Category Archives: Human Rights

The Last Thousand chooses education a thousand times over

The Last Thousand - bookSeptember 11, 2001 was a turning point for Americans and Afghans alike. America started the global war on terror and gave Afghanistan regime change, which was a boon for many Afghans, particularly the ethnic Hazaras whose long history of persecution is documented in English literature by Khaled Hosseini and Lillias Hamilton.

Jeffrey E. Stern’s upcoming non-fiction book, The Last Thousand: One School’s Promise in a Nation at War, picks up the story of the Hazaras from where The Kite Runner left off: a people rising from the smoldering ravages of the Taliban, eagerly flocking in their thousands to schools with a sense of making up for the opportunity cost of their underdog’s history.

 

The book tells the story of one such school, Marefat, built by a former holy warrior who teaches his students, especially girls, to be outspoken, independent thinkers. Marefat embodies what’s possible in the civic space that emerged in the wake of American bombs and the Taliban.

This book is about the building of a school, but it’s not another stones-into-schools narrative; it is about sustaining the school’s social mission in the face of, among other things, an angry mob hurling rocks at the school where girls learn to take a stand against misogyny. (“Marefat” is Dari for knowledge, wisdom, awareness.)

Stern has lived a portion of the school’s journey, so he tells the story with intimate familiarity and subtlety. Stern’s years-long association with Marefat and its tenacious founder-principal, Aziz Royesh, enables him to write with human empathy even as he appears at times to grapple with his sympathies for the school: Stern is so close to Marefat and Teacher Aziz that he readily finds a unique place for them in contemporary history. Marefat’s art, music and civic education program and the school’s success – compared to what? by what metrics? – emerge as evidence. But the smart, articulate students appearing throughout the book offer enough endorsement to help the narrative withstand inquiry.

The book is paced appropriately as Stern tells the story of the months leading up to the end of American combat mission in Afghanistan. In this sense, the book is also about what happens to a historically oppressed minority after the protective foreign power with which it has sided is gone. This is where Afghan and American histories begin to diverge as neatly as they converged on 9/11: On December 31, 2014, America’s war officially ended in Afghanistan, but the battle was only beginning for Teacher Aziz, Marefat and Afghanistan.

The Last Thousand is a timely exploration of the question “what happens when the Americans leave?” and its corollary, “how will the Afghans manage to wean themselves off foreign support?”

And sure enough, as the Americans leave, the Taliban creep back and regressive forces become more assertive. To push back, the Teacher becomes involved in politics – and radically modifies his civic teaching.

“When the pressure is coming from different sides, you feel yourself unsafe or unprotected, you feel it more with your subconscious,” he decides. “Now we have to take ourselves two or three feet back. Just to remain alive….For the time being we should shut our voice.”

This lesson is not received quietly by Marefat students who have learned to think for themselves and question authority.

The book’s other contribution – documenting America’s earliest missteps in Afghanistan – is easily overlooked in the broader narrative.  In the absence of an overall policy, the military gained primacy over diplomacy, which undercut America’s natural allies in Afghan society and eroded support for the mission – a process that started before the oft-cited 2003 divergence to Iraq.

And so Stern offers a more nuanced narrative of American involvement in Afghanistan and how it changed the Afghans who lived through it. He writes with honesty and manages to craft an uplifting narrative without making the story saccharine.

The book is recommended for those interested in the Afghan experience of what Americans call their longest war.

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The Last Thousand comes out on January 26 and is available for pre-order on Amazon.

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The apology is just the beginning

General Dostum

General Dostum ‘apologized’ on TV today for the ‘negative consequences’ of his ‘politics’ on the people of Afghanistan. He was referring to the tens of thousands of innocent civilians killed and injured during the civil war years in the early 1990s. Ask any victim – or their families if the victims didn’t survive – and they would tell you these were more than just ‘negative consequences’ of ‘politics.’ But this is the first time that a civil war actor has supposedly apologized to the victims, and the government must build upon the momentum this apology can create.

Dostum has been trying for a while to shed his image of a strongman who is often ruthless in his violence; he seems to have intensified those efforts now that he is officially in the race to become Afghanistan’s vice president. If we disregard his electoral motivations, his statement is a pioneering act of humility in a country where the perpetrators, emboldened by coddling from the government and the international community, passed a law in 2007 granting themselves legal immunity for past crimes.

But General Dostum’s call for such actors to also apologize to the people of Afghanistan is an opportunity to remind these actors that decades of atrocities cannot be wiped in  a single TV apology, that true justice necessitates including the victim’s point of view, that nobody can ‘pardon’ a perpetrator but the victims. General Dostum has also given the government a good reminder to restart the justice efforts that it abandoned due to political expediency promptly after adopting the transitional justice action plan in 2006.

The government has long argued that holding the bad guys accountable will cause too much instability, so its strategy has been to bring them to power rather than to justice. But this house-of-cards argument is collapsing because over the last five to eight years, the more the government has coddled the bad guys, the worse the violence has gotten. Some journalists and the Independent Human Rights Commission’s field staff refer to perpetrators of this violence as “irresponsible armed groups” to distinguish them from the Taliban and other anti-government fighters. In many cases these irresponsible armed groups are connected with someone in power in the government through a network of patronage politics that stretches to the corridors of government in Kabul. It’s a trickle-down effect: you ignore the big guy in the capital and he starts to feel untouchable, so his minions in the provinces – where the government’s writ is thin anyway – feel covered and therefore completely immune.

Part of the government’s reasoning for this approach is that if you bring these people to justice, the shockwaves will cause the government to collapse altogether. But this reasoning is wrong. It is based on a premise that justice must be punitive (it doesn’t have to), that justice and stability are mutually exclusive (they are not). Justice in societies like Afghanistan that are transitioning from one form of governance to another doesn’t have to — in fact, should not — be punitive. Restorative justice that emphasizes on including the victim’s voice and having the perpetrators accept their mistakes is more effective than punishing, excluding and banishing the perpetrators. For large-scale crimes involving multiple perpetrators and multiple thousands of victims, only a truly national and inclusive process can heal old wounds and prepare the ground for post-conflict nation- and state-building. Ignoring grievances is not a strategy but a tactic that always backfires in the long run, and we are already seeing the consequences of such neglect.

It is time for a democratic government to heed the aspirations of the people of Afghanistan to finally focus on justice rather than delaying, side-stepping and ignoring it. It is time for the government to finally prioritize justice as a strategy to promote long-term stability, cohesion and a sense of nationhood as opposed to treating justice as a threat to stability.

The crimes of the last three decades have been large-scale and deliberate; the efforts necessary to address them must also be truly national and seriously pursued. The general’s apology is a commendable act of humility and courage, but it should be only the beginning.

Note: I have expressed a lot of views in this post. The views are all strictly personal and do not represent the views of my employers, current or former.