Afghanistan

Encouraging pro-peace champions: meeting with Sen. Jeff Merkley

Rebecca Griffin, Peace Action West; Kelly Campbell, OR Physicians for Social Responsibility and 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows; Senator Jeff Merkley; Zaher Wahab, Lewis & Clark College; Rev. Mark Knutson, Augustana Lutheran Church

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.

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  1. Plan O for Out
    by Don Bacon

    The recently published “A New Way Forward” includes a complicated and time-consuming process involving the Afghan parliament, District councils, a national council and broadening the composition of the Afghan Army. The plan de-emphasizes Karzai’s conceived “peace jirga” in favor of an effort by tribal and village leaders. These are all efforts devised by Americans to be accomplished by Afghans at the local level, an approach which unacceptably undermines the Afghanistan central government.

    A new Afghanistan policy is certainly needed. The current NATO effort in Afghanistan, primarily military, has failed after nine years of effort and a tripling of foreign military and civilian personnel. Unarmed government employees can no longer travel safely in 30 percent of the country’s 368 districts, according to published United Nations estimates, and there are districts deemed too dangerous to visit in all but one of the country’s 34 provinces. US leaders agree that there will be no military solution in Afghanistan.

    Anatol Lieven: “Thus the desire to bring democracy, freedom, “good governance” and an improvement in the status of women to Afghanistan were laudable goals in themselves, but the result has been a ghastly masquerade, involving descriptions of the present Afghan government and political system not one of which corresponds to reality. Meanwhile the equally laudable desire to bring development to Afghanistan has ensnared us in calculations of “progress” which are virtually Soviet in their misrepresentation of the facts and the experience of ordinary Afghans.”

    The current US political strategy is ‘reconciliation and reintegration’ of the Taliban. Decoded, this amounts to little more than amnesty and surrender. It hasn’t been effective. A recent $250 million program to lure low-level Taliban fighters away from the insurgency has stalled, with Afghans bickering over who should run it, and international donors slow to put up the money they had promised. The flow of Taliban fighters seeking to reintegrate has slowed to a trickle — by the most optimistic estimates, a few hundred in the last six months.

    What is needed instead is a new US policy of genuine accommodation with the Taliban to include understanding and addressing their positions and grievances with the goal of forming a power-sharing Afghan government. Recent reports suggest that most Afghans, tired of the all-pervasive insecurity, want negotiations with the Taliban.

    Other factions would also have to be accommodated. Afghanistan’s three largest ethnic minorities oppose Karzai’s outreach to the Taliban, which they said could pave the way for the fundamentalist group’s return to power and reignite the civil war.

    There are signs that because of a lack of progress such a policy is currently under consideration in Washington. The Guardian has reported that “feelers had been put out to the Taliban. Negotiations would be conducted largely in secret, through a web of contacts, possibly involving Pakistan and Saudi Arabia or organisations with back-channel links to the Taliban.”

    British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, possibly the next British Prime Minister, has urged the Afghanistan government to consider bringing Taliban supporters into its political system. “Afghanistan will never achieve a sustainable peace unless many more Afghans are inside the political system, and the neighbors [nearby countries] are onside with the political settlement,” said Miliband,

    President Karzai has not needed urging to talk to the Taliban. Karzai hosted a June peace conference where he called insurgents “brothers” and “dear Talibs,” He asked the United Nations to remove Taliban leaders from the international sanctions black list and ordering the freeing of Taliban suspects from government custody. Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, told reporters in Washington on July 14 that the Obama administration has agreed only to delist Taliban and al-Qaeda on “case-by-case basis.”

    A recent report indicates that the US has already initiated talks with the Taliban. According to the Asia Times report, the Pakistan military and Saudi Arabia are acting as go-betweens to facilitate the negotiation process. The initial talks have covered two main areas – the issue of about 60 Pakistanis in the US’s Guantanamo detention facility, and al-Qaeda. Another element touched on in the talks is the American demand that it maintain a military presence in northern Afghanistan, while agreeing to give control of the south to the Taliban. The Taliban do not agree with this – they want a complete US withdrawal. This remains a point of major disagreement.

    The problem is that in the most recent Jirga, President Karzai informed the delegates at the outset; “There is no mention of a key Taliban demand that NATO troops leave Afghanistan,” when in fact that was one of the Taliban’s key demands. NATO is currently conducting a military offensive against the Taliban in Kandahar province.

    The NATO military presence must be removed for there to be any chance of peace in Afghanistan. The Taliban leadership’s one non-negotiable demand is the complete withdrawal of Western forces. They say that this must take place before they will negotiate any settlement with the government in Kabul, but there might be some room for compromise.

    The oft-repeated objection to any Taliban control in Afghanistan is that the Taliban would establish “safe havens” for al Qaeda. Paul Pillar, deputy CIA chief of the counterterrorist center under President Clinton: “The US and other Western governments say we are in Afghanistan in order to deny terror groups like Al Qaeda a safe haven from which to plan new attacks. But that is no longer a valid assumption. Terrorists don’t need a sanctuary to plan attacks from. We are investing enormously in an operation that is based on a flawed assumption. The reality is that the terror threat to the West would not significantly increase if we were to leave Afghanistan.”

    Would any concessions to the Taliban result in the Taliban taking total control of Afghanistan? Pillar again: “This is another assumption that is rarely questioned. But prior to the U.S. intervention in 2001, the Taliban did not have uncontested control of Afghanistan. They had the upper hand in a civil war against the Northern Alliance; they had the backing of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia while the Northern Alliance had the backing of Iran, Russia, and India. The U.S. essentially threw its weight behind the Northern Alliance to drive out the Taliban.”

    While the Taliban is integrated somehow into the Afghan government, which is a matter for the Afghans to decide, there needs to be support for the Afghan effort in the form of a regional effort toward diplomacy and peace. President Obama needs to implement his promise of a new strategy on March 27, 2009: “. . .together with the United Nations, we will forge a new Contact Group for Afghanistan and Pakistan that brings together all who should have a stake in the security of the region — our NATO allies and other partners, but also the Central Asian states, the Gulf nations and Iran; Russia, India and China.”

    The main issues concern Pakistan and India, including the dispute over Kashmir and Pakistan’s concern about a growing influence of India in Afghanistan, which should be limited. Pakistan should be included in a regional forum of ‘Friends of Afghanistan’ made up of Iran, Pakistan, India, China, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Russia: these countries would be asked to make pledges of non-interference and recognise Afghanistan as a non-aligned state with no foreign bases.

    Miliband again: “The political settlement needs to be external as well as internal, involving all of Afghanistan’s neighbours as well as those parts of the insurgency willing permanently to sever ties with al-Qaeda, give up their armed struggle and live within the Afghan constitutional framework.”

    Perhaps the US can succeed at reconciliation in Afghanistan although it has failed in Iraq. That was the main purpose of the surge, remember, but it didn’t happen. Now we’ve had another surge in Afghanistan but this time with a president (Karzai) who is actually in favor of reconciliation. We need to make it work. The alternative is more hundreds of billions of dollars and many lives wasted. Who wants to be the last to die for a lack of trying to end this nine-year war? President Obama has promised another reappraisal of Afghanistan war policy in December — it’s time.

    General Petraeus, Aug 25, 2010: “We sat down across the table in Iraq from individuals who had our blood on their hands. That’s what was done in northern Ireland. It’s what’s done in just about any insurgency as you get to the end stages of it.”

    The US needs to help negotiate a return of Afghanistan back to the Afghans.