Is Medea Benjamin Naive or Just Confused?
Code Pink rethinks Afghan withdrawal
Interview recorded October 7, 2009. Listen to the interview.
When I heard that there would be antiwar protests across the country on October 7, 2009, mourning the 8th anniversary of the start of the invasion of Afghanistan, I immediately picked up the phone to get one of the great anti-warrior women of Code Pink to join me on Antiwar Radio for the occasion.
Imagine my shock at seeing this story in the Christian Science Monitor describing the new, post-trip-to-Afghanistan-position of Code Pink’s co-founder and most famous leader, Medea Benjamin.
"’We would leave with the same parameters of an exit strategy but we might perhaps be more flexible about a timeline,’ says Benjamin. ‘That’s where we have opened ourselves, being here, to some other possibilities. We have been feeling a sense of fear of the people of the return of the Taliban. So many people are saying that, ‘If the U.S. troops left the country, would collapse. We’d go into civil war.’ A palpable sense of fear that is making us start to reconsider that.’"
"Did you just read that right?" said one half of my brain to the other. Is this reporting accurate? Has Code Pink turned pro-war?
Well, the interview took place, as scheduled, and this is the result:
Scott Horton: For Antiwar.com and KAOS Radio 95.9 FM in Austin Texas, I’m Scott Horton, and this is Antiwar Radio. We’re streaming live worldwide on the internet at KAOSRadioAustin.org and at Antiwar.Com/Radio. And we’ve got an action-packed show lined up for you today. Four interviews. Starting right now with our first guest, the director, president, leader? I forget, I’m sorry, of the exact title, of Code Pink, Medea Benjamin. Welcome to the show.
Medea Benjamin: Hi. Thanks for having me on and I guess you should call me co-founder. We don’t have much of a hierarchy in Code Pink.
Horton: Oh, I see, Co-founder. Okay, there we go. But you’re the famous one.
Benjamin: Well, I’m one of the ones.
Horton: You’re the one we all know of. We’ve seen your picture in the newspaper and so-forth, right?
Benjamin: Well luckily there’re a lot of us. So some people know one person and some people know another.
Horton: Right. Well I got to meet some great ladies from Code Pink in 2005 when I was up at Camp Casey for the Cindy Sheehan protest. And to tell you the honest truth, the reason I wanted to bring you on the show today was to talk about all the antiwar protests going on around the country, and I guess I just assumed you guys would be involved with that. And yet I’m reading in the Christian Science Monitor that you’re rethinking your call for a pullout from Afghanistan, and that you’ve had your mind changed about the Afghanistan war due to a recent trip that you took there. Can you elaborate on that?
Benjamin: I don’t think that piece really reflects our thinking. We took a delegation there and just got back yesterday. And we certainly did hear some people say that they felt if the U.S. pulled out right now there would be a collapse and the Taliban might take over, there might be a civil war. But we also heard a lot of people say they didn’t want more troops to be sent in and they wanted the U.S. to have a responsible exit strategy that included the training of Afghan troops, included being part of promoting a real reconciliation process and included economic development; that the United States shouldn’t be allowed to just walk away from the problem. So that’s really our position. Not the one that was implied in the Christian Science Monitor.
Horton: Well, and you know I actually considered setting up the first question that way. This is probably sloppy reporting. I can’t imagine that you guys just flip-flop. But again, you sort of seem to be saying, well this is what the people in Afghanistan told you and now that’s your position. Is that it?
Benjamin: Well actually, there were many different opinions in Afghanistan and unfortunately because of the security situation we were very limited in who we talked to. We didn’t get out to the countryside, we didn’t talk to people who had been the targets of U.S. bombing, we didn’t talk to people who lived under Taliban control. We, in a week, got to talk to an amazing variety of people, but they were all working inside Kabul, many of them coming from outside Kabul. We are putting up on our Web site interviews with some of the women who did tell us that they thought more U.S. troops would mean more civilian casualties and more recruits for the Taliban. And they said it very clearly. One of the women is a member of parliament. She comes from Wardak province, she’s a medical doctor, and she says that this is the best way to recruit the Taliban is to send more troops, that it’s time for another approach.
Horton: Hmm… Well, I appreciate that about you’re going ahead and stating that you were basically stuck in Kabul, you weren’t allowed to go around and see what it’s like on the other side. You know, it’s interesting the way you kind of gave it… especially in your first answer… "Well, we talked to people who said this and we talked to people who said that." And the way the Christian Science Monitor article is written is that these are all the reasons why you were convinced to change your mind to what they’re saying, when really it sort of sounds like you’re basically just reporting what you were told and then you have your own thing that you want to say that’s not necessarily – you know, [that is] separate from that in its own way. Right?
Benjamin: Well as in all discussions with people, it really depends on how you phrase the question. If you say to people, "Do you want 40,000 more troops, or would you like that money to go to economic development, healthcare, education?" They almost always said the latter. So people told us that war was not the answer. That after eight years of U.S. presence and billions of dollars being thrown into this conflict that the lives of people, especially those living outside of Kabul have virtually stayed the same, and that even women who know that the Taliban has had a very retrograde position in terms of women’s rights, even they told us that, look, the majority of Taliban are just poor villagers who don’t have another way to earn a living. We’ve got to reintegrate them into society, we’ve got to have peace talks and we’ve got to find ways other than through guns and bombs that we solve this conflict.
Horton: Well now there is a real problem here in a sense of, well, I’ll take another example from history, not too far in the past, but where, and this is the "catastrophe in waiting," the worst case scenario, is when the Belgians pulled out of Rwanda and left a minority group that they and propped up in power all along high and dry, and the majority came and got their revenge, and it was an absolute bloody mess, and of course everybody, especially the Right wing warmongers like to say that, you know, we can’t have a repeat of Vietnam where the people that we were there to help end up being left high and dry to be slaughtered by the bad guys and that kind of thing. But I guess my question is, whether anybody really thinks that at some point the people that we are supporting, whether outright militarily with bombings from the sky or with reconstruction money or however you phrase it; training up their troops or whatever. Aren’t we doing nothing but put off that same kind of situation? I mean ultimately whoever goes along with the Americans in Afghanistan is never going to be the majority of the country, right? Not even by a long shot.
Benjamin: There’s also the problem in that the Karzai government is very corrupt and has lost a lot of legitimacy. These last elections were horrendous and it’s also known that there are warlords who committed terrible crimes, including terrible crimes against women who are in the government. And Karzai brought back people like General Dostum so he could win some more votes. Somebody who’s responsible for the deaths of many, many people both in Northern Afghanistan as well as in Kabul. So this is a government that’s full of unsavory characters already. So yes: the U.S. pulls out and there could be tremendous chaos because of the lack of authentic support for this government. That’s why I feel we have to have a responsible exit strategy that includes pressure on this government to get rid of people who were responsible for crimes, to build up a justice system that can actually function. People say that in the Taliban areas there’s immediate, in quotes, swift "justice" but that there’s nothing, no justice done within the Karzai government because of tremendous corruption. I don’t know that Taliban justice is the kind of justice that we or the majority of the Afghan people want to see. But the point is that there is work to be done to support institutions within Afghanistan that could then function as a real country and not just the city of Kabul.
Horton: Well Medea, as you know, America has been adopting Taliban justice and destroying our own rule of law. And I wonder how well you think that this government can export a rule of law that we’ve abandoned to a country like Afghanistan. I mean if they get rid of Dostum and the heroin dealers and the worst of Karzai’s allies, maybe even Karzai, who’s to replace them with? I mean, it’s like, you know, the coup against Diem. Well now who’s going to be the puppet dictator of South Vietnam? You know?
Benjamin: Yeah, well that’s a good question. There are a lot of great people in Afghanistan and many of them working inside the government. The women that we’ve met who are members of parliament are really extraordinary. A number of them are medical doctors, they are professionals, they are putting their lives at risk just by being members of the parliament, both by targets that they might be from the Taliban as well as targets inside the government, inside the parliament itself where…
Horton: Right. But so the question is does it make any sense to prop up a bunch of western educated female doctors to be the rulers of this country when they have no indigenous support whatsoever? It’s like this is a fantasy being played out in a sociology class somewhere in an American college or something.
Benjamin: Well, you just assume that these were western educated and didn’t have support. One of the doctors we met is from Wardak province and she said that it was actually her villagers who forced her to run, that she wasn’t interested in running. She didn’t spend a penny on her campaign and she was elected by a great majority from her area because people really wanted her to get into government. So what I’m saying is there are some good people. But your questions are good questions. What do you have when you have an outside foreign force, i.e., the U.S. and NATO that has been propping up a government that’s full of people who have in the past and continue to commit crimes, live off of drug money? You don’t have a very pretty picture and that also means that a lot of the soldiers don’t have great reasons to fight.
Horton: Right. And of course fight is just a euphemism for killing people, which is what’s been going on there for eight years now. And of course Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are already doing their best to spread the war into Pakistan. So far they hired the prime minister there, Zadari, to start a civil war. They created three million refugees. When you talk about women’s rights, how about women with their little baby daughters in their arms being forced out of their homes by the millions, by America?
Benjamin: Well, I don’t think that war is the answer, that drones is the answer. Every time we drop a bomb we create more people who join the insurgency and want to attack us and it’s an endless vicious cycle and it’s got to end.
Horton: So we need occupation, but without soldiers.
Benjamin: Where are you getting that from?
Horton: Well, I mean I’m just trying to understand. Because you’re saying we need to build up their court system and we need to do all these things to have a proper exit… a responsible exit strategy rather than just leaving and letting them call their own shots, work out their own problems. And I just wonder how these things all go together. We’re supposed to occupy the country, but without killing anybody. And we’re supposed to have soldiers to protect women’s rights, but not to, whatever it is that they’re actually doing there, which of course has nothing to do with women’s rights in the first place. You follow me?
Benjamin: Yeah. I don’t think the soldiers are protecting women’s rights. We did hear a lot of people say that they fear the Taliban coming back in. We spoke to a lot of women who lived under the Taliban times who couldn’t go to school, who couldn’t do their jobs, were stuck inside their homes. And I think we have to recognize that. But on the other hand there is supposedly only about 5 or 10% of the Taliban that are ideologically motivated. So my point is that we have been shoring up the Taliban with their policies of occupation, that as part of an exit strategy has to be peace talks, that women are at the table, and they have to figure out how people who have joined the Taliban out of economic desperation and joined the Taliban out of revenge because their loved ones have been killed by foreign forces, how they can be brought back into their villages and live productive lives.
Horton: Um, okay. Well, I guess, you know, I’m for that. You know, I’m an individualist and a libertarian and I believe in natural rights for all people no matter where they are. It’s just a question of, you know, who’s going to do the guaranteeing of them. And it just sort of seems far-fetched to me. Especially at this point that somehow there’s going to be a proper nation building exercise. The very best bureaucrats in the Obama administration don’t care about those people as much as you do and wouldn’t know how to do things right. You know I talked with Jean McKenzie from GlobalPost.com. Great reporter. She’s been there for five years. And when I first talked to her she said, "Well we can’t just leave because all of our quislings will be slaughtered, you know? We can’t do it," and whatever. I talked to her a few weeks ago and she’s throwing up her hands. She says there’s nothing that can be done except withdraw and let these people work out their own problems. So I guess back to the original question. I mean do you really think it’s possible to use American government, military, or I guess you’re saying not military, I guess State Department power or something, to build up Afghan society and include the people who are now fighting on the side of the Taliban, include enough of them in the government that somehow this becomes some sort of pluralistic, federalistic type place where we can rest assured that a civil war isn’t going to break out when we leave or something like that. Is that basically what you’re saying?
Benjamin: I don’t think we can be ever sure of what’s going to happen in a place like Afghanistan because it’s such a complex culture. But I do think that we have thrown ourselves into this quagmire and we’ve got to extricate ourselves in a way that is as responsible as possible. And that part of that is trying to support those people within Afghanistan who want to see peace talks, who want to get the other nations in the region involved and who do feel that they need a police system, they need people inside their country that are going to somehow promote justice and communities, that they don’t want to be left in chaos. So I do think that there is something to be worked out in terms of an exit strategy. I don’t say the U.S. has to do these things or is in the position or really even has the moral authority to do it. There are other countries. For example, when we asked who should do the training of the Afghan military, many of the answers said they should be from countries like Turkey, that are Muslim countries that are closer to their culture and more acceptable to their people. So all I’m saying is, I think as part of an exit strategy these things have to be worked out.
Horton: And you think Hillary Clinton ought to be in charge of working that out? Or Holbrooke?
Benjamin: I don’t think Holbrooke has done anything that’s useful and he certainly didn’t have a good reputation among anybody that we talked to there.
Horton: As you would have expected, right? I mean there’s nothing surprising about that. Again, we’re getting back to the thing about Code Pink doesn’t get to run the occupation and make it right. We’re dealing with, we have a world run by Democrats. You know what I mean? That’s the best we have.
Benjamin: Yeah, and unfortunately they say one thing and do another. I mean you have constantly people saying, including General Petraeus, that there is no military solution, that so much of the problem in places like Afghanistan are economic problems. And we’ve contributed to those economic problems by increasing the violence and the destruction. And yet over 90% of the money that we spend there goes to the military.
Horton: And see, I guess this is why… I don’t really want to fight with you. It seems like you and I must already agree so much that it’s just got to be a communication breakdown here somewhere or something. I mean I’m not phrasing it right. Well, okay: Remember a few weeks ago when some locals stole a German fuel truck and the Germans called in an airstrike and the Americans blew up the fuel truck all over a bunch of civilians. A hundred or so who were lined up to get some fuel and burned them to death.
Horton: I wonder how many more of those before you say, "You know what? The U.S. government must get out of Afghanistan yesterday, that’s it. And whatever happens after this, at least it won’t be our government burning little kids to death."
Benjamin: Well I certainly say that the U.S. should stop the airstrikes and I think that the U.S. should be doing the opposite than what McChrystal says. He wants them to be out in the communities and the people that we talked to said that they aren’t able to protect Afghans, that they should be in their bases while this exit strategy and peace process is worked out. I think the only difference in what you’re saying and what I’m saying is that I did feel a palpable fear among many of the women that they don’t want the Taliban to take over again.
Horton: Yeah. Well, and see here’s the thing too though: The Taliban at this point, what does that even mean? You know what I mean? It was a very small number of people. A lot of them were killed years and years ago. It basically seems to be the NATO, U.S. government, U.S. media euphemism for anybody in Afghanistan who resists our occupation.
Benjamin: Well that’s why I think as part of the exit strategy is the peace process. And if there are 20,000 Taliban at the most, the vast majority of them are people who are not ideologically driven who want to go back to their villages, would probably much prefer to do something other than be shooting at people. And that if we gave them the opportunity for that by announcing that we were going to be leaving, that we were going to be helping to allow their community leaders to reincorporate them into society, then you would be basically taking away the strength of the Taliban.
Horton: Yeah. Well, I certainly think that’s true. We saw the same thing in Iraq where the occupation is a perpetual motion machine. In fact I was just reading a little something about American occupations in Central America, I think in, I forget if it was in Nicaragua. Way back in the day, you know, 80 years ago or something, where of course the longer they stayed the more the people resisted and that was the excuse for staying, and we can’t just leave with Nicaragua in such a mess and all these people fighting each other and whatever, when of course the occupation is the basis of in the first place. And I think, wasn’t Code Pink’s argument about Iraq not "We have to leave responsibly but we’ve got to get the hell out of there because staying there is irresponsible"?
Benjamin: Yeah, in the case of Iraq I think it was a little bit different. It was absolutely clear our troops should never been there beginning and you didn’t have a Taliban like government…
Horton: Yeah, but I mean Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri escaped eight years ago. They haven’t been in Afghanistan for eight years.
Benjamin: But you do have the Taliban in Afghanistan and you have…
Horton: Yeah, but what did the Taliban ever do?
Benjamin: Well the Taliban…
Horton: To us.
Horton: What did they ever do to the United States?
Benjamin: Well see, if your perspective is just from the United States. My perspective is also from what they did to the women of Afghanistan. But if your perspective is truly from the United States, what people say is that if we allow the Taliban to take over Afghanistan then that will be a safe haven for Al Qaeda.
Horton: Yeah, but that’s no different is it than the National Review saying, you know, Saddam Hussein was really bad to the people in Iraq. I think this is why all over Facebook today they’re saying, "Ha, ha, and again, for those tuning in late, she did say, it’s Medea Benjamin from Code Pink. She did say the Christian Science Monitor’s reporting was not altogether accurate here. But all over Facebook they’re saying, "Ha, ha, I guess she’ll have to apologize to Condoleezza Rice now. And "Ha, ha, I guess this proves that obviously that McChrystal is right. If Code Pink and McChrystal both agree that the occupation has got to be better in order to quell the violence, then by golly we know it’s right." Like when Bill Clinton and George Bush agree about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction.
Benjamin: Well I think it’s just full of distortions, because what we say is we want a responsible pulling out of U.S. troops and we certainly are against what McChrystal is calling for. We’re against sending in more troops, we’re against troops being visibly present in the villages because we think their presence is more of a threat to people there and puts them at risk. And we want our troops to pull out. We just want to do it in a way that is not going to lead to a Taliban takeover that will put women back inside the home.
Horton: Alright everybody, that’s Medea Benjamin from Code Pink. And I really appreciate your time on the show today.
Benjamin: Okay, thanks for having me on.
Transcript provided thanks to A.J. Processing.
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