‘We cannot have long-term peace while American troops are here,’ says celebrated Afghan activist Malalai Joya

Interview: No nation can gift liberation to another, ex-MP tells Andrew Buncombe

Friday 06 August 2021 12:40 BST
Malalai Joya has been long time critic of US and Nato
Malalai Joya has been long time critic of US and Nato (Alamy Stock Photo)

There can be no long-term peace in Afghanistan while US troops are present and they should leave as quickly as possible, according to a celebrated activist who made history as a female member of parliament.

Malalai Joya says even though the security situation in the country may get worse in the short term as Taliban forces seize more territory, the American military is the root cause of many problems and act as a “cancer” to her country.

“History shows no nation can donate liberation to another nation – they come to Afghanistan for their own interests,” Joya tells The Independent.

Speaking from an undisclosed location in Kabul Joya, who has survived at least four assassination attempts, says she has repeatedly urged US forces to depart with “all their lackeys”.

“Get rid from my country. They are a cancer in the body of my society, in the body of my beloved country,” she says. “They are like Covid-19.”

The comments by Joya come as the last of a once 100,000-strong continent of US forces is leaving Afghanistan. While the US President, Joe Biden, said the troops – other than 650 who will remain to protect the US Embassy – will depart by the end of August, reports suggest the bulk have already left.

“We did not go to Afghanistan to nation build,” Biden said last month, as the United States ended a 20-year-old war and occupation that began in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. “Afghan leaders have to come together and drive toward a future.”

The peace deal being pursued by Biden was actually brokered by his predecessor, Donald Trump, who also did not believe US troops should be fighting there.

Some have criticised the move, especially as the Taliban has continued to seize more territory every day, most recently launching attacks on the southern city of Lashkar Gah. It is the capital of Helmand province, which was the focus of the British military’s operations, until the bulk of its combat troops withdrew in 2014. More than 450 British personnel died serving in Afghanistan.

Former US president George W Bush, who ordered the invasion of Afghanistan and then Iraq as part of his so-called “war on terror”, told a German broadcaster he believed the move was a mistake because “I think the consequences are going to be unbelievably bad”.

In recent days, the leader of the US-backed Afghan government, which did participate in the deal signed with the Taliban, condemned the US military’s “hasty withdrawal”.

“[The process] not only failed to bring peace but created doubt and ambiguity,” Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, told parliament.

Biden feared continued US military presence in Afghanistan would never end

Joya dismissed Bush’s comments, saying he was a warmonger who could not be trusted.

“The catastrophic situation of women was a very good excuse for the US and Nato to occupy our country, and replace the barbaric regime of the Taliban with the warlords,” she says.

Joya, who is from Afghanistan’s Farah Province, made headlines in 2003, in a speech at “Loya Jirga” talks organised by the US to vote on a new constitution. In a speech, she condemned the nation’s tribal military leaders or warlords, many of whom the US was siding with against the Taliban, despite their appalling record of human rights abuses.

“My criticism on all my compatriots is that why are they allowing the legitimacy and legality of this Loya Jirga come under question with the presence of those felons who brought our country to this state,” she said, before being thrown out of the meeting.

Two years later she was elected to the national assembly, one of the few elected women politicians in the country, and again created a stir with an attack on the same individuals.

After the swearing in of the parliament – the first in at least 30 years – in the presence of the new Afghan leader, Hamid Karzai, and US vice-president, Dick Cheney, Joya held her own press conference.

“I offer my condolences to the people of our country for the presence of warlords, drug lords and criminals [in the parliament],” she said

“[The people of Afghanistan have recently] escaped the Taliban cage but still they are trapped in the cage of those who are called warlords.”

Joya was elected to the Afghan parliament in 2005 (AFP via Getty Images)

Two years later, Joya was expelled for three years after she was accused of breaking a rule that prevented politicians criticising each other. Her expulsion triggered outcry from international human rights groups.

“Afghanistan is requesting billions of dollars in assistance from donors next month and presenting itself as an emerging democracy,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said at the time. “If Malalai Joya remains suspended for exercising her right to free expression and has to keep moving around because of threats for which the government does nothing, what does this say about the state of human rights and democracy?”

Joya has continued the criticism, throughout the 20 year-occupation by US and Western forces, condemning not only the foreign military, but the Afghan non-governmental groups that take Western money.

Estimates suggest at least 250,000 Afghans lost their lives during that period, with 3 million displaced internally and 2.1 million leaving the country.

Has there been any positive element about the US military presence – for instance, the expansion of education for women and girls?

“For [the] justification of the occupation, they did some humanitarian projects, especially in big cities like Herat, Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Jalalabad… they built some schools, some hospitals, some roads. But it was for justification of their occupation,” she says. “And in rural areas and most part of Afghanistan, they did almost nothing.”

She says the US also oversaw the installation of a corrupt “puppet” system, which resulted in “artificial schools” that did not exist and where the money set aside for such projects went to “the pocket of the corrupt warlords”.

“Millions of dollars comes under the name of women’s rights projects, [the] reconstruction of Afghanistan, [and] education,” she says. “But most of this money goes to the pockets of corrupt people.”

Both Joe Biden and Donald Trump vowed to end the US’s longest war (Getty Images)

Joya, who in 2010, was included on Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, says the mood among ordinary Afghans as they watch the US withdrawal is one of anxiety.

She says the population has suffered from decades of angst and war, most recently with the US occupation. Now the US had done a deal with the Taliban, claiming they could be trusted, while it was obvious to Afghan people they had not changed whatsoever.

“It’s a nightmare in the mind of Afghan people; everybody is worried about the future,” she says.

“They know that [the Taliban’s] nature didn’t change – that they’re still beheading people, are still beating woman publicly with the lash, are still stoning people in the rural areas where they have power.”

Joya says that while she does not think there is a role for foreign players in Afghanistan, including the UN, she felt other activists around the world could still help and offer support. “We need more support, especially for educational support projects.”

She says she is inspired by civil society movements in Europe and the US, including the Occupy movement. She also praises Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, whose organisation exposed many of the worst atrocities of the “war on terror”.

“He is a hero. In my view, he exposed the wrong policies, the disgusting policies of the US government and Nato,” she says. “Now he’s living in the hearts of all the justice-loving people.”

She adds: “He should not be put in jail. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, all these warmongers, should be in jail, not Julian Assange, not Chelsea Manning… They are brave and raise their voices for justice and peace.”

George W Bush has said advances on women’s education will be lost once US forces leave (Getty Images)

Despite the huge challenges confronting Afghanistan and the perilous threat of an ever-expanding Taliban, Joya insists she does have some hope.

“My voice is the small voice of the voiceless, suffering people of Afghanistan, especially the women of my country, who are the victims,” she says.

“So we have a lot of dreams. I wish in every corner of Afghanistan, in the villages and the districts, there will be schools that have literacy courses, computer courses, [and] we are living in the 21st century. I want my people to be empowered by education.

“Imagine if all the population of our country was educated; they do not do self-immolation, they will not be disappointed, they will not allow these extremists to continue their barbarism.”

She says it is the actions of ordinary Afghans seeking a better life that inspire her – a woman in Bamyan province, a child on her shoulder, completing the test for university entrance, or an uneducated man in Uruzgan province taking his daughter to another village so she can attend school.

“This will take time. This is a prolonged risky struggle. People are fed up of the war, and terrified of the war,” she says. “We are the ones with the responsibility to be fearless, to be tireless, to be more active, to work for the other people and to lead them in the right direction.”

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