uneducated, ignorant misogynists. It's unbelievable that a superpower along with 40 other countries cannot stop the opium trade but a medieval organization like the Taliban nearly succeeds.

"How many poor people do you have on your own streets? Yet the U.S. and Canada send millions to help warlords and drug dealers in Afghanistan. Support for corrupt warlords not only affects the people of my country -- it also allows more and more drugs to make their way onto the streets of Vancouver and destroy your youth as well."

On Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan and the repercussions for Pakistani civilians:

"Throughout our long years of war, the Pakistanis have had puppets in Afghanistan and they still do. The Pakistani intelligence supports the Afghan Taliban, and the madrasas along the border are essentially 'Taliban factories' where people are brainwashed to commit suicide bombings in Afghanistan. The U.S. works with the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence], and the ISI supports the Afghan Taliban. They are playing cat-and-mouse with the terrorists.

"Now Obama fights a war with drones in the Pakistani border areas. It is the civilians of Pakistan who suffer. They are bombing the poorest and most backward cities of Pakistan."

On going into exile and fearing death:

"I am a woman and I refuse to stay silent. I document the crimes of the warlords, so they want to kill me. My life is always at risk. Even with bodyguards, I am not safe in the country NATO occupies under the banner of women's rights and democracy.

"My supporters abroad are worried, and many people tell me to leave Afghanistan. But I'm not any better than the other democratic people in my country who are dying. My blood is not more red then the blood of my people.

"Faced with so many assassination attempts, I have to imagine that one day they will succeed. But I do not fear death. I fear silence in the face of injustice. That is my message to democratic people around the world."

Malalai Joya's Canadian tour dates can be found here.  [Tyee]

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