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Human Dignity: A Casualty of War

(Photo: The U.S. Army / Flickr)

The United States has waged war in Afghanistan for more than a decade, at a cost of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars, with little progress toward peace. The Strategic Partnership Agreement that the U.S. and Afghanistan signed in May is unlikely to lead to positive outcomes. By design, the agreement will pit an internationally-backed Afghan National Security Force against an Afghan-born insurgency that has historically risen to resist foreign intervention.

This agreement will undermine efforts toward a long-term partnership that might otherwise help solve the underlying conflicts in the country and region. I also fear it will lead the U.S. to abandon Afghanistan as U.S. political will to support billions in spending fades in coming years. Afghans are the only ones who can solve their political problems, but the U.S. should not turn its back on viable Afghan-led processes to bring stability to the country.

The best U.S. path in Afghanistan is far from clear. Even if the U.S. were to support military de-escalation and political reconciliation, it would not guarantee that a decade’s worth of conflicts would end peacefully. Those of us working for peace must continue to help a stable and prosperous Afghanistan emerge from the suffering of war.

In this effort to build a better world, it can be challenging to maintain our resolve and moral bearing. In my experience, Friends and principled people everywhere struggle with this same challenge.

I’m familiar with this struggle. As a bright-eyed nineteen-year-old soldier in Iraq in 2004, I was faced with a crisis of conscience. I thought I was going to Iraq to help free Iraqis, but instead I was a part of a mission to put them in a different kind of prison.

I served as an intelligence analyst in a RISTA (Recognizance, Intelligence, Surveillance and Target Acquisition) unit. Under the auspices of freedom and democracy, we detained Iraqi civilians almost indiscriminately. Many of the people we detained had nothing to do with the roadside bombs set against our convoys or the growing al Qaeda networks in the country. The vast majority were innocent civilians. Many even supported the U.S. presence, or at least tolerated it. Unintentionally, we helped radicalize those sitting on the fence.

We began with the assumption that everyone we detained was guilty. For hours, sometimes days, we interrogated people, declaring them “innocent” only if we deemed they were not “of intelligence value.” This was my experience, but as evidenced by abuse of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison and others, many Iraqis were mistreated.

One cannot treat other human beings this way unless one has first denied their humanity. We couldn’t see these prisoners as uncles, fathers or mentors. Rather, we came up with a slew of derogatory names for the Iraqis. We treated them as less than people, losing our humanity as we robbed them of their own.

My own disillusionment with the war led me to FCNL, where I’ve worked since graduating from Wilmington College in 2009. In recent years, my efforts have focused on ending the U.S. war in Afghanistan. This journey has taken me from the halls of Congress to towns and cities across the country and even last summer to Afghanistan.

In one meeting in Kabul, a U.S. delegate asked a former Taliban commander, “Why do the Taliban fight?” He answered, “Because our dignity has been taken,” because he and others felt they were being told their culture was “wrong.” I didn’t agree with this man on many things, but I found the heart of his grievance to be legitimate.

War encourages dehumanization and breeds atrocity. This, in part, is what makes the current evolution of warfare so terrifying. As technology allows the U.S. to automate its conflicts, full-scale ground wars are being replaced by attacks from smaller secret forces and unmanned systems such as drones. This strategy may cost less in dollars, but it has a greater cost in morality.

Already, drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere have increased significantly. Since taking office, President Obama has authorized 329 drone strikes in Pakistan, compared to just 12 by President Bush in his second term.

According to the New America Foundation, U.S. drone strikes have killed some 2,365 “militants” in Pakistan alone since 2004. The administration considers all males of fighting age killed by drones to be “militants.” How many of those killed were young men in the wrong place at the wrong time?

This definition reminds me of the terrified faces of the many Iraqi boys we detained. Pundits have speculated that President Obama personally signs off on the so-called “kill list” in order to inject some kind of moral authority. The highest moral authority would be to end all drone strikes.

Ironically, U.S. efforts to prevent “extreme” points of view from forming — ones that show little regard for human life — themselves show little regard for that life. Creating a more peaceful world requires prioritizing community-led development projects and education efforts. It requires showing compassion and investing in people, not killing them.

The U.S. should re-evaluate the way it engages the world, starting with an end to the war in Afghanistan. After all, we are more alike than different. According to the Human Genome Project, humans are 99.3 percent identical. Let’s start seeing our similarities more than our differences.

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