Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh will not be executed for the crime of blasphemy. Instead, the Afghan journalism student will spend 20 years in his country’s infamous prisons. His crime, for which he was first sentenced to be beheaded, was to question the position of women in Afghan society.
Kambakhsh denies the charges against him, and declares that the confession produced at his fleeting secret trial was obtained under torture. Witnesses for the prosecution also report that they were tortured into making false accusations against Kambakhsh. Whether true or false, the charges are simply that he exercised a right all Canadians take for granted.
This is the Afghanistan Canadian troops are dying for, the recipient of most of our foreign aid, and the project to which we have committed our military for years to come. Never mind that senior generals have declared the war unwinnable, or that there is no clear notion of what a victory might look like, Canadian soldiers will continue to kill and die, to maim and be maimed, until an arbitrary date agreed upon by both our big-money political parties, whereupon we will supposedly withdraw, whatever the situation.
It is common in Canada to suggest that democracy in Afghanistan is an absurd notion, that conservative Islam will dominate that war-torn country forever. Conversely, we are asked to believe that the Karzai government is taking steps in the right direction for the first time in history. In fact, Afghans have made steps toward democracy in the past, and though imperfect, they have been truer, more positive steps than this puppet regime will ever take.
The so-called “liberal parliament” of 1949 was a constitutional monarchy not entirely unlike the one in England that grew into what passes for democracy in the West today. Much like that early English parliament, the Afghan democracy movement ran into heavy opposition from the king and the warlords, and was at length overthrown.
In 1963, democracy made a partial comeback with a constitution that established an independent judiciary, and placed certain limits on royal power. In 1965 and again in 1969, the country had elections that were widely considered “free and fair,” a claim that can’t be made for the US-backed elections that have cemented the power of Karzai and the Northern Alliance warlords.
This is not to suggest that the path of democracy ever ran easy in Afghanistan. Like Western democracy it had to battle the power of an entrenched monarchy, a powerful church, and a set of ancient traditions based on sexism, racial identity, and superstition. What we seldom hear in the West is that democracy was already an established movement among Afghans, and not an idea that was born on the day the US ousted the Taliban.
The Karzai government is a creation of the invasion, and the occupying countries are in a position to help shape that government. Rather than work closely with the real reform movement in Afghanistan, we have chosen to install a brutal, repressive regime that differs from the Taliban only in style and degree. Whether it happens in a soccer stadium or not, a beheading is still a beheading.
Supporters of Canada’s continued participation in this losing battle point to the resurgence of secular education in post-Taliban Afghanistan, and it’s true that thousands of children are in schools today that will not be in school tomorrow if the Taliban regain full control of the country. The same might be said for our allies. When NATO goes marching home, there’s no guarantee the warlords will let the girls go to school.
There are better ways to support education and democracy in Afghanistan than by propping up the thug regime in Kabul. The freedom movement of the postwar years was driven underground in Taliban times, but it never died.
Long before 2001, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan was lobbying Western countries to use their influence with the Taliban to curb some of their horrendous human-rights abuses against women.
The Taliban are religious fanatics, and harder to sway from the True Path than mere political ideologues, but the power of an indigenous democracy movement backed by pots of foreign money has proven itself in tough circumstances before. Nobody tried it in Afghanistan.
Instead, the world left the Taliban to play at malevolent gods with the lives of Afghans and ignored the looming menace of al-Qaida’s training camps until it all blew up in our faces, whereupon we responded with bombs, and with the installation of a puppet government that beheads people for advocating women’s rights.
Today Canadian troops daily put their lives on the line to maintain the brutally anti-democratic Karzai regime, on the premise that the Taliban would be worse. At the same time we are ignoring the voices of genuine activists for democracy and freedom.
Real democracy isn’t impossible in Afghanistan, and NATO countries are not powerless to help it along. We’ve just never tried.
Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.