Over the past few months, we have seen the impact that congressional pressure is having on the Afghanistan debate (thanks, of course, to grassroots pressure on those members of Congress). As public opposition continues to grow, as does the cost of the war, we need to build a louder drumbeat in Congress for a new approach. This means finding champions who will take proactive leadership in Congress beyond just voting the right way when the rare vote comes up. With that in mind, I joined a group of leaders from Portland to meet with Senator Jeff Merkley to encourage him to take a more active role in opposing the war in Afghanistan.
Senator Merkley has made some encouraging statements questioning the flawed assumptions that drive the current strategy in Afghanistan, and his concerns were reinforced by a trip he took to the country in February of this year. We started off the meeting by thanking him for his leadership in cosponsoring the Feingold amendment that would have required the president to set a timeline for withdrawal in Afghanistan, and for his powerful piece refuting the irrational and offensive arguments against building an Islamic community center a few blocks from Ground Zero in New York City.
The first to speak in the meeting was Zaher Wahab, an Afghan-American professor at Lewis and Clark college who has traveled back to his home country every year since the war began to help in the rebuilding of his country, and has served as an adviser to the Afghan Minister of Higher Education. He now trains Afghans to be teachers as part of efforts to build a flourishing educational system. He told Senator Merkley that the Afghans he meets on his trips are sick and tired of war after more than 30 years. He told the senator and his staff that he could build eight good schools in Afghanistan for the $1 million we pay per year for each soldier on the ground. He emphasized the need to focus on education, agriculture and development instead of massive military occupation. With his ability to speak both Dari and Pashto, Zaher is an invaluable resource about what is happening on the ground in Afghanistan and an eloquent spokesperson for a new approach. (You can hear an interview with Zaher and his brother here, and read a profile of him and his work here.)
Kelly Campbell, Executive Director of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility and member of 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows told Senator Merkley how after her brother-in-law was killed in the Pentagon on 9/11, her family made an effort to speak out against war in Afghanistan to prevent more victims from sharing their suffering. She traveled to Afghanistan in January of 2002 to bear witness to the impact of war on civilians in Afghanistan and has been a passionate advocate for ending the war since then. She also spoke to the health effects of the war in Afghanistan on people there as well as returning veterans in Oregon.
Rev. Mark Knutson reminded Senator Merkley that faith leaders throughout Oregon opposed both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He encouraged Senator Merkley to be a strong advocate for a nonmilitary solution that meets our moral obligation to the people of Afghanistan, and let him know that faith leaders will support him in that pursuit.
It is encouraging to have a senator who is willing to listen to such important arguments against the war in Afghanistan and to raise questions about the direction of our Afghanistan policy. Now it is up to us to continue to build a movement of Oregonians who will give Sen. Merkley the encouragement and support to be the vocal champion of a new nonmilitary approach that we need in the US Senate.