By Buddy Bell
Once I did put it on, Omar motioned for me to push back some loose strands of hair still visible outside my hooded sweatshirt. Long-haired men, though a typical sight in some regions of Afghanistan, are apparently not very common in Kabul. Covered up to his satisfaction, I followed close behind as we made our second attempt to enter the university through a second gate. We slipped handily past the guardpost, and made our way into the men’s dormitory.
Omar had been visiting the community house of the Afghan Peace Volunteers, where I was a guest and partner organizer through my role as co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence. In an effort to improve human conditions in Afghanistan, he is starting to build bridges between the APVs and his university classmates. It was his fifth visit to the house when he met me and offered to bring me to meet some of them.
I agreed to go with him, partly because it is a place where not many foreigners are able to go, but also because I understood he was taking some personal risks by making this invitation. In some cases in the past, congregating with foreigners on campus has been grounds for questioning by agents of the National Directorate of Security. In a country where university students expect to face a real unemployment rate between 50 and 70 percent, it shouldn’t be surprising that Afghanistan’s unpopular government would want to keep a tight lid on this potential hotbed of dissent.
As I stepped into a dorm room that in the U.S. would house 2 students, I encountered 6 bunks jammed in along 2 walls, two bureau closets and a window ledge, where a propane burner was heating water for tea. Upon learning I was a visitor from the United States, several of the students did not hesitate to practice their English and to ask me about life in the United States, what do I think about Afghanistan, and why did I come.
I told them I wanted to hear their opinions about U.S. policy in Afghanistan, in order that the U.S. public might learn what is important to Afghans. Partly as a joke, I asked if they expected the U.S. to honor its own Enduring Strategic Protection Agreement, which in article IV calls on all nations to “refrain from interfering in Afghanistan’s internal affairs and democratic processes.”
They told me that the president, Hamid Karzai, is widely believed to remain in office only because U.S. money and manipulation fixed it that way. “The politicians take the money from the United States, and they put it right here,” said a student who gestured to his front shirt pocket. “A lot of things are improving with U.S. money, but it is not what is possible.”
“Almost all the parliamentarians, they were warlords before,” said another student. “Isn’t Karzai a former warlord, too?” I asked. “Yes, he was part of the Taliban.” I learned that the governors of each of Afghanistan’s provinces are all appointees selected by Karzai. One student suggested that instituting “federalism” would allow each province to hold their own elections and manage some of their own affairs, raising the level of democracy on the local level.
As the night went on, I visited room after room, putting my hood on each time I walked through the hallways, at one point taking a shortcut through a kitchen to avoid passing the guardpost in front. Before the night was over I might have had 10 cups of tea and 2 dinners, served on a mat on the floor of the cramped dorm room with everyone sitting around it.
Many of the students expressed their fear that a U.S. withdrawal would result in the Taliban coming back into Kabul, but they were also cognizant that the U.S. presence itself and the barbarity of many of the U.S. soldiers has been causing the resurgence of the Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami. Some of the students also brought up the fact that a U.S. presence depends on supplies coming through Pakistan, which depends on the U.S. paying off their old ISI friends, who then funnel that money back to warlords of the Haqqani network.
Later, I asked one student that if he believes U.S. troops must remain in Afghanistan as a deterrent to the Taliban, does that mean he believes the U.S. must carry out offensive maneuvers such as bombing from the air. “Of course not,” he said. “No one accepts that.” “This is the problem. They have to stop thinking ten hundred Afghan people’s lives equal one American person’s life. If they cannot guarantee the life of the Afghan people, they have no right to do the bombings or the night operations.”
The electricity went out every few hours; we continued the conversation by flashlight until it came back on. At around 2am, I was provided a space to sleep on the floor. In the morning there was another communal meal with the dorm mates before Omar and a few of his friends took me for a short walk through campus, out the main gate and back home. A goodbye from one of them still echoes in my head: “I want that you write all the truth you have seen in Afghanistan.”
The names of all people included in this article have been changed.
Buddy Bell ([email protected]) co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence www.vcnv.org