Wise Men in Afghanistan

Posted: December 29, 2008 in Uncategorized

Matthew 2:1-12

2In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

When the guy with the armies suddenly takes an interest in the baby, hide the babies.

Herod wanted to use the wise men in the service of his own agenda. In today’s terms, he tried to use “soft power.” Instead of sending in battalions, he wanted these civilians to go about their not-violent agenda, but, along the way, pass the critical information back to the power players so they could act. Only in the baby’s best interest, of course.

The wise men knew better.

Late last year, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates called for “a dramatic increase in spending on the civilian instruments of national security — diplomacy, strategic communications, foreign assistance, civic action and economic reconstruction and development.” The man in charge of the nuclear weapons, Secretary Surge-in-Iraq, wants more economic development. The civilian instruments of national security. Soft power.

This month, USAID informed NGOs working in Afghanistan that in order to keep working with USAID, they’d have to start “cooperating” with the U.S. military.  This isn’t a case of the military suddenly learning to love every human being as a sacred image of God. This “cooperation” subverts humanitarian operations to the strategic goals of the military. This is King Herod trying to co-opt the wise men.  But the wise men are on to them.  Check out the excellent article on this topic by Virginia Moncrieff at The Huffington Post.

Moncrieff’s article is a good reminder that humanitarian issues do not motivate or shape our military strategy in Afghanistan, but vice versa.  We did not go to war in Afghanistan for the purpose of providing stability for humanitarian development, but rather to “capture Osama bin Laden, destroy al-Qaeda, and remove the Taliban regime which had provided support and safe harbor to al-Qaeda.”  Thus, humanitarian issues will always be at best secondary factors subordinate to what the war planners deem “necessary” to achieve the mission objectives. That also means that we risk altering the perception of the local populations regarding humanitarian workers, making them appear to be part of the U.S. agenda in Afghanistan, which would lead to their being targeted by Taliban and al-Qaida as just another piece of the American machine.

Current U.S. strategy considers Afghanistan to be the battlefield, and battlefields by their nature are not condusive to development. This is an important point to keep in mind because supporters of escalation in Afghanistan often claim that “security” (read: an Afghanistan pacified by the U.S. military) is a prerequisite for humanitarian intervention.  The question assumes the status quo is preferable to a less-militarized option for humanitarian reasons. It isn’t.

Why is this important? Well, over the next few weeks the U.S. government will begin to move more and more troops to Afghanistan. They’ll explain that more implements of violence in the region are necessary to make Afghanistan more secure for humanitarian reasons. But that’s not the case. In fact, the reverse is true: the U.S. government is moving to subvert humanitarian operations in the region for military purposes.

Just as King Herod wanted the wise men to go about their business, but to pass the essential information back to him, the U.S. military wants NGOs to go about their business, but pass on intelligence and lend legitimacy to U.S. war aims. The NGOs should follow the wise men’s example and leave by a different road.


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