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Obama's Afghanistan Decision

by Kathleen Barry

Dear President Obama,

Thank you for being an empathetic model of manhood and further, for bringing that quality into the American Presidency.  But how do you explain those dead Afghani and Pakistani daughters, mothers, sons and fathers, killed by US forces since you took office, to your own daughters who you want to develop the kind of empathy you have.  You are teaching them how to understand the suffering of others.  In Ghana you took them to the slave port and said that you wanted them to "engage in the imaginative act of what it would be like if they were snatched away from Mom and Dad and sent to some place they had never seen before."  You want them to identify with the suffering of others, "And get them to - to make sure that they are constantly asking themselves questions about whether they are treating people fairly and - and whether they are examining their own behavior and how it affects others."

You have shown how empathy does not conflict with strength, how it enhances rather than diminishes leadership.  In this country, you have faced down the health insurance industry from the memory of how your mother suffered at their hands.  At the same time, you bring your empathy together with the power of your leadership when a woman at one of your health care forums tells you through her tears of how her insurance company is denying her life-saving treatment.  We saw you go to her as you asked her to come forward to you, and watched you embrace her telling her that she was not alone.

As you are making your decision on the fate of Afghanistan and Pakistan, I ask you, are the people there any less deserving of your empathy?  When you took office you escalated the U.S. war in Afghanistan and allowed it to expand in Pakistan.  By the end of June, over a 1,000 Afghani civilians were killed, 261 alone in the month of May.  In other words, more than one-third of the number of people killed in the Al Qaeda attack on the US in 9-11-2001 are dead since January of this year in order to keep America safe, even though they had nothing to do with fighting then or when they died.  And with the increase our bombings have caused in recruits to the Taliban, America is not more safe.

 While you were telling Americans that you wake up every morning and go to sleep every night thinking of how to keep America safe, you were denying that safety to the families of Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Mr. President, you know that the empathy that you so highly value cannot be selective. When you engage it for some, say Americans, and refuse it to others, like Afghanis and Pakistanis, you are telling the world that only Americans lives are of value and that everyone else's lives can be put at risk to protect American lives.     

Still you have not lost your empathy or respect for the lives of people in countries the US bombs and attacks.  On May 9, in a rare gesture of an American President, you apologized to President Karzai when he met with you in Washington a few days after the US military killed an estimated 140 Afghanis in Farah, 94 of them girls under the age of 18  who had gathered in a compound to take shelter from the fighting.  Some villagers said the strikes hit an area which the Taliban had already left and where there was no fighting. You apologized but you did not stop the bombing.  In fact, drone strikes on Pakistani villages three days later in South Waziristan killed 8 people.  Four days after that, US forces killed 25 civilians in a village in North Waziristan.  None were Taliban, none were Al Qaeda.  And the drone attacks continue, weekly, daily sometimes. 

How will your decision on troop levels and military plans for Afghanistan and Pakistan reflect what you are teaching your daughters about the value of human life?  Will you show them the petitions from the women of Afghanistan brought to you by Medea Benjamin from Code Pink?  Will you explain to them that Afghan women have asked that you disarm the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Northern Alliance, none of whom have the support of the people? 

In your April speech in Islamabad you said that you "have no sympathy and no patience for people who go around blowing up innocent people."   If you engage the same kind of empathy you are teaching your daughters with the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, you will see that in their daily experiences of US bombings and drone attacks they see the US attacks in the same light that you see the terrorists who attacked the US.

Against a US force of 68,000 troops in Afghanistan before you make your announcement in a few days, Senator John Kerry, when he returned from Iraq last month, told us that there were not more than a thousand hard-core Taliban in Afghanistan.  Women in Afghanistan estimate that there are not more than 100.  The rest are boys and men who cannot find work, who are angry over the US bombing and occupation of their country, who are driven to fight back against the US military who killed  their parents or their children. 

How difficult would it be to announce a plan to disarm those "reconcilables" as General Patraeus calls them?  To disarm not rearm!  Rather than negotiating with the Taliban to sell out women's rights as Hammid Karzai has done, why not pay those fighters who are not hardcore terrorists to go home and restock their shops or rebuild their farms.  Then withdraw US troops from Afghanistan and Pakistan allowing them to protect their people and their country from the small number of hardcore terrorists remaining? 

You have expressed your pain and sorrow in phone calls to families of American soldiers who have lost a son or daughter, a husband or wife.  But what about the soldiers still there in combat?  If you are truly pained by the loss of American soldiers in this war, bring those who are still there in combat home and give them the support to put their lives back together. 

Mr. President, it is frightening to look at your advisors and see mostly hawks who are proponents of unending war.  From your Vice President to your Secretary of State and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, you have surrounded yourself with people who dismiss the cost of human life in war in favor of war.  They have left us with the blood of over a million Iraqis on our hands.  We do not expect empathy from your Generals whom came to their prestigious ranks through the military whose job it is to kill and destroy.  They coldly speak of killing civilians as "collateral damage" as if it is not killing, as if human life outside of the United States is as significant as paper clips.  

You have shown us that we can expect empathy from you, except in war.  Will you close that gap?  If you have not turned over the Executive Authority of this country to the Generals as your predecessor had, as it appears that you did when you took office in January, we will expect your decision on troops in Afghanistan to be reflected in your empathy for Afghanis and Pakistani as well as for American soldiers. 

We are awaiting your decision on troop levels for Afghanistan.  More precisely, we are waiting to see if you or the Generals are running this country as they have been since 2001.

In closing, Mr. President, before announcing your decision, please think hard and long from that place of empathy within you of what it would feel like to receive that call telling you the fate of one of your daughters, the kind of call that far too many Afghanis have received about their boys and girls who are with them no longer.  

With respect,

Kathleen Barry, Ph.D.

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