Archive for January, 2009

Today’s New York Times ran a story on its front page entitled “Aides Say Obama’s Afghan Aims Elevate War.”

WASHINGTON — President Obama intends to adopt a tougher line toward Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, as part of a new American approach to Afghanistan that will put more emphasis on waging war than on development, senior administration officials said Tuesday.

Mr. Karzai is now seen as a potential impediment to American goals in Afghanistan, the officials said, because corruption has become rampant in his government, contributing to a flourishing drug trade and the resurgence of the Taliban.

They said that the Obama administration would work with provincial leaders as an alternative to the central government, and that it would leave economic development and nation-building increasingly to European allies, so that American forces could focus on the fight against insurgents.

Yes, the Kabul government is absolutely an impediment to any sort of civil society in Afghanistan. As Stirling Newberry pointed out in an email exchange, the perniciousness of the Afghan government makes using the word “insurgent” absurd; being hostile toward Kabul is no longer sufficient to make you a disloyal Afghan. As I’ve written elsewhere, the government that until now has been backed with U.S. violence ranks very, very poorly on corruption indexes (176 out of 178 in the world)  and has been termed by one Afghan women’s organization as “The Rule of the Rapists.” Backing that government with U.S. military violence will only generate more hatred of the U.S. in the rural majority outside of Kabul.

Further, if we are abandoning support for the Kabul government, then even calling what we’re up to in Afghanistan a “counterinsurgency strategy” is even more absurd. The “north star” of a national counterinsurgency strategy is a legitimate host nation government, according to the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. For such a strategy to work, we’ll have to find new extant power centers (or a new host government) to back. If we choose the former, U.S. violence will contribute to the breakup of the Afghan state as we know it, and run the risk of being increasingly drawn into tribal politics and rivalries. In that case, we’ll be beholden to various competing local groups for intelligence, and could be baited into attacking groups’ rivals instead of targeting al-Qaida. If we choose the latter, we’ll either be stuck without an anchor host government until a new government forms, or risk undermining the new government’s legitimacy by making them look like U.S. stooges.

But the new administration lives in a fantasy world if it believes that emphasizing military force while leaving development to the ho-hum NATO coalition in Afghanistan will a) bring piece, or b) stop Afghanistan from being used as a base for attacks against Americans. To the contrary, this approach will drive people to groups hostile to U.S. forces and make it easier for them to attack U.S. citizens.  The new administration is right to warn people about an “uptick” in violence; emphasizing violence while sending only half the troops “needed” according to the military’s own counterinsurgency doctrine sure sounds like a recipe for getting more Americans killed.

Mr. Gates added that the United States should focus on limited goals. “My own personal view is that our primary goal is to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base for terrorists and extremists to attack the United States and our allies, and whatever else we need to do flows from that objective,” he said.

Call me crazy, but putting relatively small numbers of Americans (American troops are also American citizens, remember?) in the middle of hostile territory and telling them to shoot at hostile people doesn’t seem to be the best way to prevent violence against Americans. The message sent by this policy is that American troops are the expendable American citizens, and we only care about violence against non-expendable Americans. Otherwise, the U.S. wouldn’t pursue a policy that provokes violence against Americans while making it easier for hostile forces in Afghanistan to get to and attack Americans.

Aside from strategic reasons for those of us in the Christian anti-war movement to keep pressure on a candidate we helped elect is the purely political reason: this policy will cost Obama substantial political capital and will rapidly dampen enthusiasm about his presidency, undermining his ability to pressure Congress to pass progressive reforms elsewhere.

First off, the conflict in Afghanistan will drain resources needed and give regressive voices in Congress leverage to oppose his domestic programs. They’ll argue that we cannot afford domestic spending at a time of elevated military spending overseas, and, in a sense, they’ll be right.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we celebrated the day before Obama’s inauguration, described the war in Vietnam as a “demonic destructive suction tube,” sucking people and resources out of anti-poverty programs to fund violence on the other side of the world. Deepening our militarism in Afghanistan will do the same.  If you liked the waste of blood and treasure in Iraq, you’re going to love Afghanistan.

Second, and most importantly, public opinion is solidly against pouring more troops into Afghanistan. Here’s the results of a Harris/BBC America poll on the troop increase in Afghanistan:


Only one-third of Americans support a troop increase in Afghanistan. The political base of support for a troop increase would come from some Republicans and the elderly. Not exactly Obama’s base.

Among Democrats and independents, most people want no more troops sent or troop levels reduced in Afghanistan. Among Republicans, the number of people supporting more troops is tied with the percentage of folks who want less or the same number of troops.

Among echo boomers (18-32), Gen X (33-44), and Baby Boomers (45-63) most people want no more troops sent or troop levels reduced in Afghanistan. The only age demographic in which a majority of people want more troops sent are those 64 and older.

In other words, Obama’s central foreign policy revision is about to run head-on into a brick wall of public opinion that will damage his relationship with his base.

There is so much to celebrate about Barack Obama’s election to the Presidency. This policy, though, will wreck the potential of his presidency if he can’t be convinced by us to abandon it. That’s our job now, folks. All of us who work for peace and justice, on whose energy the Democrats took the majority in Congress in 2006 and who helped propel Barack Obama into the fore due to his prescience on Iraq, have a duty to put our foot down with the new president we helped elect.

When then-candidate Obama, when forced by rumors that he was a Muslim to prove his Christian bona fides for political reasons, went further than merely asserting his Christianity. At a campaign stop when he discussed gay marriage, he said:

“If people find that controversial, then I would just refer them to the Sermon on the Mount, which, I think, is, in my mind, more central than an obscure passage in Romans,” Obama said.

Just for our reference, Jesus is very clear in the Sermon on the Mount about using violence: don’t.

‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,* what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Obama understands the implications of these words. He said at Call to Renewal:

Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount – a passage that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let’s read our bibles. Folks haven’t been reading their bibles.

(As a side note, I think I’ve previously misinterpreted Obama’s statement here…Obama doesn’t seem to be arguing for nonviolence, but to not get carried away with using scripture–including the Sermon on the Mount–to guide public policy.)

What’s not clear is whether Obama and his team take seriously Jesus’ words later in Matthew 26:

Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.’

Unless we convince Obama to change his policies in Afghanistan, his administration will learn what this means, and learn it the hard way.

This past week I took a break from Return Good for Evil to work on a related effort: Get Afghanistan Right Week.

A group of bloggers, writers and activists today launched “Get Afghanistan Right Week,” the start of an ongoing campaign to oppose military escalation in Afghanistan. From January 12-18, they will post stories and relevant materials to publicize growing opposition to the idea that more troops will bring stability to Afghanistan or secure the United States. Participants argue that Afghanistan has become an un-winnable, deepening quagmire, and that escalation will drain resources needed for recovery efforts at home. The group will post their work on various high-traffic websites and aggregate their work on a new website,

If you’re interested, below are the three long posts I authored at Daily Kos for the week.  I pointed out the inconsistencies and deadly gambles inherent in a troop increase for our efforts in Afghanistan from three angles: the number of troops “needed,” the lack of a legitimate government to work with, and the volatile effects of arming local militias in tandem with a troop increase.

The Myth of an Afghan Counterinsurgency Strategy

I’d written other pieces for this effort before we launched the week of coordinated blogging. Here are the links for those as well.

I’ve been throwing all my effort into Get Afghanistan Right Week.  You should participate!

Here’s a link to my latest contribution to that effort.

For those considering a military career, two good reasons to think again:

  1. You might be a guinea pig for horrendous mad scientist-type experiments.
  2. If you die, your family may get a letter referring to you as “John Doe.”

To top this all off, the Pentagon was slammed this week for poor security and oversight of its nuclear weapons arsenal. The panel in the story recommends a new bureaucrat to watch over the nukes. Hey guys! Here’s a tip! Nothing you can do can make it safe for us to have the apocalypse in our pocket.

“Not to worry!” said the generals. “We’ll distract them with video games!”

Kudos to Bob Herbert, NYT columnist for hitting the nail on the head re: Afghanistan:

The economy is obviously issue No. 1 as Barack Obama prepares to take over the presidency. He’s charged with no less a task than pulling the country out of a brutal recession. If the worst-case scenarios materialize, his job will be to stave off a depression.

That’s enough to keep any president pretty well occupied. What Mr. Obama doesn’t need, and what the U.S. cannot under any circumstances afford, is any more unnecessary warfare. And yet, while we haven’t even figured out how to extricate ourselves from the disaster in Iraq, Mr. Obama is planning to commit thousands of additional American troops to the war in Afghanistan, which is already more than seven years old and which long ago turned into a quagmire.

The U.S. military is worn out from years of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan. The troops are stressed from multiple deployments. Equipment is in disrepair. Budgets are beyond strained. Sending thousands of additional men and women (some to die, some to be horribly wounded) on a fool’s errand in the rural, mountainous guerrilla paradise of Afghanistan would be madness.

Read the full article.

As I said in my previous post on this topic, nonviolent and violentist Christians often mistreat the Hebrew scriptures. Violentist Christians assert that violence in the “Old” Testament tradition negates the possibility of nonviolence as a faithful interpretation of scripture. Nonviolent Christians concede the underlying assumption–that the only faithful interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures is the violent interpretation–and fall back on a kind of Marcionism or dispensationalism. Both of these approaches are incorrect.

It’s important for Christians to understand that the construction of our sacred scripture took place over a very long period and was the result of, to say the least, a very heavy editing job. Each hand that touched and formed the scripture worked in a particular historical context and with a particular agenda and perspective. I say this not to discredit the scriptures or undermine their authority; I only point out that several voices speak in the text. One can find in the so-called Old Testament, for example, verses celebrating or pining for vengeance, and the injunction against vengeance. Swords are hammered into plowshares, and plowshares hammered into swords. One must wrestle with the texts, prayerfully, if one is to discern the voice of God. And many Jews and others who study the Hebrew scriptures discern the voice of the God of Peace.

Take, for example, this passage from Leviticus (Vayikra) 19:16-18:

  • Do not be a talebearer or spread hate among the people.
  • Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.
  • Do not hate your brother or sister in your heart.
  • Rather speak directly to your brother and sister about your concerns.
  • Do not take vengeance. Do not bear a grudge against the children of your people.
  • Love your neighbor as yourself, I am YHVH.

The most recent issue of Fellowship Magazine features Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb interpreting these verses as the basis for nonviolence in the Jewish tradition:

I will interpret these words according to the tradition of interpretation by which I was ordained as a rabbi.  I stand before you today as a rabbi rooted in the lineage of those in the Jewish commnity who follow the path of engaged nonviolence, which is called shomer shalom. As a shomeret shalom I renew a vow of engaged nonviolence every year at Yom Kippur. My teachers, those whose memories are a blessing, and those who still walk upon this earth, have taught me the way of nonviolence as I seek peace and pursue peace (Psalm 34:15).

…I would like to interpret Vayikra. The first verse of the passage states: “Do not become a talebearer or spread hate among the people.” Hate speech is to be avoided because it often leads to acts of violence. As you are well aware, I come from a community that has experienced the genocidal results of hate speech leading to hate action…

…[T]he next verse of Leviticus instructs us: “Do not stand idly by the shedding of blood of your neighbor.” We are commanded not to be silent or passive in the face of prejudice, militarism, violence or structural injustice which privileges some while exploiting others. In fact, challenging systems of injustice is essential to peacemaking.

The text continues: “Do not harbor hatred of your brother or sister in your heart.” This mitzvah relates to the inner dimension of peacemaking. Even in the face of violence and the struggle for human rights we are told to remember that we are all one human family. …Hatred is a form of alienation as is linked to fear and violence. Therefore peacemaking begins by trying to erase hatred of others from one’s heart, to see the other as a full human being, to know that the flaws we find in others are also flaws within ourselves. We are to judge everyone from z’khaf zechut, a place of merit, and thus begin to build an atmosphere of trust out of which peace can grow even as we make every effort to redress wrongs.

Rather than respond to violence with violence we are told: speak directly to your brother or sister about your concerns. The Torah urges direct negotiations, acts of face-to-face reconciliation as the way to peace.

…As the next verse categorically states, as a matter of religious obligation, we are not to take vengeance, nor bear a grudge. This is a weighty obligation and the heart of the instruction to act nonviolently, even in the face of violence. This instruction is explicated further as the central tenet of all our traditions: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself. I am YHVH.” Love is not a sentiment, but a condition in which we face obstacles to peace with the view that the man or woman who stands before us is indeed our brother or our sister. We are commanded to choose love and not fear, love and not violence, love and not war.

And in case you were wondering how strongly she felt about this interpretation, Gottlieb gave this interpretation during a speech to a modest-sized group that included Iranian President Ahmadinejad.

[Incidentally, the NRSV translates Leviticus 19:16 slightly differently:

You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.

Lockheeds, Boeings and Blackwaters, take notice.]

The Hebrew scriptures, aside from containing commands from God that can lead to a nonviolent theology, include several stories of nonviolent resistance to power. Arthur Waskow identified several incidents in a May/June 2003 article written for the Fellowship of Reconciliation:

  • The story of the saving of the baby Moses by Shifrah and Puah – the midwives who refused to obey Pharaoh’s order to murder Hebrew boy babies – is perhaps the first tale of nonviolent civil disobedience in world literature.
  • The process of liberation in the Exodus itself is woven with violence in the form of disastrous ecological upheavals and ultimately the death of Egypt’s firstborn. But the imposition of these plagues is ascribed to God, and thus placed one giant step away from Israelite behavior.
  • Jeremiah warns against using violence and military alliances to oppose the Babylonian Conquest, and argues instead that God will protect the people if Judah acts in accord with the ethical demands of Torah – freeing slaves, letting the land rest.
  • Daniel and his friends famously are cast into the lions’ den for nonviolently refusing to obey the king’s command to worship foreign gods.
  • And although the Book of Esther ends in violence, Esther herself demonstrates nonviolent civil disobedience when, in fear and trembling, she approaches the Persian king without having been invited so that she can carry out her mission to save the Jewish people from a murderous tyrant.
  • There is a powerful story of an Israelite king, Saul, who had to deal with an underground guerilla whom he thought of as a terrorist…named David. And David, with a very small band of underground guerillas, went off, hungry and desperate, and found food and protection at a sacred shrine, where they asked the priests to let them eat the show-bread, the lehem panim, the sacred bread placed before God, because they were desperately hungry. And the priests fed them from the sacred bread. When Saul heard about this, he said (more or less), “Anybody who harbors a terrorist is a terrorist!” (do you hear an echo?) and so King Saul ordered his own bodyguard to kill the priests of Nov. But the bodyguard refused. His own bodyguard, yet he refused to murder these priests. An act of nonviolent civil disobedience against an Israelite king, not an Egyptian Pharaoh.
  • Jeremiah…used “Yippie” acts of street theater to protest. He wore a yoke as he walked in public, embodying the yoke of God that the King had shrugged off, as well as the yoke of Babylonian captivity that the King was bringing on the people.

In my next post in this series, I’ll discuss the Genesis 1 account of creation and contrast it with other creation myths to show how, in context, the Judeo-Christian creation story gives a glimpse of a God of nonviolence, and of the nonviolent Word woven into the nature of the universe and by whom all things were made.

You can learn more about the shomer shalom tradition at the Shomer Shalom website.

“If the sword then not the book; if the book then not the sword.”

A quick question for the proponents of an escalation in Afghanistan: What are we protecting from a revolution?

The “surge” in Iraq was an exercise in counterinsurgency (COIN). Counterinsurgency is by definition the attempt to protect against a revolution. But in Afghanistan, the authority and structures of the corrupt Kabul regime do not and have not extended into the south of Afghanistan, where the new U.S. troop forces will concentrate.

At best, we’ll be protecting a thoroughly corrupt regime from revolution. At worst, we’ll be defending a phantom from revolution–the writ of Kabul never extended into the targeted areas after our initial invasion.  There’s literally no functioning system which can be defended against revolution in the border region, which means our troops will be sent to the region with the hope that a toxic regime will eventually extend its influence there, or, more likely, to be the de facto regime in the area and to defend ourselves against the Taliban’s influence and violence.

Advocates of counterinsurgency seem to presuppose that there is an established government worth defending with American lives in Afghanistan. There isn’t.

In addition, the proposed counterinsurgency strategy will be enormously expensive while failing to provide sufficient support to the development of democratic structure and civil society. Proponents of an escalation bear the burden of explaining to the American people in detail why their proposed strategy in Afghanistan is worth the enormous cost and risk when other, much less costly methods for turning back an insurgency, including the Anti-Coup and Civilian-Based Defense, would simultaneously give locals the tools to turn back the Taliban and strengthen civil society.