President Obama is reviewing the way forward in Afghanistan. His decision will define his presidency much as Vietnam defined the legacy of President Johnson’s presidency in the 1960s.
At a time when so much opportunity and necessity for change is at stake from health care reform to climate change legislation, education and nuclear weapons policy and the economy, the war and its costs will trump all.
The president would be well served to reflect on the words of Iraq veteran, Marine Corps Capt. and Afghanistan Foreign Service officer Matthew Hoh. As the senior US civilian in Zabul province, he became the first US official known to resign in protest over the Afghan war. On September 10, in a letter to his department head he wrote:
“I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States’ presence in Afghanistan. I have doubts and reservations about our current strategy and planned future strategy, but my resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war, but why and to what end.”
His frustration and realization that the war effort itself fuels the insurgency and continues the cycle of violence speaks to the truth that there is no military solution in Afghanistan. There is only a political and diplomatic solution.
Dropping bombs and killing civilians angers whole populations and creates ill will. Respected international mediator John Paul Lederach has said that bombing to vanquish the al-Qaeda network is like hitting a mature dandelion with a golf club. It just ensures another generation of al-Qaeda.
There are many examples of alternatives to war that are far less costly and yield far greater results. Among these are:
1) Diplomacy and nonviolent conflict resolution.
This includes efforts like the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission that resulted in the peaceful end to apartheid in South Africa. In Afghanistan, there exists Loya Jirgas or grand councils where tribal leaders come together and political issues are debated and resolved. On October 22, 2009, a peace Jirga was launched by governors of three eastern provinces of Afghanistan to step up peace, reconciliation and development efforts in their areas. The governors also approved an eight-point draft strategy of the Jirga. The Jirga will initially have more than 300 tribal leaders as members from four provinces of the eastern region.
2) Appropriate foreign aid.
Among the best examples of this is the building of schools for girls done by Greg Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute. Author of “Three Cups of Tea,” his “books not bombs” approach has now built 39 schools in Afghanistan and 92 in Pakistan, in Taliban areas with the strong support of the local communities. Countries where girls are educated move beyond the cycle of poverty and violence for a fraction of the cost of war.
3) Respect of and adherence to international law.
The United States should endorse the International Criminal Court that tries individuals for international crimes. Bosnian Serb wartime President Karadzic is currently on trial there for war crimes. Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda leaders could be tried there.
4) Cooperate and collaborate with other nations.
The US must work to strengthen UN peacekeeping forces to provide the security necessary for the previously mentioned steps to be successful. This international effort must include all of the regional players who have a stake, so as not to be viewed as a solution imposed from the West. Without the safeguarding of local populations in their work of self-determination and reconciliation, there will never be peace.
Now is indeed the time to rethink Afghanistan. The decisions made will indeed determine our future. A new documentary “Rethink Afghanistan,” by Brave New Foundation, can be viewed at http://rethinkafghanistan.com. This film is mandatory viewing for anyone concerned about this decision. Our collective voices must be heard to help the president in the way forward.
Robert Dodge is a family physician practicing in Ventura County, California. He is co-chairman of Citizens for Peaceful Resolutions (www.c-p-r.net), a board member and nuclear ambassador of Physicians for Social Responsibility Los Angeles (www.PSRLA.org), a board member of Beyond War (www.beyondwar.org) and team leader for their Nuclear Weapons Abolition Team.