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 in every 3 Afghan women experience physical, psychological or sexual violence
- 70 to 80 percent of women face forced marriages in Afghanistan
- Every 30 minutes, an Afghan woman dies during childbirth
- 87 percent of Afghan women are illiterate
- 30 percent of girls have access to education in Afghanistan
- 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:
- Set a timetable for the withdrawal of US and NATO troops.
- End US missile strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
- Demilitarize aid operations and fund reconstruction efforts that benefit Afghans, not US corporations.
- 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.
- Compensate families and communities hurt by US military operations and pay war reparations.
- Support local models of governance, such as the Loya Jirga, not a charade of procedural democracy that empowers war criminals.
- 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.
- Create a fund to meet Afghans’ urgent humanitarian needs. After 30 years of intervention and war, the US owes Afghanistan nothing less.
- 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.
- 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: