Friday, December 18, 2009

End the Occupation of Afghanistan: Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s Position

End the Occupation in Afghanistan

End the Occupation of Afghanistan:
Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s Position
by Chris Wilson, Board of Directors

The President’s disappointing decision to send more troops to Afghanistan leaves Buddhists with a choice. Buddhists can bemoan this mistake among themselves, or they can seize this opportunity to awaken the American people to the futility of war, using Afghanistan as a perfect teaching case.

The President’s tentative promise to bring our troops home in two years was probably enough to assuage public misgivings about this war, at least for now. Over those same two years, Buddhists must take a leading role in arguing for an earlier end to the occupation of Afghanistan.

American Buddhists must find a way to talk to non-Buddhists about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq without first having to convince them to become Buddhists. In what follows, we provide talking points against the war in Afghanistan that deserve serious consideration by everyone, Buddhist or not, pacifist or not.

In declaring that war is obsolete, the Dalai Lama gave us a powerful way of arguing against war in general. He was not claiming that ignorance, anger, and greed no longer cause human conflict. Instead, he was making a non-religious, evidence-based claim that war simply isn’t “winnable” any more -- at least not in the previous, popular understanding of “winning”. (From a Buddhist perspective, no one has ever “won” a war.)

It is simply a fact that, despite having the most powerful military force in the world, the United States has not “won” a major war outright since World War II. During the same period, many national liberation struggles were won against colonial powers either nonviolently or against overwhelming military superiority. Segregation in the U.S., South African apartheid, and even the British and Soviet empires, ended without a final military showdown. (Jonathan Schell of The Nation magazine made these points in his important 2003 book, “The Unconquerable World”.)

The reasons for this shift are profound and consistent with Buddhism – people have a limited tolerance for the suffering of war if they see its sights and sounds daily. Given the instant access that global communications now give us to the worst atrocities of war, it is hard to imagine that the U.S. public could have supported the prolonged occupation that U.S. commanders were demanding. Similarly, it is hard to imagine that the larger Muslim world can view the same images without more of them coming to regard the U.S. as the archenemy of Islam.

More specifically, here are some compelling reasons the war in Afghanistan is not “winnable”, even though the strategy advocated by U.S. commanders is explicitly based on winning the “hearts and minds” of the Afghan people. Consider the following:

1. Most Afghans (and most Americans) believe that the Karzai administration is illegitimate, corrupt, and incompetent – hardly the foundation for turning things around.

2. Apart from a few cronies, Karzai is despised by his own Pashtun ethnic group. The Pashtun are the group whose hearts and minds we most need to win, yet they regard Karzai as a pawn of the U.S. This contempt is based on his passive acceptance of the powerful national security roles the U.S. has given to their minority ethnic rivals, the Tajiks and the Uzbeks.

3. It does not help that Karzai was once a paid consultant in favor of building a pipeline for Caspian oil through his country. Many Afghans suspect this is one motive for the occupation, and believe that Karzai was promoted by the U.S. partly for this reason. What matters in war is what people believe, not whether something is conclusively proven. We doubt the U.S. can convince Afghans the pipeline is not something U.S. wants, even if it is not a primary motive.

4. In terms of winning hearts and minds, we may already have lost the war by our reckless and indiscriminate use of air power. We don’t have to blow up many Pashtun wedding parties or other innocent clan gatherings to push the survivors into the enemy camp. The use of drones and remote missiles by the U.S. will not end for a simple reason that everyone in the world understands: it is preferable to the U.S. to make such mistakes than risk American lives on the ground. From a U.S.-centric perspective, this makes perfect sense; from a Muslim perspective this looks like a devaluation of Muslim life by a great power with an acknowledged history of racism.

5. As for winning over hearts and minds through our pledge of democracy for Afghanistan, Americans are particularly prone to self-delusion. The American archetype of democracy involves the replacement of a dictatorial national regime by an elected representative government. As so many have pointed out, you can’t make such a transition if you don’t have a nation in the first place. Afghanistan, though a former kingdom, has never been a real nation. It is more a collection of clan-ruled mountain valleys and plains that have enjoyed local rule under various national regimes. The idea that Afghans want to yield local control to a national government dominated by the U.S. (as it was in the past by Britain and the Soviet Union) is based on the delusion that the Afghans see us as the benevolent and unselfish country we believe ourselves to be.

6. More tellingly from a Buddhist perspective, we should not assume that Afghans are different from ourselves. It is ignorance to believe that Afghans will tolerate the military occupation of their land by foreigners any more than we would.

7. Finally, in terms of winning the hearts and minds of the 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, the longer the U.S. occupies Muslim lands and takes innocent Muslim lives, the greater the chance that the U.S. is creating a hundred-year conflict that will severely compromise its own future. The logic for the occupation of Afghanistan implies that we may also have to occupy Pakistan, Somalia, and Sudan, not to mention Iran.

These are only the inherent contradictions in the “hearts and minds” anti-insurgency strategy promoted by our military commanders. To these must be added the well-known practical considerations created by Afghanistan’s mountainous and land-locked terrain. Resupplying occupation forces is significantly more expensive than in Iraq, with some leaked estimates of at least one million dollars per soldier per year. The same rugged terrain, as we all know, has been the graveyard of occupying forces throughout history.

Perhaps as important as the preceding arguments is the effect that a prolonged occupation will have on the U.S. itself. As with Vietnam, the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq will have the unintended blowback effect of brutalizing our own society. The alarming suicide and violent crime rates among returning veterans are just one aspect of this brutalization. There can be little doubt that prejudice against Muslims in the armed services played some role in the recent killings at Ft. Hood. In the weeks leading up to the President’s decision, conservative commentators were increasingly arguing that Islam is an inherently violent religion. Such a polarization of attitudes is a clear warning that our own society will become severely divided if the occupations continue.

It is at this point that the person we are trying to convince will ask, “OK, then what do you propose we do about Afghanistan?” Here, we would offer the alternative non-military strategy of creating peace villages. The Peace Villages strategy calls for local autonomy in finding a path to peace.
Conditions in Afghanistan may not yet permit the accompaniment and investment tactics that have made this strategy start to work in Colombia’s civil war. Given the prevailing tradition of local rule in both rural Colombia and Afghanistan, we believe that this nonviolent strategy has a better chance over a ten-year period than military occupation. In any case, it has the virtue of honoring local people and their traditions, rather than imposing an unwanted nationhood at the point of a gun.

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