After Massacre, Afghan Americans Question Meaning of Justice

After Massacre, Afghan Americans Question Meaning of Justice

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SAN FRANCISCO – The killing of 16 civilians – mostly women and children – by a lone American soldier in Kandahar Province last week has darkened an increasingly ominous cloud hanging over America’s mission in Afghanistan. In its wake, many are asking what sort of justice should be meted out.

For members of the Afghan American community here, the question goes beyond this single tragedy; it has implications for the larger war effort and the future of their homeland.

“Afghans are people of revenge,” says Farid Younos, professor of human development studies at California State University East Bay. “The Qur'an burning was a very serious issue,” he says, “but that is an incident that can be gradually forgotten. Urinating and killing call for revenge.”

A video released in January showed several American soldiers urinating on what appeared to be the corpses of Taliban fighters. That was followed last month by reports of burnings of the Muslim holy book by U.S. forces, which triggered massive and violent protests across Afghanistan.

Taliban spokesmen, meanwhile, have called off proposed talks with U.S. officials in the wake of this week’s massacre, carried out by a 38-year-old sergeant from Washington who was on his first tour of Afghanistan after serving three tours in Iraq. There have also been reports that the Taliban threatened to behead American soldiers.

The underlying question for many Afghan Americans is: How can the U.S. convey to ordinary Afghans that its presence in the country is just?

“If Americans do not change their strategy, the stigma as occupiers gets stronger,” explains Younos, who says more effort should be put into creating jobs and bolstering education.

Humaira Ghilzai, co-founder of Afghan Friends Network and the Hayward-Ghazni Sister City Committee in Hayward, has spent the past six years working to bring education to the women of Ghazni, located some 70 miles southeast of Kabul. Her privately funded project has helped establish several schools in the city that work to fill in the educational gaps left by years of war.

“There is much bridge building that needs to be done,” Ghilzai says, “especially with the locals in the areas affected, the families of victims and direct communication through Afghan media to the Afghan people.” Messages of condolence from the White House and from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Ghilzai says, do not reach those on the ground who are disconnected from the halls of power but knee-deep in the violence.

“We need American diplomats on Afghan TV, not VOA (Voice of America),” she explains. “I was really pleased that President Obama, Secretary Clinton and Leon Panetta made their apologies and contacted their peers… but the people who are directly impacted by this do not feel any consolation from such high-level communication.”

Such individuals include Abdul Samad, a resident of the village of Panjwai, where the killing occurred, claiming 11 of his family members. A one-time supporter of the American war effort, Samad was quoted in the New York Times urging their withdrawal during a phone call with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who called to offer his condolences.

“We made you president, and what happens to our family?” demands Samad. “The Americans kill us and then burn the dead bodies.” The answer, he says is to, “Either finish us or get rid of the Americans.”

This sentiment sends shivers through many in the local Afghan American community, who fear a resurgent Taliban and an end to some of the promising gains made, especially in the arena of women’s rights.

“The soldier was mentally sick and what he did was awful,” admits journalist and author Fariba Nawa, whose recent book “Opium Nation” focused on the impact of Afghanistan’s drug trade on women. “But the Taliban and Pakistan are responsible for killing more civilians than the foreign powers.”

For ordinary Afghans, her comments go directly to the plight of a nation caught in the snares of contending powers, both foreign and domestic. Malalai Joya, an activist and former member of parliament in Afghanistan, argues such violence fuels the presence of “misogynist Taliban” and “Jehadi warlords” across the country and in the government.

Joya, who was dismissed from parliament in 2007 after accusing Karzai’s government of employing known warlords, is adamant in her belief that America’s presence brings only “destruction, destitution and death.”
It is a view that conflicts with those, like Nawa and Ghilzai, who fear this one event could undo a decade of albeit halting progress.

“As an American,” says Ghilzai, “I hope that we don't give up on Afghanistan and throw away all the work of good people both Afghan and American with a short sighted decision.”

Additional reporting by Suzanne Manneh.