Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Why Not a Peace Surge?

Greg Mortenson is a one-man peace wave. While heavily armed soldiers and insurgents clashed and bombs burst across Afghanistan and Pakistan throughout most of the past decade, Mortenson repeatedly trekked into the disputed region—without a rifle or artillery barrages and bombing runs to clear a path—and helped villagers in dozens of communities build schools. Imagine providing many more such peacemakers, instead of another surge of military action churning up fiercely proud people who have been fighting foreign armies for generations.

“We've started schools this year in five new provinces … which have a lot of Taliban. And the reason we're able to work with them is because we work so closely with the elders,” Mortenson said recently on Bill Moyers Journal. “Many of the elders I know are really angry at the Americans,” Mortenson told the Christian Science Monitor last fall. “It has less to do with our presence and more to do with the huge outcries caused by drones and bombers attacking suspected Taliban hangouts but killing a lot of innocent people.”

A peace-making U.S. Army veteran, Mortenson is the author of Three Cups of Tea, his inspiring account of a people-to-people project that builds schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan funded by Pennies for Peace fund-raisers by American students and community groups. His latest book is Stones into Schools: Peace with Books, not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which has attracted substantial news media coverage.

Mortenson’s advice for President Obama is to listen to the concerns of Afghan villagers, which center on surviving the violence of seemingly endless war and educating their children. “It would do more good than spending another $1 billion on combat operations or foreign aid,” he told the Christian Science Monitor.

Asked by Bill Moyers how many schools could be built with $1 million—the cost of keeping one American soldier in Afghanistan for a year—Mortenson said his grassroots campaign, which involves local villagers doing much of the work, could build 30 to 40 schools with that amount of money. Imagine how many schools could be built with the billions budgeted for Obama’s 30,000-troop surge, Moyers implied.

In a telling example reported by the Christian Science Monitor, Mortenson’s actions of providing school books instead of bombs resulted in a ceasefire in hostilities between Afghan villagers and U.S. military patrols near the Pakistan border. Lt. Col. Christopher Kolenda lauded Mortenson’s campaign. “Elders understand, better than anyone, what has happened to their society as too many young men and women have grown up without schools over the last 30 years,” said Kolenda, who sought out Mortenson to build a school in a village where residents retaliated against any incursions by foreign troops, except when the Americans trucked in school supplies. “I truly believe that education is the long-term solution to terrorism and violent extremism,” the colonel said.

Top American military officers say they are studying Mortenson’s approach and changing their tactics as a result. But U.S. peace activists contend that the military forces scouring Afghanistan and bombing suspected terrorists in Pakistan stir up the anger that fuels support for the Taliban insurgency that hides the elusive leaders of al Qaida.

“The Obama administration needs to replace its military campaigns with diplomacy in and around Afghanistan,” argue the authors of a new book, Ending the US War in Afghanistan. The book is written by David Wildman, of the General Board of Global Ministries, United Methodist Church, and Phyllis Bennis, of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC.

Bennis and Wildman call for ending combat operations in Afghanistan and drone attacks in Pakistan, withdrawing U.S. troops and shifting funding from the Pentagon to the State Department for aiding education, police training, health services and other aspects of civilian society in Afghanistan. Convincing our government to make such a shift will require a sustained public education campaign. Bennis and Wildman cite the work of the Cities for Peace campaign to end the war in Iraq as a model for Afghanistan.

“Campaigns that organize around the costs of war at the local, congressional district, or state level have two major strengths,” they contend. “First, engaging with citizens at the local level encourages more people to engage directly in civic activism … Second, they provide an immediate link to the costs of war at a scale and in language that everyone can understand.”

Calls for winding down the war in Afghanistan have been made by military experts. “There is no battlefield solution to terrorism," The RAND Corporation, a top Pentagon research contractor, concluded in 2008 in a study of military campaigns against insurgency groups around the world since 1968. “In looking at how other terrorist groups have ended, the RAND study found that most terrorist groups end either because they join the political process, or because local police and intelligence efforts arrest or kill key members. Police and intelligence agencies, rather than the military, should be the tip of the spear against al Qaida in most of the world, and the United States should abandon the use of the phrase ‘war on terrorism,’” the report to the Pentagon stated.

A big problem with the military surge is that years of combat operations in Afghanistan have soured local villagers on America’s promises to help their society. “You're saying that people in Afghanistan find it confusing to have Americans coming off the same fortified base and some of them bring guns and are killing people and others bring money and are trying to fix things,” Steve Inskeep on NPR’s Morning Edition said recently to the head of the Kabul office of the U.S. Institute of Peace, John Dempsey. “Well, exactly,” said Dempsey, who had noted that American provincial reconstruction teams work out of military bases. “And some Afghans, I think, are questioning whether or not the whole PRT concept is actually worthwhile. And some look at them with skepticism, saying having the military involved in development work is blurring the line between fighting a war and trying to reconstruct a country,” Dempsey said.

It’s high time for a peace surge in Afghanistan, argues Sherwood Ross, a veteran journalist and blogger. “The U.S. would be far better off if instead of pouring tens of thousands of troops into Afghanistan it sent in a like number of unarmed Peace Corps volunteers with a comparable budget,” Ross wrote in a recent post on LA Progressive.

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