Afghan Women Speak Out: Mariam Nawabi

As part of its mission to highlight and promote the stories and perspectives of Afghan women, CODEPINK has launched an ongoing series of print, audio and video interviews "Afghan Women Speak Out," conversations with leading international women activists and policymakers.

For the third interview in the series (view our first and second interview here), CODEPINK co-founder Jodie Evans interviews Mariam Nawabi, an Afghan-American attorney, social entrepreneur, and activist about Afghan women and Congress' rush to pass another $94 billion for war this week. Nawabi is a founding member of the Afghanistan Advocacy Group, a national network of Americans who wish to engage in dialogue with policymakers regarding development and security in Afghanistan. She served as senior adviser to the Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce and Afghanistan International Chamber of Commerce from February 2006 until April of 2007. From January 2004 to January 2006, she worked at the Embassy of Afghanistan, serving as Commercial & Trade Counsel.

Jodie Evans: What would you advise Obama to do?

Direct more money into economic development and the creation of jobs. To end the violence, the money needs to reach villages -- if the money doesn't get to the village itself, there is no change and the young men are left without support and become fodder for the Taliban.

Whether we call it democracy or not, there is no difference in (Afghan) way of life (under the Taliban or US troops), they still living in the crossfire between Taliban and U.S. forces. If the U.S. wants the Taliban out they are going about it backwards.

JE: Should we negotiate with the Taliban?

This whole notion of trying to negotiate with different members of Taliban might be too late. In the beginning, we went against groups we could and should have talked to; we should have talked to them then. When we labeled Taliban as the enemy and sided with warlords, we created categories and ended up creating enemies.

Once you create economic stability, you can have peacekeeping. That is part of the equation and it has to be sequenced in the right order. There may be different areas of the country that require different strategies because of where and who they are.

JE: But the U.S. has invested some money in development?

What the U.S. does now for economic development is mostly wasted. Capacity building is needed and good models of the public/private working together. When we leverage money with private sector we begin to get more efficacy. When you have advice and trainings without tools, nothing happens.

There is a plan to send 4,000 outside-civilian advisers, but these advisers go in for a year and are barely acclimated and then it's time to go. Instead they should send expats back in, they won't have as many language issues, and can be more effective at delivering real support. Afghanistan has had a huge brain drain -- so much of countries brain power left or killed. They need to come back.

Money now spent on military would be much better spent on infrastructure, jobs, and international partnerships. The people don't have the tools the need to move toward a peaceful reality. JE: What is the effect of additional troops?

As we (the US) brings in new military, we continue to create these little cities for our military to sit in. Afghans wonder, what is the point? They see the cities/bases just as places for the military, just another target for insurgents to bomb -- from there (the military) are just engaging in protecting themselves, not bringing change into Afghans lives. They are these little military oasis' that are not benefiting the community at all.

The Afghan people look over the walls of the bases and see the troops have everything they don't have. And the violence increases. They know (the troops) are not there to help them. The women are particularly aware of this. The military needs to get out in villages and relate with people so people see them as an asset.

There is a National Solidarity Program that Congress is looking at to fund this. (Through this program), a village creates its own priorities. For example, the people need a well. They vote on it, it goes to community for vote, and they get block grants to implement that. That's real democracy-building. Women have to be included; in this program, women can have their own council and they can vote and have their own projects funded.

That is what the Obama administration should be doing instead of this focused-on-military side,where they go in and then say, "OK, now how can we get out of this?" If you leave Afghanistan in the position where it can't sustain itself, it will just go back into conflict and more fundamentalism.

I would also tell the Obama administration,"whatever money you are spending, monitor it better." The problem is a wild west frontier -- the contractors and NGOs get the money and there is no accountability. They realize no one is checking up; they realize they can do whatever they want. It's creating these zones where people who are there to "protect" Afghanistan people are actually just there to help themselves.

I don't see just Taliban as the problem. I see the corruption, drug smuggling as bigger problems, men in suits taking money and not getting it to the community at all. We (the US) puts our money in and then steps back. That is a dangerous combination. People learn how to play the game, but the game is not on battlefield -- it's in halls of ministry. People learn how to take money, and their families are in India, Dubai, Canada. So money goes back out. And if things go south, they have an exit strategy.

The question is not who likes the U.S. more (under great presence). The question is who will the Afghan people see as a government that best represents their interests. They haven't had that. Now the game is all we have, all the millions of dollars coming in, and who can grab more of it. (It's) waste of resources. And people get disillusioned and angry; for seven years we haven't paid attention to the fact they have been oppressed.

JE: How, given the culture, do we get women at the table?

For the most part, the women leaders look out for interests of the village. You do have some women who are partnered with warlords, but comparatively, we risk less conflict if women are making decisions.

Economic empowerment is the best way to empower the women and give financial support to women who are demonstrating leadership abilities.

This election coming up in Afghanistan is not just presidential election but also province elections. I heard that in eight provinces, not one woman is registered. There are security issues, women are being targeted and feel fearful. But U.S. women have not helped bring them the tools they need to run. We can't demand women at the table if we do not provide the support they need. If a woman is campaigning, give her resources to campaign and print posters.

In some areas we see more women (in office) and there is great progress because they have created their own supportive communities. Sometimes the only women who win are those bankrolled by the warlords. They can win with the warlords' support but do so without their own voice.

Currently the Minister of Women's Affairs (Husan Bano Ghazanfar) (sic) that should be encouraging and supporting women is passive, she was appointed for exactly that reason. The new funding bill gives her money, but she does not represent the women and has failed at her job. But we send money anyway, without a way to monitor or guide.

Jodie Evans is the co-founder of CODEPINK Women for Peace and environmental, peace and justice activist for more than 30 years.