Archive for April, 2009

Matthew 16:

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

What would you give in return for your life?

This is no idle question–it’s a query before every Christian and non-Christian in America today. An article from Tom Engelhardt puts this question in stark relief:

But let’s consider here just one recent incident that went almost uncovered in the US media. According to an Agence France Presse account, in a raid in the eastern Afghan province of Khost, the US military first reported a small success: four “armed militants” killed.

It took next to no time, however, for those four militants to morph into the family of an Afghan National Army artillery commander named Awal Khan. As it happened, Khan himself was on duty in another province at the time. According to the report, the tally of the slain, some of whom may have gone to the roof of their house to defend themselves against armed men they evidently believed to be robbers or bandits, included: Awal Khan’s “schoolteacher wife, a 17-year-old daughter named Nadia, a 15-year-old son, Aimal, and his brother, who worked for a government department. Another daughter was wounded. After the shooting, the pregnant wife of Khan’s cousin, who lived next door, went outside her home and was shot five times in the abdomen…”

She survived, but her fetus, “hit by bullets,” didn’t…

Let’s for a moment assume, however, that our safety really was, and remains, at stake in a war halfway across the planet. If so, let me ask you a question: What’s your “safety” really worth? Are you truly willing to trade the lives of Awal Khan’s family for a blanket guarantee of your safety–and not just his family, but all those Afghan 1-year olds, all those wedding parties that are–yes, they really are –going to be blown away in the years to come for you?

We are so very good at obscuring the faces of those killed by American weapons. The cruelty of Tom’s article is that it restores those faces. Where initial reports said “armed militants,” we must now reckon with a schoolteacher, Nadia, Aimal, and his brother, and the unborn child shot dead in the womb. And these are just the non-combatants. As the followers of one who died for the love of enemies, we may not write off the death of actual “armed militants” as legitimate. To quote the bumper-sticker, “When Jesus said ‘Love your enemies,’ I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean ‘Kill them.'”

As scholar John L. MacKenzie said, “If we cannot know that Jesus was nonviolent, then we can know nothing of him. It is the clearest of teachings.” Expanding on this, Walter Wink writes:

The new reality Jesus proclaimed was nonviolent.  That much is clear, not just from the Sermon on the Mount, but his entire life and teaching and, above all, the way he faced his death.  His was not merely a tactical or pragmatic nonviolence seized upon because nothing else would have worked against the Roman empire’s near monopoly on violence.  Rather, he saw nonviolence as a direct corollary of the nature of God and of the new reality emerging in the world from God.  In a verse quoted more than any other from the New Testament during the church’s first four centuries, Jesus taught that God loves everyone, and values all, even those who make themselves God’s enemies.  We are therefore to do likewise (Matt. 5:45; cf. Luke 6:35)…

The idea of nonviolent resistance was not new.  The Hebrew midwives, the Greek tragedians, and Jainism. Buddhism, Hinduism, Lao-Tzu, and Judaism were all to various degrees conversant with nonviolence as a way of life and, in some cases, even as a tactic of social change.  What was new was the early church’s inference from Jesus’ teaching that nonviolence is the only way, that war itself must be renounced.  The idea of peace and the more general rejection of violence can be found before Christianity and in other cultures, says Peter Brock, but nowhere else do we find practical anti-militarism leading to the refusal of military service.

Jesus’ call to take up the cross–the way of self-sacrifice, the way of disobedience to the Domination System–rather than the sword is a call to put behind us any idea of self-preservation at another’s expense.  It is a call fundamentally at odds with the demands of the State and the Crowd to kill the Other for the preservation of the Self and the Similar.  Gandhi put this in a similar way in the 20th century:

Just as one must learn the art of killing in the training for violence, so one must learn the art of dying in the training for nonviolence…Violence does not mean emancipation from fear, but discovering the means of combating the cause of fear. Nonviolence, on the other hand, has no cause for fear. The votary of nonviolence has to cultivate the capacity for sacrifice of the highest type in order to be free from fear. He recks not if he should lose his land, his wealth, his life.

At odds with the teachings of Jesus are the teachings of the Domination System. Again, quoting Wink, from Engaging the Powers, p. 16-17, 26:

“This ancient mythic structure has been variously called the Babylonian creation story, the combat myth, the ideology of zealous nationalism, and the myth of redemptive violence.  The distinctive feature of the myth is the victory of order over chaos by means of violence. …It is the basic ideology of the Domination System. The gods favor those who conquer. Conversely, whoever conquers must have the favor of the gods. Religion exists to legitimate power and privilege. Life is combat. …Ours is neither a perfect nor a perfectible world; it is a theater of perpetual conflict in which the prize goes to the strong. Peace through war security through strength: thee are the core convictions that arise from this ancient historical religion. …The myth of redemptive violence is thus the spirituality of militarism.”

This is the spirituality at work when we’re willing to trade the lives of a family for our own safety–the spirituality of the necessity of violence to maintain order and dominance and gee we’re ever so sorry that your loved ones were the ones who died to keep our loved ones “safe.”

But when you run into the arms of the Domination System, know into whose arms you go:

“I use the expression ‘the Domination System’ to indicate what happens when an entire network of Powers becomes integrated around idolatrous values. And I refer to ‘Satan’ as the world-encompassing spirit of the Domination System.”–Wink, p. 9.

The bargains we’re striking with the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are deals with the Devil.

James Blight has a fantastic article up at The Chronicle of Higher Education. An excerpt:

But proclivities and stated objectives aside, does Barack Obama have the right stuff necessary to avoid disastrous wars like those in Vietnam under LBJ and in Iraq under George W. Bush? While voters going to the polls on November 4 could hope, they could not know for sure. The key question is this: Will President Obama display steely, JFK-like resistance to the urge toward war he will inevitably have to face when things go badly, as they almost certainly will, with respect to his inherited crises involving Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan and (no doubt) other dangerous crises which will appear unexpectedly and unbidden on his horizon? The simple answer is: We don’t know, but we are about to find out.

Read the full article.

Lawrence Korb recently debated Katrina vanden Heuval in the second of three films for, a project of BraveNewFilms. Korb works at the Center for American Progress and is one of the driving intellectual forces behind the liberal embrace of the Afghan war under the Obama administration. He posted an addendum to his remarks, which reflect the bad assumptions driving liberals, and especially Democrats, to embrace military escalation in Afghanistan.

The single most important remark for understanding Korb’s support for war comes in the last paragraph of his post:

Despite the neglect of Afghanistan on the part of the Bush administration, we must remember that it is the central front in the War on Terror.

I must admit, I am exhausted by repeated attempts to pound this into the head of liberals, but here we go again: The War on Terror is a metaphor designed to bludgeon the progressive movement to death. Write that in stone. Tattoo it somewhere on your body where it will hurt. The phrase “War on Terror” blunts dissent, it undermines progressive values at home, and it plays directly into the hands of al-Qaida’s propaganda. People who perpetuate the War on Terror metaphor are, knowingly or not, undermining progressivism, justice, and peace.

Recall George Lakoff’s excellent takedown of this metaphor in 2006.

Literal — not metaphorical — wars are conducted against armies of other nations. They end when the armies are defeated militarily and a peace treaty is signed. Terror is an emotional state. It is in us. It is not an army. And you can’t defeat it militarily and you can’t sign a peace treaty with it.

First and foremost, it was chosen for the domestic political reasons. …From within the war metaphor, being against war as a response was to be unpatriotic, to be against defending the nation. The war metaphor put progressives on the defensive. Once the war metaphor took hold, any refusal to grant the president full authority to conduct the war would open progressives in Congress to the charge of being unpatriotic, unwilling to defend America, defeatist…

Once adopted, the war metaphor allowed the president to assume war powers, which made him politically immune from serious criticism and gave him extraordinary domestic power to carry the agenda of the radical right: Power to shift money and resources away from social needs and to the military and related industries. Power to override environmental safeguards on the grounds of military need. Power to set up a domestic surveillance system to spy on our citizens and to intimidate political enemies. Power over political discussion, since war trumps all other topics. In short, power to reshape America to the vision of the radical right — with no end date [emphasis mine].

…Domestically, the “War on Terror” has been a major success for the radical right.

…Metaphors cannot be seen or touched, but they create massive effects, and political intimidation is one such effect. It is time for political courage and political realism. It is time to end the political intimidation of the war metaphor and the terror it has loosed on America.

It is time for progressives to jettison the war metaphor itself…

So again: Korb’s basic frame corrodes progressivism at home and inspires militarism abroad. So, please, folks, do us a favor: Drop this frame, or stop calling yourself a progressive.

The specifics of Korb’s justifications are specious at best. He claims that more troops are necessary to protect the local population:

President Obama’s decision to send 17,000 additional combat troops and 4,000 additional trainers for the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police, is a necessary first step to reversing the deteriorating security situation in the country.

But, he’s ignoring the failure of past surges to protect the population:

A troop surge has already been tried—and it failed. In 2007, the number of US/NATO troops was increased by 45 percent. During that surge, more civilians were killed than in the previous four years combined.

Korb has couched his support for military escalation in Afghanistan within a larger strategy that increases “civilian experts and diplomatic resources, and the adoption of a regional approach is also necessary to correct American policy in Afghanistan.” But yesterday’s New York Times reports that those posts will largely be filled by reservists and contractors:

In announcing a new strategy last month, President Obama promised “a dramatic increase in our civilian effort” in Afghanistan that would include “agricultural specialists and educators, engineers and lawyers” to augment the additional troops he is also sending.

But senior Pentagon and administration officials now acknowledge that many of those new positions would be filled by military personnel — in particular reservists, whose civilian jobs give them required expertise — and by contractors.

Furthermore, no matter how many people we field for the components of a “humint” (human intelligence) and “hearts and minds” campaign, they will be useless if they can’t communicate with the locals. And guess what, they can’t:

The United States needs “thousands” of Pashto speakers to have any chance of success in winning them over, said [Chris Mason, who was a member of the Interagency Group on Afghanistan from early 2002 until September 2005], recalling that 5,000 U.S. officials had learned Vietnamese by the end of the Vietnam War. “The Foreign Service Institute should be turning out 200 to 300 Pashto speakers a year,” he said.

But according to an official at the State Department’s Bureau of Human Resources, the United States has turned out a total of only 18 Foreign Service officers who can speak Pashto, and only two of them are now serving in Afghanistan – both apparently in Kabul.

The Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California trains roughly 30 to 40 military personnel in Pashto each year, according to media relations officer Brian Lamar, most of whom are enlisted men in military intelligence.

That indicates that there are very few U.S. nationals capable of working with local Pashtuns on development and political problems. The National War College’s Goodson said the almost complete absence of Pashto-speaking U.S. officials in Afghanistan “belies the U.S. commitment to a nation-building and counter-insurgency approach.”

All this is not to say that we should oppose the development and supporting civilian civil society components of a given Afghan strategy. But, let’s be crystal clear: the civilian “surge” and hearts-and-minds/human intelligence components are being used to help sell a military escalation, and neither of those components exist in any meaningful way. For Korb to appeal to these phantoms as justification for throwing what we do have–more troops–into Afghanistan is horribly dishonest.

Korb is a smart guy, but he needs to open his eyes. This proposal of the administration’s may look good to him on paper, but in reality it’s predicated on the existence of capabilities we lack and which we cannot create and field in time to protect ourselves, the Afghans and the Pakistanis from the consequences of a military escalation in Afghanistan.

One more important point from Lakoff’s article:

You don’t win or lose an occupation; you just exit as gracefully as possible.

More civilians died in Afghanistan from U.S. bombs while we ate ham and deviled eggs. I did not post often during Holy Week because I wanted to not make every part of my faith about my opposition to war. So I took a week off. But as hard as I try to keep it out, the story of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection speaks to and stands in judgment of the actions of the United States in Afghanistan.

Nationalist revolutionary sentiment simmered just beneath the surface of Jesus’ society. Before, during, and after Jesus’ time with us, that sentiment sporadically boiled over into insurrections. N.T. Wright:

I don’t find…neat divisions between protesters, prophets, bandits and messiahs helpful. Josephus’ accounts of several of the movements [listed as] ‘protesters’ and ‘prophets’ spill over into his accounts of ‘banditry’…Several of the ‘prophetic’ movements, too, were in fact closely linked with revolutionary brigandry. The followers of the ‘Samaritan’ were armed, and ended up fighting. The unnamed prophets of War 2.258-60/Antiquities 20.167b-8 are subsumed under the general brigandage noted in Antiquities 20.167a. The ‘Egyptian’, according to War 2.262, intended to force entry to Jerusalem, overpower the Roman garrison, and set himself up as a tyrant. The unnamed prophet of Antiquities 20.188 appeared in the context of widespread brigandry… Jonathan the Weaver (War 7.437-50 [not book 6 as in your Historical Jesus p. 451]) had, according to Life 424f., aroused a stasis in Galilee. That leaves, from the ‘prophets’, John the Baptist, Theudas, some unnamed prophets (who are urging the people to stay and fight rather than flee), and the remarkable Jesus ben Ananias.

…Start with the eagle-incident. The young hotheads were egged on by the teachers Judas and Matthias, who were then killed on Herod’s orders (War 1.648-55; Ant. 17.149-66). Continue with the violent revolt the following Passover, which was renewed at Pentecost (War 2.1-13; 39-50; Ant. 17.206-18; 250-64). Of the latter, Josephus says that it involved ‘a countless multitude’ from all over Palestine, especially Judaea itself…They laid siege to the Romans, fought them, and besieged the commander himself in the palace. At this, anarchy broke out in Palestine (War 2.55; Ant. 17.269, referring to ‘continuous and countless new tumults’), including a revolt by Herod’s veterans …and one by Judas, son of Hezekiah…

Then there is Judas the Galilean himself (War 2.118, etc.), whether or not he is the same person as Judas the son of Hezekiah the bandit leader (see NTPG 180). There are his sons, Judas and Simon (Ant. 20.102), who were crucified in the late 40s (presumably crucifixion for insurrection feels much the same even if you’re not a card-carrying peasant). There is Barabbas, and the revolt in which he took part (Luke 23.19; in John 18.40 Barabbas is described as a lestes, ‘brigand’). Presumably the two lestai crucified alongside Jesus count as well. Then there are all the ‘common people’ who were punished along with Eleazar ben Deinaeus; in War 2.253, Josephus says the number of them was ‘incalculable’. Then there are the further outbreaks of brigandage reported in War 2.264f.; these maybe the same ones who are mentioned in 2.271 (whom you note), but in the earlier passage it appears that the revolutionary fervour was far more widespread than a small group.

Then there are the Sicarii (War 4.198, Ant. 20.186f., etc.). …[and] John of Gischala and his followers (refs. in NTPG 177 n. 54). Finally, of course, there is Bar-Kochba.

When all these are added up, what emerges is a picture of widespread revolutionary tendencies across the country, the century, and a fair amount of the social spectrum. Josephus (who might be wildly misleading, but he is almost our only source) repeatedly stresses the large number of people involved…For the most part, protesters and the followers of ‘prophets’ could expect to be involved in violent action, just as bandits/brigands and the followers of ‘messiahs’ would.

I agree, in other words, with two interesting contemporary sources. First, Martin Goodman (The Ruling Class of Judaea, Cambridge 1987, p. 108): ‘There was no separate anti-Roman movement in first-century Judaism; rather, anti-gentile attitudes which originated long before A.D. 6, perhaps in Maccabean time, inspired many different groups, permeating the whole Jewish population and varying only in their intensity’ (my italics). Second, Richard Horsley and John Hanson (Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs, Minneapolis, 1985, p. xv): ‘Most of the ideas believed to be distinctive to the Zealots, almost all of them relatively widely attested in our limited source, were probably common Palestinian Jewish ideas… opposition to the Roman rule of Jewish Palestine may have been far more widespread and spontaneous… than previously imagined’ (my italics). This is what I was talking about. This is the basis upon which I have argued, not indeed that Jesus was not interested injustice (!), but that he proposed a very different sort of revolution, which subverted this widespread ideology as well as the oppressive forces to which it was reacting.

In other words, Romans occupiers were engaged in their own version of counterinsurgency. Though many differences exist between the Roman counterinsurgency and the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, striking parallels also exist. The Roman strategy to control and exploit their provinces, especially in Jesus’ region, involved backing a particular claimant to power that would be answerable to Rome and reinforcing that claimant with Roman military force to ensure Roman access to the region’s wealth and resources. Jewish folks watched their elites get rich through association with the Romans and the corrupt system backed by the Romans. Foreign occupation of land they believed was promised them by God was also a deep offense to their religious sensibilities.

Revolutionary factions played on this discontent and demanded from those within their sphere of influence a strict loyalty to the symbols of Jewish distinctiveness (hence the obsession with ritual observances among the antagonists in the gospels).

The Romans worked to keep a lid on this simmering pot by controlling the elites of the culture, and failing that, they used overwhelming military force. (Although I’d note that military force failed to quell the insurgent sentiment until they decided in A.D. 70 and again in A.D. 135 to crush Jerusalem utterly, walling the city in, crucifying tens of thousands, and allowing the residents to starve to death before leveling it…hardly a tactic any Christian could countenance.)

This context is essential to understanding what happened to Jesus on Good Friday. This is what Jesus means when he makes his cryptic statement about (and I’m paraphrasing) buying a sword just before his arrest because he was about to be numbered among the lawless. It’s a warning to his disciples that he’s about to be arrested under the charge of being an insurgent. This is why his accusers try to sell Pilate on the idea that he’s inciting revolution, tax resistance and that he’s claiming to be the rightful king. As Wright points out above, Jesus is crucified between two lestes, brigands, likely insurgents, as an insurgent himself. Jesus Christ died as collateral damage in Rome’s counterinsurgency campaign.

That’s not the whole story, however, and this is where the story takes a dark, holy turn. Pilate offers to free Jesus as a goodwill gesture during the festival. Jesus’ accusers refuse. They ask instead for Barabbas, who had taken part in an insurrection, a man who would kill a Roman given the chance and who has devoted his life to the violent revolutionary sentiment Jesus vociferously opposed. Jesus’ life is literally given to save the life of, not an innocent civilian, but an insurgent.

When we kill civilians, we express regret, declare our intention not to do it again, but note that in war, these things happen. But when we adopt this attitude, we count ourselves among those willing to accept the killing of Christ as an acceptable price to pay in pursuit of our agenda. Jesus tells us, “That which you do to the least of these you do also to me.” When we kill civilians while attempting to kill Talibs, we kill Christ.

That we should avoid killing people who are not parties to the conflict is a non-controversial proposition among Christians. What we often fail to consider, however, is whether the activity in which we were engaged when we killed those civilians is acceptable in light of Jesus’ teachings and example. Jesus died as a non-combatant, but he died in place of an insurgent. Not a doe-eyed innocent caught in a crossfire–a real life, violent insurgent, the ally of those who gave Jesus over for execution. Mountains of writing deal with the various ways in which Jesus’ death and resurrection “save” us. But on Good Friday, the only person literally saved by Jesus’ death was a man who took up arms against a foreign occupation and who may not have minded that someone like Jesus, naysayer to the revolution, died in his place.

The gospel accounts of Jesus death, therefore, condemn not only the collateral manslaughter of innocents in the pursuit of insurgents, but also of the belief that insurgents deserve to die. If we are to follow Christ, then we must not only put our lives on the line to save the innocent; we must also be willing to die in place of an insurgent.

Christians in Iraq and Afghanistan, put down your guns.

Elsewhere: Sean Paul Kelley offers a powerful story about the human costs of our violence in Afghanistan.

Forty-two years ago last Saturday, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood in the pulpit of Riverside Church in New York City to indict his country’s war policies in Vietnam. Entitled “Beyond Vietnam—A Time to Break the Silence,” this seminal speech attacked the paralyzed apathy stifling his nation’s ability to yield to the clear moral imperative to work for peace:

Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.

King’s summation in 1967 of the situation in Vietnam rhymes with the news on our television and on the Internet in 2009. His description of the moral fog that blocks clear vision could equally apply to the search for a palatable strategy in Afghanistan.

The progressive movement in the United States finds itself in a bind, with many of our once anti-war allies now pounding the drums for escalation.  In general, we want President Obama to succeed, and, on almost every issue, we feel the need to give him the benefit of the doubt.  Furthermore, the moral ambiguities inherent in any proposed Afghanistan policy leave it open to criticism from well-meaning folks acting in good faith to create a better future for that country.  This complexity, and the fear of getting it wrong or of allowing harm to come to those we’re trying to help, can be paralyzing. The result of that paralysis, however, is deference to inertia, no matter where the forward motion carries us. Writing after the horror of World War I, W.B. Yeats summed up this hesitance:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

All of this uncertainty, however, relies on a bad assumption: that this war can help the people of Afghanistan. As Rachel Maddow said recently:

I want to hear [President Obama] reject what I think is this really hot idea — even among liberals, certainly in the national security brainiac community — this idea that war can be constructive. (That) if you wage war just the right way, the result is a country and a community that is helped by the war. War is destructive. The idea that you can do something constructive with war is becoming this facile, dangerous, intellectually lax political interpretation of military counter-insurgency theory.

Maddow is not alone. Rita Lasar lost her brother on September 11 and then watched in horror as his death was used to sell this war to the American people:

My brother, Abraham Zelmanowitz, was on the 27th floor of the North Tower on September 11th, 2001. …[H]e chose instead to stay with his friend and coworker Ed Bayea, a paraplegic in a wheelchair, who could not leave. My brother told all who passed them on their way down that he would wait with Ed until help came. They both died….I knew this country would use my brother’s death to invade and bring death to Afghan civilians as innocent as my brother and I was appalled.

Lasar traveled to Kabul in 2002 with three others who lost family on September 11. Here’s what she saw:

…[W]omen, if they did venture into the street, were universally clad in their burkas. I did not see one woman, not one, without a burka…We spent 2 weeks there. We met with many families who had lost loved ones when our bombs hit the wrong targets. We visited a hospital, partially destroyed, where we saw young children who had mistaken cluster bombs for food packages, who were missing limbs.  We visited orphanages full of children who no longer had parents. We went out of Kabul to tent cities full of families who could no longer live on their land because cluster bombs circled them.

She has a clear message for the president:

Get us out of there now.

But if the new administration follows through on its current policies, we won’t be leaving anytime soon. The drive to “help” the people of Afghanistan through “massive doses of violence” leads us to continually raise the stakes, adding more troops. But, as the Carnegie Institute for International Peace pointed out in a recent report:

The mere presence of foreign soldiers fighting a war in Afghanistan is probably the single most important factor in the resurgence of the Taliban.

According to international women’s rights group MADRE:

A troop surge has already been tried—and it failed.  In 2007, the number of US/NATO troops was increased by 45 percent. During that surge, more civilians were killed than in the previous four years combined.

MADRE also points out the deplorable situation of Afghan women, not under the Taliban, but under the U.S. backed government in Kabul:

  1. 1 in every 3 Afghan women experience physical, psychological or sexual violence
  2. 70 to 80 percent of women face forced marriages in Afghanistan
  3. Every 30 minutes, an Afghan woman dies during childbirth
  4. 87 percent of Afghan women are illiterate
  5. 30 percent of girls have access to education in Afghanistan
  6. 44 years is the average life expectancy rate for women in Afghanistan

Afghan women rights activists often refer to the U.S.-backed regime as “The Rule of the Rapists,” a name all the more apt now that the Karzai government passed a law legalizing rape in marriage for a portion of the population.  The Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) has called repeatedly for the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the end for our support of the corrupt regime in Kabul. But the “new” policy in Afghanistan assures us that we Americans know better.

Our attempts to “help” the Afghan people have now pushed us into unleashing bloodless unmanned drones into the skies of Pakistan, dropping missiles onto impoverished villages, killing innocent men, women and children in unlucky proximity to suspected militants. (I say “suspected” with good reason. We have very poor intelligence in the region, and have been tricked into eliminating the rivals of local drug lords rather than al-Qaida or Taliban extremists.) And though our president seized on the use of Predator and Reaper drones as a politically pain-free way of widening the scope of the war, often referred to now as “AfPak,” these strikes are not pain-free for the people in the villages along the Durand Line. Drone attacks from the air, along with the heavy-handed tactics of a Pakistani military under pressure from the U.S. government, create a massive humanitarian crisis:

AMERICAN drone attacks on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan are causing a massive humanitarian emergency, Pakistani officials claimed after a new attack yesterday killed 13 people.

The dead and injured included foreign militants, but women and children were also killed when two missiles hit a house in the village of Data Khel, near the Afghan border, according to local officials.

As many as 1m people have fled their homes in the Tribal Areas to escape attacks by the unmanned spy planes as well as bombings by the Pakistani army. In Bajaur agency entire villages have been flattened by Pakistani troops under growing American pressure to act against Al-Qaeda militants, who have made the area their base.

President Obama, laboring under the broken assumption that war can help the Afghan people, has continually widened the zone of use for drone aircraft in Pakistan despite warnings from regional experts that these strikes dishonor us in the eyes of the local population, increase sympathy for extremists and radicalize those affected by them. In retaliation for drone attacks, the Pakistani Taliban upped its violence toward the Pakistani government, attacking a police station in Lahore last week and promising weekly suicide bombings until the airstrikes cease. As our robotic swipes at this hornet’s nest continue to agitate the situation in Pakistan, our generals and civilian militarists issue solemn warnings that our allied government in that country could be toppled in as little as six months. These are the ultimate in self-fulfilling prophecies, as the extremists on the border have no real chance to topple the Pakistani government on their own. Middle East expert Juan Cole:

As for a threat to Pakistan, the FATA areas are smaller than Connecticut, with a total population of a little over 3 million, while Pakistan itself is bigger than Texas, with a population more than half that of the entire United States. A few thousand Pashtun tribesmen cannot take over Pakistan, nor can they “kill” it. The Pakistani public just forced a military dictator out of office and forced the reinstatement of the Supreme Court, which oversees secular law.

In 1967, King thundered against the U.S.’s rationale for supporting corrupt allies through ever-escalating use of military violence. He quoted the statements of the Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam, saying:

“A time comes when silence is betrayal.” And that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.

In 2009, betrayal seems to be all around us. A pivotal anti-war umbrella organization during the last administration, Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, was swiftly decapitated through political co-optation by the new administration.  Senior AAEI staff, including Steve Hildebrand, Paul Tewes, and Brad Woodhouse, now work as political aides for President Obama or for the Democratic National Committee. MoveOn moved on from its vocal opposition to war in Iraq to a deafening silence about the war in Afghanistan. The Center for American Progress recently published a report arguing for escalation. And, as Roll Call reported recently,

Anti-war Democrats have been largely mum on President Barack Obama’s recently unveiled policy for Afghanistan — partly because leading liberals don’t yet know where they stand.

On the 42nd anniversary of King’s speech, we find ourselves “mesmerized by uncertainty.” Many progressives worry that reversing the planned escalation will sacrifice justice in Afghanistan in the name of peace. But before this concern pushes them to embrace counterinsurgency doctrine as the answer in Afghanistan, they might want to read the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which states explicitly on p. xxxiv that COIN doctrine “implicitly asks Americans to define their aims in the world and accept the compromises they require…[c]ounterinsurgency favors peace over justice.”

With this context, those paralyzed by the complexities of the situation in Afghanistan should be able to escape the false dilemma of “counterinsurgency or compromise.” There are no ideal options in Afghanistan. Every possible way forward, escalation included, will incur compromise and cost. But faced with the rising humanitarian toll of our policies, we must realize now that we, not al-Qaida and not the Taliban, are responsible for our behavior and that we can only be responsible for our own choices. As such, we cannot allow terrorists and extremists to decide for us when we will end our military violence in Afghanistan. As King said,

Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.

Alternatives to escalation exist. The Carnegie Institute for International Peace suggests that the U.S. limit its goals in Afghanistan to leaving behind a government that can survive a U.S. withdrawal. Their report suggests that because military confrontation with the United States provides the unifying rationale for our opponents, the best way to weaken and divide them is to unilaterally reduce the number of troops without negotiating with the Taliban. During this drawdown, U.S. troops would be concentrated in major population centers, and the U.S. and our allies would focus on assisting Afghan attempts to build good governance that will outlive our presence.

MADRE’s suggestions closely track those of the Carnegie report:

  1. Set a timetable for the withdrawal of US and NATO troops.
  2. End US missile strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
  3. Demilitarize aid operations and fund reconstruction efforts that benefit Afghans, not US corporations.
  4. Promote peace talks between all parties involved in the conflict. Negotiations should include women’s organizations and other progressive forces and uphold the principle that human rights, including women’s human rights, are non-negotiable.
  5. Compensate families and communities hurt by US military operations and pay war reparations.
  6. Support local models of governance, such as the Loya Jirga, not a charade of procedural democracy that empowers war criminals.
  7. Support demands of the Afghan women’s movement to end violence against women, ensure women’s access to critical services such as healthcare, education, food and water, and give real meaning to hard-won legal reforms meant to protect women’s rights.
  8. Create a fund to meet Afghans’ urgent humanitarian needs. After 30 years of intervention and war, the US owes Afghanistan nothing less.
  9. Support Afghan civil society, particularly women’s organizations, which are a crucial counter-force to warlordism, terrorism and government corruption and a key to rebuilding Afghan society.
  10. Recognize that ultimately, decisions about what happens in Afghanistan should be made in Afghanistan, not Washington.

Taking our cue from Dr. King, we should not ignore the complexities of the situation in Afghanistan. But, recognizing the dangers posed by an escalating conflict to an impoverished people, the security of the region and the soul of our nation, we should understand that a time comes when silence is betrayal.

That time has come for us in relation to Afghanistan.

Help us break the silence:

Message creep tracks mission creep. “The real problem is Pakistan!” Mechanized hunter-killer falcons wander out of the Graveyard and hurl hellfire. Afghanistan becomes “AfPak.” The strike areas grow. A widening gyre whose center cannot hold.

April 4, 1967: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gives one of the most important and least remembered speeches of his career: “Beyond Vietnam–A Time to Break the Silence.” King denounces the economic exploitation of the poor by the U.S. war machine, its effect on our national economy and poverty programs, and the anti-Christian darkness swirling in the basic assumptions of the war. He says:

What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building?

April 4, 1968: An assassin kills Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the balcony of a hotel.

April 4, 2009: A U.S. “Predator” unmanned drone is given a command to fire on a house in North Waziristan, killing civilians.

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Intelligence officials say a suspected US missile attack has killed at least 13 people in northwest Pakistan.

The officials say Saturday’s strike targeted a home in a remote area of North Waziristan. They say residents pulled out 13 bodies and at least eight wounded from the rubble. There are civilians among the casualties.

April 4, 1967:

The recent statements of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart, and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” And that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.

Roll Call 2009:

Anti-war Democrats have been largely mum on President Barack Obama’s recently unveiled policy for Afghanistan – partly because leading liberals don’t yet know where they stand.

April 4, 1967:

Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.


The war in Afghanistan has crept into Pakistan. Despite the refusal of the CIA to acknowledge the Predator and Reaper strikes in Pakistan, many, many reports in the media document the presence of our loitering killing machines over Pakistani territory, remote controlled from facilities in the continental United States. The American public knows the drones are there; the Pakistani public knows they are there. The U.S. national security structure is at war in Pakistan.

The President might find comfort in the fact that large numbers of U.S. ground troops are not on Pakistani soil, but in so doing he’s splitting the finest of hairs, and betraying an inability to get past a decidedly Western frame of reference when weighing the costs of his policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. From that myopic point of view, the use of Predators and Reapers solves a problem: they allow us to pursue enemies into Pakistani territory while preserving some infinitesimally small amount of plausible deniability (the drones often fly so high they cannot be seen from the ground) and so-called “respect” for Pakistan’s sovereignty over its territory. These drones also allow the U.S. mission to creep into Pakistan without risking troop deaths as a direct result of the drones’ deployment. But the administration’s attribution of these benefits to the use of these killing machines can only be made possible by a lack of understanding of the people affected by the strikes and the dynamics that lead to the use of terrorism as a tactic.

P.W. Singer, in his new book, Wired for War, describes the effect of “distance warfare.” After summarizing a negative attitude toward technology in some parts of the Muslim world affected by deep, backward-looking fundamentalism, Singer cites retired Pakistani lieutenant general Talat Masood:

Masood…described the technology tha the U.S. military was using as “amazing,” but also as causing “great anger” in the region….”The advent of ‘distance warfare’ has profound implications for the battlefield and for America’s global strategy…in every case, whether it is Afghanistan or Iraq, it has vastly complicated the prerequisite of building the structures of peace.” In short, warned Masood, “The concept of ‘shock and awe’ could drive moderate and uncommitted civilians toward anti-Americanism.”

Singer goes on to describe how our understanding of the costs and benefits of the drone strikes ignores the cultural of the region, leading us to miscalculate how the strikes will be interpreted by the local society.

As a security expert in Qatar summed up, “How you conduct war is important. It gives you dignity or not.” …America was coming across as a menace, using its high technology to pick on the little guy. …Even pop culture in the region echoes the experts. In 2007, for instance, one of the most popular songs…[gave] a hint at how what Masood described as America’s “distance war” is being portrayed: “America’s heartless terrorism, Killing people like insects. But honor does not fear power.”

Finally, Singer summarizes how the use of Predators and Reapers could motivate terrorist attacks on the United States:

Mubashar Jawed “M.J.” Akbar…sees a similar message going out from American use of unmanned systems to the broader Muslim world. “It will be seen as American cowardice. In war terms, if you are not willing to sacrifice blood, you are essentially a coward…These systems will show the pathway to your defeat unintentionally. They create a subtext that shows that you don’t want to die…That all we need to win is to frighten them.”

…Unmanned systems…are the ultimate means of avoiding sacrifice. But what seems so logical and reasonable to the side using them may strike other societies as weak and contemptible. Using robots in war can create fear, but also unintentionally reveal it.

It is this link that leads Akbar to conclude that…[t]he greater the use of unmanned systems, the more likely it will motivate terrorist strikes at America’s homeland. “It will be seen as a sign of America’s unwillingness to face death. Therefore, new ways to hit America will have to be devised…”

Disturbingly, I heard the same conclusion time and again from other regional experts.

An opponent will often choose terrorism when they face an extremely powerful adversary exerting their overwhelming advantages in the region of conflict. War is always at its core a struggle between factions to generate sufficient violence to trigger political consequences. Tactically, when an enemy uses weapons platforms so advanced that their opponent cannot deflect or directly respond, the victim of the advanced weapon has an incentive to respond indirectly and asymmetrically. Psychologically, when one faces an opponent exerting an overwhelming and untouchable ability to exert violence, a sense of powerlessness and humiliation can compel some to seek a way to assert themselves against their enemies. When this is reinforced by a cultural disdain not only for the technology itself but also for those who would utilize such asymmetrical advantages in the field of battle, combined with the deaths of loved ones or neighbors caused by the technology, drone strikes become a severe liability if the overarching goal is to reduce the threat of terrorism against one’s people.

The administration’s strategy review ignored warnings that flooding Afghanistan with troops would unite the U.S.’s enemies against them. Once the administration announced they planned to escalate, the Taliban factions, as warned, reinforced their mutual allegiance and their ties with al-Qaida. Similarly, experts warn that Predator and Reaper strikes could generate terrorist retaliation against the U.S. and the U.S.’s allies, but the Pentagon recently widened the use of drones deeper into Pakistan. And, as predicted:

Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief Baitullah Mehsud on Tuesday claimed responsibility for the attack on a police training academy in Lahore and suicide attacks in Islamabad and Bannu, and warned of further attacks in Pakistan in the coming days and later in the US.

“These (attacks) were in reaction to (US) drone strikes in the Tribal Areas,” Baitullah Mehsud told BBC Urdu over the telephone from an undisclosed location.

“Over the next few days, more such attacks will come … two or three suicide attacks will take place,” warned Mehsud, without naming any cities or targets. “As long as the drone attacks continue, we will not stop.” The Taliban leader said he would himself “teach the US a lesson”.

Enough. As King said in 1967:

Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.

… The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality…and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing “clergy and laymen concerned” committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end, unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy.

…We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

The Obama Administration should seriously consider the recent recommendations of the Carnegie Institute for International Peace. Then, the Administration should go back to the drawing board on Afghanistan, craft a strategy that has as its goal an immediate reduction in the level of violence in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The best way to do that is to give up on the idea that more troops, more drones, and more killing will help the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan.