Just Say “NO” to the War in Afghanistan

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Tikkun Magazine

Just Say “NO” to the War in Afghanistan

Or should we call it "Again-istan?"

Some people never learn. The arrogance of empire? Ignorance of history? Political opportunism? Or cowardice to confront the global challenges we face?

These factors probably all contribute to the current incredible situation, in which the United States is debating whether to escalate its military presence there or maintain a lower-level intensity, relying on mechanical warfare in order to focus the war instead in Pakistan. Neither option makes any sense.

What is absent from the debate (just as it was absent when the United States escalated the war in Vietnam or when it created the war in Iraq) is the perspective of the peace movement and of spiritual progressives.

Instead, President Obama had the audacity and shortsightedness to declare that the fight in Afghanistan is a "war of necessity" that is "fundamental to the defense of our people." Talking about switching the war from Iraq to Afghanistan might have seemed a politically clever way to show that he was not "soft" when he sought the presidency, but restating that rationale now that he is president has boxed him into the same misconceptions that have led the United States into losing wars for the past fifty years.

The narrow argument for war in Afghanistan, based on America's unresolved trauma from September 11, is that if al-Qaida gets control through the Taliban of a country in which it can train militants, it will strike again at America, perhaps this next time with nuclear weapons that it acquires from Pakistan, which has them, or by obtaining homemade or stolen atomic weapons.

It's not that it is impossible to imagine terrorists acquiring a nuclear weapon and detonating it in the United States. The scientific knowledge and the means of implementing it are out there in the world. Many countries have already built these weapons, and nuclear proliferation increases the likelihood that they may fall into ever more irresponsible hands.

There is plenty to fear when hundreds of millions of people feel so desperate and angry that they might be willing to use such weapons. The error in the reasoning behind the "war on terror" is that this nightmare scenario cannot be prevented by the United States imposing itself on one country after another in the Middle East and in every other area where terrorists might be able to steal or develop nuclear weapons.

In the short run, the United States needs to improve its defensive capacities through careful scrutiny of the airplanes, boats, and containers that reach this country. Such scrutiny measures, some of which were implemented after September 11, should be given greater attention. But the deep truth is this: there is no way to ensure that a group of terrorists will never obtain and set off an atomic bomb in an American city. As the technology of mass destruction and delivery of bombs becomes more sophisticated, the vulnerability will increase, regardless of what happens in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, or other countries in that region. The solution has to lie with eliminating people's desire to destroy us.

Acknowledge the Causes of Terrorism

The whole notion of a war on terrorism is fundamentally misguided. Terrorism is a tactic used by people who do not have the powerful armies of the world at their disposal, and hence they will use homemade or stolen weapons against those who they believe to be oppressing them. If you have a population of 6.7 billion on the planet, the only way to absolutely control terrorism is to put surveillance devices into every home in the world so that everyone is so terrified of the police and so scared to express their anger that they have no possibility of resorting to terror. In that case -- total fascism -- the solution is far worse than the problem.

The obvious alternative is to address the grievances and problems that lead people to want to strike out against the West in general and the United States in particular. We've mentioned these in past editorials:

  1. The Western impact on traditional societies has been destructive. While helping to develop a small middle class, the penetration of American corporations, the Western global media, and the capitalist marketplace have fostered an ethos of individualism, materialism, and selfishness. This is correctly perceived as having partially destroyed the religions and forms of cultural/communal solidarity within which people felt a sense of higher purpose and meaning to their lives. We recognize that many traditional societies have a strong downside, based as they are on authoritarian and patriarchal practices that are themselves oppressive. But the way to challenge those effectively is to support the development of spiritual and religious renewal that educates girls, empowers women, validates individual freedom within (not counterposed to) commitment to a community, and affirms the humanity of others in different spiritual and religious traditions. In short, we should actively support spiritual renewal, rather than attempt to replace traditional religions with the religion of the capitalist marketplace.

We cannot beat fundamentalism through consumer materialism and the ethos of "looking out for number one." This is especially true because of the changes that accompany such materialism and selfishness: the weakening of family ties; the prevalence of pornography and cheapening of sex into another commodity for sale and manipulation in the competitive marketplace; the elimination of any kind of economic safety net provided by people who genuinely care about you; and the obliteration of spiritual consciousness in favor of a one-dimensional version of technocratic rationality in which the accumulation of money and power is seen as the only real value in life. These changes are sure to evoke a powerful, angry, and at times violent response from those who have benefited from living in communities in which caring for each other has been part of their daily lives. If the alternative to fundamentalism is subjugation to Western values and to Western military and economic domination, people will take up arms and they will find a way to reach the United States with terrorist violence. These same concerns play out in a different but potentially just as violent way inside some parts of the United States itself, when right-wingers articulate this anger - ignoring how the social alienation and disintegration they rightly lament is rooted in the capitalist marketplace they champion - and then seek to channel that anger against liberals and enlightenment values, even at times advocating violence against President Obama. 

  1. Moreover, even those who are not motivated primarily by a desire to resist Western forms of modernization are moved to violence by the effects of capitalist economic penetration. One need only look at the huge belts of poverty in the ghettos and barrios of major cities around the world to see the degree of hunger and malnutrition, to recognize the growing prostitution of young girls and boys desperately seeking to feed their families, and to witness the hundreds of millions of economic migrants and refugees seeking some place to make a living. These victims of our global economic arrangements are sitting ducks for ideologies that preach anger and violence against those Western powers that are seen as arrogantly ignoring this suffering. The fundamental disrespect and even humiliation that people in traditional societies experience when their own children begin to respond to the ethos of the marketplace, breaking away from traditional families so that they can sell themselves through prostitution or through pursuing self-interest and material gain at the expense of their connections to traditional spiritual communities, cannot be underestimated. Extremist forms of fundamentalist Islam or other forms of religious or political ideologies will spread and provide people with a way to express their anger at the West.
  2. While claiming to bring democracy, we've simply imposed governments that agree to protect American corporate power. The Karzai government in Afghanistan tried to steal its recent election and proclaim itself a democracy -- but fooled no one. The Iraqi democracy was imposed under occupation by U.S. troops and is unlikely to sustain itself once the United States really withdraws (not just its combat troops, but also the 80,000 "advisers" and countless independent contractors from the West). So while the West pretends that its mission is humanistic and aimed at spreading democracy and human rights, its hypocrisy becomes evident, thereby fueling people's willingness to engage in violence against those who are perceived as occupiers.

Champions of the war in Afghanistan willfully ignore all this. They imagine that all this anger can be contained by yet another military intervention. They ignore the history of the Afghanis' successful resistance to one foreign occupier after another, including the British and the Soviets. They refuse to acknowledge to themselves that the U.S. occupation of Iraq increased the violence of civil war, providing the weapons that Iraqis might have had no other way to obtain.

A Strategy to Disempower Terrorists

War is not the answer, and certainly not a war run by the United States.

The first step that is needed is to abandon the notion of a "war on terrorism." Drop it. Proclaim it already won. Or more honestly, acknowledge that there never can be a war against terrorism because terrorism is a tactic -- the tactic of attacking civilians to spread fear. And that tactic has been used by the United States in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and many other places in the world.

The second step is to replace the notion of war with the notion of police actions aimed at protecting people from organized bunches of criminals who seek to terrorize domestic populations or to impose their own religious, political, or economic rule on local communities that do not want that rule. The creation of an international police force of this sort, charged also with protecting development projects to improve the quality of life of people on the village and small-town level, should be given the highest priority. Moreover, representatives of countries that together represent the majority of the citizens of the world must be significantly involved in the formulation of this force. We should try to get this created through the United Nations: not a toothless police force like those which have characterized the UN presence in Sudan, Rwanda, and the Congo, but a force that has a mandate to use all appropriate means to protect citizens against the harassment and oppression imposed by groups like the Taliban. But if there is no such willingness on the part of these countries to participate in creating and financing such a police force, the United States and other Western countries should not step into that space but should instead focus on defending their own borders, while continuing to beg the peoples of the world to step up and share the responsibility for creating an international police force whose sole aim is to protect local communities from the violence of those who seek to impose their rule by force.

The third step is for the nuclear states to eliminate nuclear weapons. A careful global effort to protect every nuclear facility and to govern the creation and production of nuclear power should replace nuclear proliferation - but this will never happen if the nuclear states retain their own nuclear stashes. What, for instance, could possibly induce Arab states or Iran to eliminate the possibility of nuclear weapons when they know that Israel has close to 200 such weapons of its own, which it may rely on in case of war? Or what could induce India or Pakistan to reduce their nuclear arsenals as long as they fear each other's - or China's - nuclear weapons? As long as the current nuclear powers retain their weapons, proliferation is inevitable, and with it comes the danger of crazies obtaining those weapons and using them in terrorist attacks.

The fourth step is for the advanced industrial societies, led by the United States, to launch immediately a Domestic and Global Marshall Plan that would dedicate between 2 percent and 5 percent of their gross domestic product each year for the next twenty to once and for all end global poverty, homelessness, hunger, inadequate education, and inadequate health care, and to repair the global environment. We've outlined a way to do this that would avoid the corruption that has bedeviled various aid plans, as well as prevent the mistaken allocation of this aid to ruling elites, thus ensuring that the aid goes toward building the economic, educational, and health infrastructures that could succeed in permanently defeating global poverty. This step must be taken alongside of and with equal priority to the first three steps, and not as an afterthought or delayed till the other steps are shown to be effective, because they will not succeed unless they are accompanied by this step and its explicit articulation of an alternative worldview. Check out this "strategy of generosity" at www.spiritualprogressives.org.

The fifth step is to give public support to the creation and sustenance of those in the religious and spiritual world who are teaching variants of their own religions that insist on the need to respect and actively provide caring for all, including for members of other religions. It should be a high priority to provide training, education, and media support to those who are seeking to renew their own religious traditions in ways that emphasize the equal rights and entitlements of women and girls, the need to acknowledge that there are multiple paths to salvation or to connection with God, and the need to rejoice in the diversity of religious and spiritual approaches and to acknowledge them all as potentially valid to the extent that they themselves are committed to ethical, ecological, and communal values likely to enhance peace, mutual understanding, and deep spiritual connection to the universe.

Finally, step six: the Western countries, starting with the United States, must publicly insist that, although they are adopting a strategy of generosity in part because doing so is in our best interests, having finally come to the understanding that in the twenty-first century our well-being (both individually and as a society) depends on the well-being of everyone else on the planet, the deeper reason is because we know generosity to be morally right. We must recognize that the path of arrogant self-interest and self-aggrandizement that has characterized the West's interactions with the rest of the world is morally wrong. For that reason, we must start this new direction with a serious process of repentance, in which we publicly acknowledge the hurts we and other Western countries have imposed on the rest of the world. Using the South African model of Truth and Reconciliation, we should set up tribunals in which we in the United States listen to the testimony of those who have been hurt by the role of Western colonialism and imperialism, including Native Americans, African Americans, and immigrant groups in the United States, and extending this process to all the countries of the world where U.S. or Western economic and political involvement has caused pain and humiliation. This process should become a center of our public discourse. It should be taught in our schools. Any media that uses the public airwaves, publicly supported electricity, public mail, or public-supported streets and highways should be mandated to give some prime time coverage each day to the presentation of this information.

In short, we either pursue the same old ethically, environmentally, and economically destructive policies of war, or we embrace a new path of fundamental change. This new path should be based in part on repentance and atonement for how we have gone wrong. And it should replace the capitalist ethos of looking out for number one and the commitment to "progress" (understood as the endless accumulation of new material goods and electronic gadgets) with a new ethos of love, generosity, ecological sanity, and awe and wonder at the grandeur of the universe.

What Keeps the United States from Adopting a Rational Strategy in Afghanistan?

There are significant impediments to this transition in American consciousness that constrain Obama and the other very decent people who are running the society at this moment. They include:

  1. The military and its worldview. Obama administration officials may know that a military strategy cannot win, but they still ask for more troops because they imagine that they can pacify a country through techniques of sophisticated counter-insurgency. No way will this work. The military lacks the appropriate ideological framework and troops. Military training is all about the most effective way to dominate others, to kill. If you train a pit bull to bite, don't get angry at it for biting. If you train a military to dominate, don't be surprised if it is not the mechanism for building trust, whether that is in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Israel/Palestine.
  2. The greed and economic interests of America's corporate elite. The elite have convinced themselves that they really are acting in a generous and caring way in the world by spreading the capitalist marketplace. The truth is that business does in fact improve some aspects of life for people: it provides more material goods for some sectors of the population in countries around the world. But it's easy to focus on the improved quality of life for the developing middle classes in many countries while ignoring the increased suffering for other sections of the population that corporate policies have engendered. Corporate leaders have immense power in shaping the American political discourse in ways that tend to reinforce the military option as the only "realistic" possibility. Deeply rooted in a materialist worldview, they are unable to even begin to see how their global system marginalizes other values in other cultures, like the value of connectivity to the land, to community or to God/spiritual life.
  3. Public ignorance. The erosion of political culture in the United States, the focus on short-term fixes, and the dumbing-down of the population by the media cause astounding levels of ignorance about the rest of the world and about the suffering of our own neighbors inside the United States
  4. Eight years of undermining international law, honesty, reasoned debate, and a sense of the proper and restricted role of the military.

If you want to get out of a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging. That's our advice to Obama: say no to the military. Fire McChrystal, Gates, and all his major supporters who helped leak the information about what he thought was necessary, rather than going through you first, Mr. President. Announce the six-point strategy for U.S. security articulated above. Close down the thousand American military bases around the world and use the savings to launch the Domestic and Global Marshall Plan. Act resolutely, without hesitation, and replace those advisers and those military leaders who will not actively embrace this direction. Use your power as commander in chief and ignore the right-wing media barrage you will certainly face, no matter what you do.

Obama could take this path. He is not doing so. Nor is there anyone in the public sphere ready to talk this language. That is why it is so very important for YOU, dear reader, to spread these ideas, to help us develop and refine the articulation of them, and to work with us to bring these ideas into the public arena. And come to our national conference June 11-14, 2010, in Washington, D.C.

God puts it simply enough in the Bible: Behold I have set before you this day life and death. Choose life.

 

Michael Lerner

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun Magazine: a bimonthly Jewish and Interfaith Journal of Politics, Culture and Society. He is chair of the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives, author of 11 books including Healing Israel/Palestine: A Path to Peace and Reconciliation, and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue in San Francisco.

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