Letter from the Road #41

Path of the Friend

Elizabeth Rabia Roberts


Does the U.S. Military belong in Afghanistan?

Recently I traveled to Kabul with a small peace delegation because I wanted to experience for myself what is happening there and what the people say they want and need from my country.   I have spent 40 years protesting war and working for peace in conflict areas and I assumed I would return from Afghanistan to speak out for the withdrawal of troops.

But that didn’t happen.  I came back from Afghanistan realizing that the best path to peace  for the Afghan people may not be a withdrawal of U.S. troops now or even possibly in 18 months. We need a long term U.S.- Afghan partnership to help the Afghans build the country they want.

The voices I heard in Kabul — local and international NGO workers, reconciliation activists, ex-Taliban, doctors in hospitals, women in homeless shelters and in government positions, students and teachers — clearly did not want a withdrawal of troops now.  They told me stories of  Afghanistan’s  30 years of war and the disastrous results when the U.S. walked away from their need for human security twice before.

Most Americans know little of this history and our role in it. They don’t have access to in- depth information about why we are there and what is at stake.  We are consigned to media bites.  And the peace movement may be contributing to this misunderstanding by conveying the simplistic idea that peace in Afghanistan is about the number of international troops on the ground.

I have written three “Letters from the Road” exploring this position at greater length: Confessions of  a Peace Activist;  Voices from Kabul;  Glimmers of Light. They can be found  by clicking on this link to our website <www.pathofthefriend.org.>.

Not surprisingly my writings and public speeches about this change of heart provoked questions from  some of my good  friends and colleagues from the anti war movement.  After all peace means no military. Or does it?

In this and subsequent posts I would like to briefly address some of the questions they have asked me.

First, “How can you assume that the US has the well-being of the Afghan people as our goal? The US military efforts/wars in our history have  seldom been geared to helping the people of the regions where we go to war or send troops.”

No, I can’t assume the U.S. has the well being of Afghan people as its goal.  Historically US foreign policy is geared to “protecting our own interests”  with diplomacy, troops and development aid. This is the same among all nations.  Would I like it to be different? Yes, ecology and global economics make clear that in very real ways we are each others keepers. We need to tend to each others well being. But  this “systems” understanding is just coming into main stream institutional thinking. I believe one of the roles of progressives and spiritual leaders today is to help birth this interconnected world view — even in the Military.

The good news is that today we see evidence that the Defense Department and the State Department  are learning that securing our “national” interests and helping other peoples to develop are often the same thing.

There are a number of indications that the Military is struggling to change its understanding of how to fight a war.   They are learning that the so-called  “war on terror” is not  about killing an enemy. It is about creating conditions on the ground where that  “enemy” has no home. That is what counter-insurgency tactics are about. That was the hard lesson of Iraq.  That is the lesson we are faced with in Afghanistan.  Even General McChrystal has said there will be “no military victory”.  The focus now is on protecting civilians.

Now after  the U.S. military “clears” an area of Taliban, who are the ones most responsible for the violence in Afghanistan, the military is assembling a large team of Afghan administrators and police force behind them and staying on to support them until they are established.  We should have done this 8 years ago — but better late than never for the Afghan people.

To  help facilitate this shift in emphasis the Center for New American Security just published a white paper detailing new approaches to intelligence gathering. It includes detailed recommendation on the importance of understanding the culture and getting to know the people in the villages and cities.  It makes it clear we need to depend less on covert intelligence and much more on “open” intelligence.

Open Intelligence is the kind of information gathering you and I would consider obvious. It focuses on local economics and landowners who are power brokers and how they might be influenced, it looks at the correlation between development projects and levels of cooperation among villagers and finds people in the best position to find answers whether aid works or afghan soldiers or former taliban.

This is a shift that will lead to better answers about what is in the best interest of the Afghan people in different regions.

Another change I am hearing more about is the willingness of the military to work in nation building.  I recently received an email from a woman working in the air force  about how female military service members now travel to meet with local Afghan women in the Panshir valley to talk with them about agricultural projects to agument their family income. According to Sgt. Danielle Sempler, a medic from N.C. “ the room is always  jammed with young girls in their teens to older women with grey hair… it is very encouraging to realize how much these people care about their country and bettering their lives”. Again why this is news to the military I don’t know — but they are learning the importance of paying attention to people needs and desires.

The old military paradigm is simply not relevant in the battles today — The over expensive bloated Military-Industrial complex is becoming a dinosaur . If the U.S. can demonstrate in Afghanistan that it really does care about the long term well being of the Afghan people, and all muslim peoples, we will be helping create the conditions in  which radical jihadist can not thrive to terrorize their country or ours.

So no I don’t assume the military has altruistic motives, but I do assume the military leadership is learning they are faced with a situation in which the well being of the Afghan people has to be the goal or we all lose.

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2 Responses to “Does the U.S. Military belong in Afghanistan?”

  1. Ty says:

    That is very insightful. It gave me a number of ideas and I’ll be placing them on my web site eventually. I’m bookmarking your blog and I’ll be back. Thanks again!

  2. Alva Aquas says:

    Well said! If I could write like this I would be well pleased. The more I see articles of such quality as this (which is rare), the more I think there might be a future for the Net. Keep it up, as it were.

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