Afghanistan: Standing in questions and half-truths

If Iraq was based on lies, then Afghanistan finds its legitimacy in half-truths. Iraq harboured no weapons of mass-destruction, but the Taliban is a reality that causes even the most peace-loving liberals to think twice. Everybody wanted out of Iraq. But Afghanistan…will peace jeopardise freedom? Will the exit of troops amount to the entrance of hand amputations for nail polish, and executions for teaching girls to read? Thousands are dying and the war is failing, but which father, which feminist, which brother, could abandon the women of Afghanistan?

These are the questions that tumble our way as we stand on those steps at Flinders Street Station with our banner: END THE AFGHANISTAN WAR. I try to stand proud but for the first bit at least I can’t help but feel naked, beside a banner that is too big and too red. My tendency is to avoid conflict, and right now I’m not feeling very agreeable.

“Sayyid Ahmad, 16 years old, killed when he picked up an unexploded US cluster bomb in Shakar Qala village, near Heart, Afghanistan, on 21 November 2001. We remember.”
We remember,” repeats a small assortment of peace activists, crowded around the banner.
“Private Benjamin Ranaudo, 22 years old, from Melbourne, killed in an IED attack in the Baluchi Valley north of Tarin Kowt, on 18 July of this year. Lord have mercy.”
Lord have mercy.
This morning’s weather seems fragile, a crisp blue sky clumped with thick wads of grey and white. We don’t know whether it will break into a smile or a torrent. Turns out we’ll get a bit of both, but this morning at least is brisk. We call out the names of the dead over a patchwork crowd – students, workers, day-trippers, tourists. Some people pause, consider, move on. We keep reading the names.

After a few hours we are standing in silence, having exhausted the small sample of names that Simon printed off the internet. We survey the crowd and let people survey us. A man with a determined shuffle and a golf cap pauses in front of the banner, mouths the words, nods, shuffles on. A woman with wiry, frazzled hair and a lined face considers the message a moment before swatting at the air in disgust. She swings her arms widely as she stomps towards the lights, where her worn face breaks into a beam as has a chance encounter with a friend. The woman picks up the friend’s dog and cuddles it. She turns to us again and swats in our direction, before crossing the road.

And then come the questions. Some are questions that don’t want responses – assertions more than anything.
“How is this helping the troops who are fighting overseas?!”
“Do you people support the Taliban or what?!”
These questions leave as quickly as they arrive, slipping back into the crowd in a whir of shaken heads and fists.

Other questions come with brows knitted in conflict – despair, perhaps – but not anger.
“If we leave, won’t the Taliban return?”
It’s these questions that dry my mouth, doubts and half-truths soaking up the saliva. War is bad and people are dying, but aren’t these guns holding back the reign of a quintessential enemy to human rights and women’s liberation? If the troops leave will life for the people of Afghanistan get better or worse? What if it gets worse?

When I allow the questions to sit, away from troubled faces wanting answers, the lies seem to rise to the surface on their own. The idea that the USA is unleashing its might on the poverty-stricken country of Afghanistan in order to liberate its people emerges from murky waters as untenable. Of course, the whole region is key to the US and allies for its natural resources – Afghanistan, in particular, is required for natural gas and possibly oil pipelines. The more I think about it, the more the threat of the Taliban seems part of an elaborate PR campaign designed to convince us that this war is not about energy resources and wealth generation, but democracy and human rights.

PR campaign or not, the Taliban is a very real threat. A broad man with grey, concerned eyes approaches the vigil, which has now reduced in size to three. The clouds have lifted and the sun is heating the bluestone steps. The man says that he doesn’t have time to talk now, but he is worried about the vacuum of power that will be left if US/NATO withdraws. Won’t the Taliban just swoop in and take control? The man apologises for not having time to hear us out, scurrying back to work and leaving me wondering what I might have said to him. I think about the war criminals who make up the Afghan parliament, and how they are not so different from the Taliban – fundamentalists who use the name of Islam to justify cruelty and oppression. The ‘democratic’ government of Afghanistan recently legalised rape in marriage. Rule under the Taliban would be oppressive, but perhaps no more so than the current government, minus the military occupation and air strikes.

The answer in my head depresses me. Somehow I want something better than Taliban rule for Afghanistan. I ask Simon how he might have responded to this question. Simon, who admires men like Ghandi and Martin Luther King, talks about the potential for non-violent resistance to authoritarian rule. I want to know what that might look like, and he tells me about the non-violent student resistance to Milosevic, which successfully overthrew the Serbian dictator. Interestingly, he says, there was far more resistance to the Taliban before the US/NATO invasion and occupation. Now people are siding with the Taliban because they provide a degree of security, and also some basic services. Perhaps not education for girls, but more than what the government is offering. If the troops leave, suggests Simon, there will be room to support grassroots non-violent resistance to Taliban rule. We don’t know how this will result, but one thing we do know is that violence hasn’t worked.

No easy answer, but perhaps, in the cracks of this bluestone, a blade of hope.

The vigil stretches on into a second day, my feet sinking into the rhythms of the Flinders Street steps. I am beginning to enjoy the act of standing, like a proud red pimple disrupting a creamy complexion. We pack up umbrellas, sunscreen and banner at 6pm on the second day, sunburnt faces tired but content.

And now, in the days after our vigil, we hear that the president of the USA has been awarded the Noble Peace Prize. “No peace here,” quips The Age, as it places an article on the scaling up of the forces in Afghanistan right next to the NPP piece. This disparity is so ludicrous it makes me laugh. I wonder if the company that does the US government’s PR has somehow got a rep on the Peace Prize committee.

The view from the steps is a collage of flashing billboards. From the steps, it all seems one and the same – half-truths packaged up in lights and full colour, when what lies behind is greed and destruction. Usually I switch off, prefer to stay numb, not to think. Today I choose to do it differently – to refuse to go along passively with someone else’s PR campaign. I wish I felt as sturdy as the bluestone beneath my feet. Here, I find no easy answers.

We stand beside the big red banner - testament, perhaps, to the truth that lies in the question. It feels good to be here.