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Rethinking Afghanistan

UK DFID in Afghanistan

Douglas Alexander (center), UK Secretary of State for International Development, and an interpreter visit a shopkeeper in Helmand province. The UK will contribute £255m in development support to the Afghan government over the next four years.

Photo by UK Department for International Development

We've all been watching carefully as the Obama administration tries to decide how to move forward on U.S. policy in Afghanistan. And we've been listening to the arguments and counter-arguments being offered. Religious leaders in particular have been paying close attention to both the political and moral arguments that fill the air.

Contrary to Dick Cheney's accusation that the administration is "dithering," many of us feel that a period of discernment is clearly called for in Afghanistan. We know what Cheney wants America to do—he never dithered, even when there were no facts to support his case for more war. Dick Cheney always wants to fight. But Cheney's foreign policy was an embarrassment for America, and a tragedy for the rest of the world. And not to follow his advice is always a good first step of moral wisdom.

But we need more than that. What we need is a whole new approach in Afghanistan. The argument in Washington, D.C. is far too narrow. Two points of view are contending inside the Obama team, and on Capitol Hill. One supports a robust strategy of counter-insurgency, requiring a substantial escalation of troops that would bring the total number of U.S. forces to as many as 100,000. The other prefers counter-terrorism, relying on the most sophisticated technology and Special Forces precision to focus on the most dangerous operatives who are the greatest threat to us.

Of course these are all old arguments. Counter-insurgency increases the massive American footprint in Afghanistan, which is clearly one of the primary causes of our failures in that country thus far. Add in a corrupt Afghan government, a radically decentralized society, and a physical terrain that has confounded every other occupier in history there; it doesn't make many of us hopeful, and painfully reminds us of a history that deeply formed us. The laser-like precision of our counter-terrorist missiles and unmanned drones may cost less in American lives and treasure, but they often don't just hit the bad guys. They have resulted in serious civilian casualties, even further alienating the populace and producing more angry young recruits for terrorism. And the solution that may be emerging in Washington could be a confused combination of the two strategies, bringing us the worst of both worlds.

We need a whole different approach.

We should know by now, and most of those on the ground in places like Afghanistan do, that what re-builds a broken nation; inspires confidence, trust, and hope among its people; and most effectively undermines terrorism is an old and proven idea—massive humanitarian assistance and sustainable economic development. And it costs less—far less—than continued war. Perhaps this was best put by Richard Stearns, the U.S. president of World Vision, at a recent meeting of President Obama's Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in Washington, D.C., when he said, "The best face of America for the world is a baseball hat and not a helmet."

Many of us have advised the president that the people who know places like Afghanistan the best are neither the military nor the private contractors who increasingly dominate U.S. foreign policy in war-torn regions. Rather they are the NGOs doing relief and development work who have been there for years, have become quite indigenous, and are much more trusted by the people of the country than are the U.S. military or their mercenary friends.

So here is the new approach. Lead with what works—development. Yes, effective development needs security, and when you massively intervene in a country as much as the U.S. has in Afghanistan, you can't responsibly just walk away—as has tragically happened to this country too many times before. But we should lead with development now, and only provide the security necessary to protect the strategic rebuilding of the country that is urgently needed—and that kind of security might better attract the international involvement we so desperately need in Afghanistan, even from Arab and Muslim countries.

And here is an idea of how to do that. Bring to the White House the international organizations who know Afghanistan well because they have been there so long—such as World Vision, Mercy Corps, Catholic Relief Services, Oxfam, Tearfund, Christian Aid, Church World Service, and many others. Ask them what U.S. policy would best work, and what kind of security they would need to really do the kind of development in Afghanistan that is most needed.

Let the non-military strategies lead the way, rather than the other way around, which often just makes aid and development work another weapon of war; but then provide the security needed for that work, and make it as international as possible. Also bring in some of the religious and other nonprofit leaders from the Obama Advisory Council and others, to focus on the deeply ethical and moral issues that are at stake in our decisions about future policy in Afghanistan—legitimately protecting Americans from further terrorism, defending women from the Taliban, developing a diplomatic surge, genuinely supporting democracy, and saving innocent lives from the collateral damage of war—to name a few.

The conversation is much too narrow right now on Pennsylvania Avenue and at the U. S. Congress. It's time for a deeper look and a whole new approach. Stupid people might call that dithering; smart people would call it discernment.


Jim WallisJim Wallis is the author of The Great Awakening, Editor-in-Chief of Sojourners, and blogs at www.godspolitics.com.

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