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Afghanistan: What Would a Real Policy Look Like?

At a Washington meeting some years back

At a Washington meeting some years back, Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia said to a group of us who had come to discuss Mideast policy, “All foreign policy is domestic politics.” The recently announced “surge” of 30,000 additional troops for Afghanistan was designed to placate political pressures on the president, which, even if it were possible, is not the right way to formulate a policy. What would be?

Shortly after 9/11, we got a letter from a friend of ours who was in western Pakistan helping Greg Mortenson, of “Three Cups of Tea” fame, to build schools. People from the village streamed in to express their condolences, and the local mullah came hastily back from a long trip to assure my friend that “This is not Islam.” I remember commenting during a lecture shortly thereafter that the people in that part of the world seem to resemble human beings: if you build schools for them, they like and respect you; if you bomb their schools and homes with drone rockets … well, you take it from there.

I have friends who advocate pulling our combat forces out of the region, period; but while I completely understand their feelings, there seem to me to be two things against that policy. It would send a message that the United States is capable of doing great harm but not capable of doing good, which is not true. Second, if we go about it in the right way we can help repair the damage we’ve been partly responsible for causing and help that country find its way to a stable solution, and if we can, we should. I am not arguing from guilt here: I follow the moral reasoning laid out by Roger Fisher of the Harvard Negotiation Project some years ago (and many others down the years, of course), that the obligation to help others arises not from any prior harm we may have done them but simply because we have the capacity to do so. We are human beings, after all – do we need special reasons to help others when we have the capacity to do so?

What can we as a nation do, then, to help Afghanistan instead of following this mad policy of throwing gasoline on the fire? Fortunately, there are many ways – as long as we know where to look. There are methods that have worked around the world, though the mainstream media are remarkably slow to notice them and hence they remain off the margins of public awareness, including the awareness, to all appearances, of policymakers. The mechanisms I’m about to list (and I’m sure there are others) assume that we completely halt aggressive military action in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and start a steady build-down of military forces there. Ideally, we would phase military forces out as we phase the following non-military alternatives in that render them unnecessary. And there are two ground rules, both gained by much practical experience in non-military intervention over the last thirty or so years: 1) Don’t go it alone. This is not America’s problem, it’s the world’s problem, and the world’s people must be involved in solving it. Virtually all the successful intervention teams of the type I’m about to mention have been multinational. 2) Don’t do it uninvited. The term “peace imperialism” has been coined in the field of peace studies for the idea that we can parachute in and bring peace somewhere without local invitation and cooperation. Afghanistan today is not a unified country. If the Karzai government is unwilling to issue an invitation to civil-society groups to come and help them, elements within Afghan society would most certainly do so. Here, then, is the scheme:

  • Rebuild Afghanistan through micro-lending. It’s much harder for corrupt warlords, or politicians, to make off with small, dispersed loans than highly concentrated, government-to-government ones. As Rebecca Griffin of Peace Action West has recently put it, “Right now in Afghanistan, military officers walk around with pocket money to throw at poorly developed aid projects because we don’t have enough trained civilians to do the work. Contractors are pocketing millions of dollars through fraud and waste. It’s time to stop paying lip service to development while bombing communities.” Micro-lending is working very well all over the world.
  • Offer two kinds of peace-building services: 1) The intervention of trained nonviolent civilian teams such as are in the field today in Sri Lanka, Mindanao, Colombia, Southern Sudan and a dozen or so other places thanks to organizations like the Nonviolent Peaceforce, Peace Brigades International, the German Civilian Peace Service (Zivile Friedensdienst). 2) Mediation groups, again civil society, like Johan Galtung’s TRANSCEND or the Washington-based Search for Common Ground. Like everything else I will be listing here, these organizations have inspiring track records of success.
  • Offer to send teachers, agricultural experts, carpenters, medical personnel and whatever Afghanis say they need. There are thousands of volunteers ready to go in all of these fields: only make sure they get some training in cultural sensitivity, and make sure they understand that they are going where no one can guarantee their safety. By and large, aid workers are much safer than soldiers, but in these violent times they are not completely safe and it will be crucial that the volunteers understand this.

Who will pay for all this? We will. A soldier costs a million dollars a year; a highly trained field team member from Nonviolent Peaceforce costs $50,000. (Not to mention that the unarmed civilian type of intervention actually works).

Advocates of force often throw up their hands and say, “We have no choice.” But we always have a choice. If we paid poor farmers in Colombia so that they did not have to grow Coca to survive, they doubtless would – but instead we pay twenty times more to eradicate their crops (and cause much additional damage). The cost for each year that we maintain one soldier in Afghanistan is twenty times greater than the cost of building a school. And, as mentioned, twenty times greater than the cost of a trained civilian unarmed peacekeeper.

Why are we still paying for death?

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