Responses on Afghanistan

I’m back home after nearly three weeks away. Thanks to everyone who so warmly welcomed Grace and me, and thanks to all who opened their minds and hearts to the message and challenges we shared in Australia and New Zealand.
After the jump – three thoughtful replies to my post on Afghanistan.

This response asks if I got a reply … no, not yet, but I’m a pretty tiny minnow in a really big pond, so I wasn’t expecting one.
I’ve removed or changed details in the following emails that would compromise anonymity, as I always try to do …

I just read your letter to President Obama about Afganistan. Thank you! It was/is a wonderful letter! I was wondering if you got a reply? I too
worked for Obama’s election though I know in many respects his hands are
tied unless he really has conviction to do what he knows is right….
… I spent [time at a federal prison … a few years ago] because of a non-violent action of civil disobedience. What I learned … in prison has convinced me that government institutions, policies and decisions reflect corporate profit margins and protect corporations. Who ever said America is “Of Wall Street, by Wall Street, for
Wall Street.” could not have been more correct. President Obama was “allowed” to run because he would not upset the apple cart too much, unlike Nader or Kuchinch.
I hope I don’t come off as a total pessimist. I’m not. I have seen people
rise up and work for change. I have this idea that the Hope poster which
has Obama’s picture on it should really have each American’s picture on it
because we are the hope for this country. Each person represents hope for
the world community not just our country. We abdicate our power when we
think hope and/or responsibility for change resides in only one person’s
hands. Each of us has a voice and I have seen what can happen when one
person finds the courage to speak up. Now mulitply that by 200 or by
200,000 or by 1,000,000 and gosh, now you got POWER. It is possible…this
rising up from the grass roots…for I believe by each act of speaking out,
each act of loving kindness, each act of outrageous courage fills a bucket
drip by drip and then, SPLASH the bucket spills over and then nothing can
contain what spills over….no military might, no government proclaimation,
nothing…because change happens when the buckets full, or when that
hundredth monkey tips the scales.
Anyhow, I just wanted to say thank you for trying. Thanks for adding your
voice in a public way. We all need to hear what you said. It is
encouragement for everyone to find their voice and claim their power.

The comments about government being the puppet of Wall Street corporations are, of course, deeply concerning. If they aren’t completely true, they’re dangerously close to being true, which puts all the more emphasis on the “people power” and “soul power” to which the writer points.
It’s not only corporate power which corrupts and paralyzes the system; it’s also the political system itself. I spoke with a high-level government official recently who said to me, “The modern democratic nation-state is no longer able to deal with the global problems we face, because short-term re-election concerns trump long-term global crises,” referring to the kinds of issues I addressed in EMC (which he had read). It was a chilling statement from a person so deep inside global affairs, and I’m still pondering it.
This next note raises a caution …

… I’m having a hard time deciding what I think we should do in Afghanistan; I think I’m most comfortable with a retreat to the cities, where we could help the Afghan government maintain a refuge for people who want to live in contact with the rest of world, and have their human rights respected. But I’m think there’s something you’re missing in your letter- there’s no way that we can spend billions of dollars building schools and other infrastructure in Afghanistan if there’s no security. Who’s going to take U.S. money for a building project, if there’s a good chance the Taliban will come and blow up what you’ve built and kill you too?
I completely agree that it makes much more sense to be spending money on schools and on public health infrastructure than on occupation, but I think we have to spend the money in places where there are organizations (government or not) that can make good use of the money. So if we really want to replace spending on occupation with money for building people up, it’s going to involve leaving Afghanistan to its own devices, and being willing to see the take-over of the Taliban as the price the Afghan people will pay for the improvement of other people’s lives. I’m not saying that’s not the right choice, just that we should be open-eyed about how bad the choices are.

Great points. On security – that would have to be one of the earliest milestones in a plan like the one I proposed: aid goes only to areas where basic security is achieved and maintained. I’m sure lessons have been learned in Iraq how to provide training and support for national security, but I’m also sure that it would be messy and chaotic – two steps forward, and hopefully only one back. But by supporting Afghans in achieving their own security (rather than seeking to achieve it for them), I think we help them pursue their own struggle, and by having a large supply of aid waiting for them whenever they make that progress, we give them confidence that the struggle will have some payoff, something they may not have without outside help.
On the Taliban, I think it’s important to remember a) that the Taliban are not the same as Al Queda, and b) that one of their main motivators and unifiers is expelling foreign occupiers. Our long-term presence – and especially our escalation – may energize them more than our withdrawal. I have great respect for anything written by David Cortright, and especially his Afghanistan analysis – which you can read here. Here’s how he concludes his article:

The alternative to prolonged counterinsurgency war is the pursuit of dialogue to achieve negotiated political solutions. This is the approach recommended in the Carnegie Endowment report. It would reverse the logic of current U.S. strategy, using the presence of U.S. and NATO troops not in the pursuit of military victory but as a bargaining chip to induce political agreement and conciliation. In exchange for cooperation in isolating al-Qaeda, U.S. forces would end combat operations against the Taliban and begin a gradual military disengagement. This would undercut extremist propaganda and neutralize appeals for jihad against foreign invaders. Under this scenario the mission of remaining foreign troops would focus more on civilian protection and the training of local security forces. Some military and special forces operations could continue, but these would be narrowly targeted against al-Qaeda.
Demilitarizing U.S. strategy would not mean abandoning the people of Afghanistan. The reduction of military operations should be linked to a greatly increased commitment to development assistance and democracy-building programs for local groups willing to uphold human rights principles.
In March the Obama administration announced a civilian surge for the region, but the resources devoted to these efforts have been inadequate, dwarfed by the enormous expenditures for war. The U.S. and its allies should greatly expand their level of assistance for locally-managed civilian assistance programs that advance social development, education and human rights. These efforts, combined with political reconciliation strategies, are likely to be more effective over the long run in stabilizing the region and reducing insurgency and terrorism.

This seems to me like the most balanced and sensible approach in a terribly ugly situation that defies any easy answers.
One other reply came in person, not by email. A friend said something like this:
“I”m afraid the Obama administration has to escalate for political reasons. Otherwise Republicans will accuse them of being weak and passive and will use that narrative to sweep back into power in 2010.” Today I saw William Bennett on a talk show, and this was exactly the message he was conveying. It seems to me that there are many, especially in the Republican Party, who want to continue the global American empire era and keep the Pax Americana strong via military dominance. Their pressure then spreads to Democrats as well. I hope more and more of us – recalling the thoughts about “people power” above – will shift our hopes and efforts toward a peace created by global collaboration for justice instead of unilateral policing by Americans for American advantage. That is my prayer today.