PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus

Surge: Strategy for Successful Negotiations? by peaceprobe

The President Obama – General McCrystal surge in Afghanistan is now in full motion. Last week US Marines, NATO, and Afghan forces attacked in Helmand Province, southern Afghanistan to set the stage for negotiations. The Pentagon and the White House hope that the show of force will create the conditions for the their eventual departure. Taliban resistance includes multiple improvised explosive devices (IEDs), also known as homemade roadside bombs, the weapons of choice for insurgencies today, and widely scattered landmines to inhibit foreign and Afghan government forces. By chasing down the Taliban and holding territory the US hope is that the occupying forces from abroad will weaken regional Taliban commanders and thereby force negotiations that can lead to normalization over the coming 18 months.

The multi-year strategy, the surge, attack, negotiate, withdrawal (probably with residual forces left behind) was outlined by President Obama at his West Point speech in December. This is a familiar strategy for nations when they see that a foreign occupation has become expensive, unwinnable and unpopular. Something like this was contemplated for Afghanistan by the Soviets 20 years ago, and 40 years ago by the US in Viet Nam. Both were intended to cover the negative consequences of a withdrawal where success was not achieved. In both cases the hoped for solution backfired and the imperial armies were pushed out by circumstances at home. A similar strategy is now proceeding in Iraq but we won’t know the real outcome for several years.

The process of winding down the Afghan war by means of a surge will be lubricated with generous financial incentives rumoured to be as much as 1.5 billion dollars, available for use by US commanders as encouragement to create the path for realignment. Despite Afghan President Karzai’s tenuous mandate to rule, the negotiations and leaky reconciliation effort will plod forward under his leadership. The Taliban movement is a loosely coordinated effort that does not function under unified command. Last year some Taliban leaders participated in an early attempt at conversations in Saudi Arabia. Most Taliban leaders, however, have sworn loyalty to Mullah Omar who is the closest to a human symbol of a unifying figure.

In the background veteran State Department diplomat, Richard Holbrooke who pushed through the Dayton accords precursor to the Bosnia surge, monitors progress, and provides stimulation for all the parties, Pakistan, India, Central Asia, the U N security council, NATO and other big powers. Holbrooke has estimated that 70% of the Taliban fight for local reasons or money and can be won over.

The Afghan Taliban leadership which is Pakhtoon will be weaned from their need for safe havens in Pakistan where two-thirds of the ethnic Pakhtoon population lives. American, Canadian and other officials hope that incentives like money and positions in Karzai’s Afghan government will bring Taliban commanders and their followers into Kabul’s orbit. There is plenty of precedent for incorporating Taliban-like warlords into Kabul’s government. In 2001 when the Taliban government, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan fell, the US supported forces were led by the Northern Alliance one of several warlord groups that had been beaten back earlier by the Taliban. Karzai’s government has consistently included warlord leaders who still command militias from non Pakhtoon, sectors of Afghanistan. Though the non Pakhtoon peoples make up only slightly more than half of Afghanistan’s population, the Taliban now has shadow governors in thirty-three of Afghanistan’s thirty-four provinces. However their real strength remains in the Southern provinces populated by Pakhtoon people.

In a November 2009 press release for the festival of Eid which celebrates the end of Ramadan Mullah Omar hinted at flexibility while urging fighters on with a jihad that will lead to peace. The “negotiations” last year between the Afghan government (by implications the US and NATO) and the Taliban may or may not have started to move things toward a longer term negotiating process. Renunciation of Al-Qaeda is probably Washington’s one non-negotiable demand despite the fact that U. S strategists believe Al-Qaeda’s strategic importance still centred in Pakistan is much diminished. The principal demand of the Taliban is that foreign forces must announce a timetable to leave Afghanistan. President Obama hinted at a 18-month timetable in his West Point address.

In December 2009 President Karzai called for a Laya Jirga to which the Taliban would be invited as a way to bring the insurgency to an end. A Laya Jirga or grand council in the Pakhtoon tradition has been used among the tribes to settle disputes going back to ancient times and is rooted in Pashtunwali, the code of ethics of the Pakhtoon people. Karzai is said to have insisted that Mullah Omar be invited to participate. The response of the international community, the language used by Karzai to refer to the Americans, was caution. In addition to demanding assurances that the Afghan Taliban have revoke any relationship with Al-Queda the international community urged that Karzai demand that the Taliban accept the Afghan constitution. This points to the debate about the role of Sharia law in a future Afghanistan. Karzai has also called for an end night raids and that all prisoners be turned over to the Afghan government. He has continued his criticisms of the use of bombing raids by international forces that lead to massive death for civilians. In Helmand province, the site of the current U. S. and allied offensive up to ten civilians were killed in a Hellfire missile attack by a drone last week.

Even if the outlines of this precarious plan are successfully stitched together, it holds little promise of ending the work of the dragon, 9/11, whose fangs ignited this era of international terror, revenge and invasion. The end game leaves Afghanistan desperately poor and probably alone when the international community heads home as it will. The U. S. will finally have to attend to paying the sky-rocketing debt for its military adventures.

Surge, attack, negotiations have a ring of familiarity. Not all of us are confident that it will bring peace. What if the Taliban refuses to abandon their covenant with Al-Qaeda? What if Pakistan decides that an Afghanistan of warlords including Taliban warlords no longer tethered to Pakistan is too dangerous because India, its primary adversary, may exploit the situation?

What if the momentum of distrust and corruption can’t be stopped and the scaffolding for negotiations never develops? What if the better angels in Afghan culture and village life cannot be called forth to rescue everyone from the 30 year habits of violence? What if the external forces often called stakeholders, Pakistan, India, Iran, China, the neighbours to the North of Afghanistan, and the big powers including the US, NATO and Russia, all with interests in Afghanistan will not agree? What if violence, anarchy and warlords resurface with a vengeance as they did when the Soviets departed in the early 1990s? Will Afghanistan be turned back again to the warlords to compete for the spoils and grind the people down even more?

Stay tuned to this blog site as we explore some other approaches to Afghanistan and the region.


Nobel Prize: Peace Or Just War by peaceprobe

What is the meaning of the Nobel Peace Prize?  Alfred Nobel, Stockholm native and the inventor of dynamite and other explosives was chagrined that his inventions were used in cruel ways. In the late 1800s towards end of his life he dedicated his considerable fortune to those who had made the greatest contribution to humankind. Each year prizes are awarded for achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, economics and peace.

Two sitting American Presidents Woodrow Wilson (1919) and ninety years later Barack Obama (2009) have been presented the Nobel peace prize.  Both men believed that they had an overarching role to move history in a more peaceful direction.  Wilson was disappointed and died in office.  His League of Nations was crippled from non support at home and then burned in the ashes of World War II.  We hope for a better outcome for Obama.  Former President Jimmy Carter received the prize in 2002, 22 years after he was defeated by Ronald Reagan for a second term. Henry Kissinger accepted the peace prize for negotiating with the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam (North Viet Nam) in the early 1970s while B52s simultaneous bombed his enemy.  His counterpart Le Duc Tho of North Viet Nam refused to accept the prize.  The war continued for two more years after the Paris Peace agreements.  Between 1973-1975, another half a million Vietnamese were killed and wounded, 340,000 of them civilians.

President Obama’s eloquent speech accepting the Nobel Prize on Dec. 10, Human Rights Day laid out the necessity of war and ruminated on his nation’s understanding of just war – “war waged as a last resort, or in self-defence; if the force used is proportional, and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.”  To his credit he defined what theorists believe is a just war.  He did not identify how his administration purports to fine tune war making to meet the criteria of a just war in two big wars, Iraq, according to him a dumb war and Afghanistan, a necessary conflict.

How will those who target drone attacks, and other expressions of air war make certain that no civilians are killed?  How will a new chapter in just war be written in the basic training manuals of soldiers preparing for deployment, for interrogation of the enemy, for treatment of captives, and for clean up of military waste?   Can Alfred Nobel’s dynamite and its prolific offspring ever be controlled?  Will the apparent unlimited use of U S wealth for military purposes bankrupt its citizens as once happened in Rome?

For a century the Nobel Prize for peace has hovered in that space between active peacemaking represented by monumental efforts towards peace and justice like land mine eradication, civil rights, or relief efforts, and the work of nations to create a framework that will constrict war and its effects on civil society.  The prize was not primarily intended to celebrate pacifist solutions to war although people who questioned all war and violence like Martin Luther King and Jane Addams received the award.  The acknowledgement of their achievements gives hope.

In his speech President Obama deftly distanced himself and his office from pacifist traditions as a President with responsibilities consistent with empire must do.  To his credit he did so without the normal checklist of charges of idealism, lack of realism and or even naiveté, a checklist deeply embedded in the pillars of liberal democratic thinking upon whose shoulders his politic relies for ideological ballast.

President Obama didn’t tell us if there are any serious negotiations with adversaries, coalitions of Pakhtoon villages or Taliban groups.  In a part of the world where negotiations have been practised for 3000 years it is hard to believe that something isn’t happening to find an end to armed conflict.  How is the conduct of the Afghan-Pakistan war creating the context for real peace, democracy or development?  The people I talked to in Pakistan are not sure.  How will his administration encourage or even mandate the military chaplain corps to become a genuine conscience and moral compass for  “just combat” in the field.  What about the thousands of soldiers who joined the nation’s forces and, in the process of soldiering, developed a conscientious objection to war?  Will they be allowed to get out without having their dignity and personal integrity dishonoured?

For many peace people, church members and third world nations Obama’s speeches on Afghanistan and the acceptance of the Nobel prize despite their eloquence was a time of disappointment.  This was the moment when I realized that my long-term hope for ending the practice of war in say a century will require harder more focussed work than ever.  I believe I can use this experience as a time to bound forward.  The speeches remind me that the Lamb of God with even wider reach in the stretch for justice can overcome the god of empire that imposes chaos and destruction under the guise of democratic order.

The speeches remind us that fundamentalist preachers or pundits are tethered together with the liberal establishment on the question of war.  Both stumble through various versions of just war ethics as the Predator drones drag us into a scary future.  Above all the speeches remind us of the very limited options that are available to an imperial President in matters of peace and war.  This is the moment to pull up our pants, turn off the T V, awaken our imaginations, and listen to God’s spirit of compassion for all human kind, and get on with our work.

Some of us will be called to unexpected sacrifice of time, career, and life itself.  The goal of a world without war is worth all of the sacrifice of a great army of unarmed soldiers.  This dream of a nonviolent world may be the only realistic vision now, despite the fact that our leaders doff their hats to just war.  The renewal of our spirit will come one step at a time in fresh and even larger ways as our spirits are awakened to the politics of renewal and hope, a politic like Jesus himself, that is never dependent upon a president who himself is often powerless to transform an imperial culture that devours good policies and strong words.

The universality of this season’s mantra, “Peace on Earth Good Will Towards People” is a good place to start and it gets the best angels involved. If the mantra is going to bring down the institution of war we better be prepared with discipline and armfuls of imagination infused with love.  When we are called idealists we do well to give the realist answer, all of creation is groaning for something better.  That is where we will put our energy.  Even elder Alfred Nobel might cheer us on.

Corruption Medicine by peaceprobe

Corruption is in the news again always with tough talk about what the next phase of US troops in Afghanistan will look like.  As a young volunteer in Viet Nam in the early 1960s I was assigned to work with a USAID (United States Agency for International Development) sponsored program called hamlet education.  At the time I thought that education was always good and it never occurred to me that I might be part of a larger plan to entice the Vietnamese government to embrace the U. S. Government agenda.  As I got into my work I was warned of corruption.  American government advisors told me that money for the program was lifted all along the way from Saigon ministry people, through province leaders and on down to district governments that administered the disbursement of money. I was never told what to do about it.  I had not enrolled in a class that might have been called History of Corruption in the Western World although given the soiled history of US intervention in so many places over the last 40 years it should have been a required course.

At the local level where I worked, the district chiefs contracted to have the schools built.  Vietnamese and Americans warned me that the contractors would cut corners by using insufficient amounts of cement and lower quality construction materials.  According to these same people contractors were required to kick back a certain percentage to the district chief.  It took forever for the paperwork and the money to work its way through the system down to the hamlets.  So American advisors along the way were encouraged to pressure, nice talk, and occasionally throw a fit to get hamlet education and all the other counter insurgency programs moving.  Eventually I figured out that I was the final link in that pressure process.

District chiefs told me that the blame for the slow pace of implementation order was due to the Viet Cong, or the general slowness of the Vietnamese way.  Eventually schools were built, dedicated and opened.  There were plenty of children.  Occasionally when I visited schools there was propaganda on the school walls condemning American imperialists.   I learned that when those signs appeared the schools usually closed shortly thereafter and if I went to those villages people continued to be polite and there was still tea to drink but the villagers didn’t want to talk about the school.

As the military build up proceeded I noticed that the US military civic action people took great interest in schools, loved to paint schools, and give support to projects.  Like me they also believed that schools would bring a better future   As security broke down such projects lost their luster.  But many of the programs continued to be carried on the Saigon government books and something called corruption grew as the distance from money to effective implementation became more remote, often impossible, due to war.  This led to more accusations of corruption and an influx of more American advisors always with their generous hardship pay.  Like me they arrived generally underqualified in the local arts of communication, culture and corruption.   Back in the White House situation room war councils were a weekly affair.

President Obama has promised to announce his Afghanistan decision next week in time for Christmas.  West Point, his choice of location does not suggest to me that he or his advisors have learned what I thought I learned in Viet Nam about how war and corruption embrace each other usually with the language of economic improvement and development for the people.   I can hear the generals and other senior advisors now in the situation room fine tune the use of new miracle weapons and at the same time integrating Canada, NATO and whoever else into the strategy of targeting the foe.  And then some highly medaled general or civilian security advisor will ask about how the counter insurgency plans are coming along. Somebody pontificates about “the people” and someone else describes a conversation they had in Afghanistan recently. Maybe there is a silence in the room and then someone from USAID, the civilian counter insurgency agency, reports on how many new people have been sent in to advise and track roads, schools and other development work.  Overall the mood is sombre and no one wants to say the strategy won’t work.  Someone asks about negotiations.   But that discussion doesn’t seem to go anywhere either.  One of the elephants in the room reminds the solemn gathering how embarrassing it is to give money to a government that is corrupt so someone suggests that we have to get the press to cover a success story.

Corruption usually gets worse in war because people’s survival instinct tell them to think short term and clutch at every opportunity for golden nuggets, money, or anything that has value and can be traded.  I doubt that the $500 dollar per day civilian advisors will stamp out survival corruption.  I have not heard evidence that these pricy civilians are any more prepared with communication, culture and corruption medicine than I was 45 years ago.  An Afghan’s monthly salary is less than half the amount a U. S. aid worker earns each day.  It costs about $500,000 per year to put these pricy civilian advisors and corruption doctors in the field, including the cost of their housing, transport, and security (usually provided by even higher paid contractors).  A soldier costs the American people about one million dollars per year.

But the suspension of legal and moral strictures so evident in conditions of war has its first cousins in New York and Washington where there isn’t a war.  We don’t use the word corruption unless it’s a Ponzi scheme.  By keeping the boundaries of the law as wide as possible in order to encourage free enterprise our rule of law here is respected even though people, corporations and syndicates plunder one another and feed on those who are not organized to escape the insatiable grasp for more money.  It is this kind of condition that incensed the Old Testament prophets when they warned Israel about the fate that awaits the greedy nation.  Corruption doctors are needed right here in North America, not the $500 a day kind that are sent to Afghanistan but the kind who have demonstrated with a life of bold words, or prudent action that the future is worth protecting.  Preachers and modern day prophets whose thought and wisdom have tasted from the well of sustainable economy can help.  Listeners and readers should, however, beware of the false gospel of perpetual prosperity celebrated in so many religious and economic holy places like some mega churches and Wall Street.

In Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan the word corruption is used when sharply dressed foreign advisors, who should know better, need someone to blame.   Let’s face it, corruption is universal.  Publius Cornelius Tacitus, roman senator, and historian who prosecuted a proconsul of Africa on corruption in the first century said “The more corrupt the state, the more laws.” We still have a habit of passing more laws to build a moat around corruption and deal with lapses in moral judgement.

The terms of the debate on Afghanistan are in need of change from corruption and blaming to respect and honest talk.  Foreign power and might will not change the outcome in Afghanistan although generous doses of explosives from outside will certainly lengthen the war.  The challenge of American powerlessness in Afghanistan now faces President Obama and his advisors. If he reaches back to his time as a community organizer he will get some hints of how to address the nation and the world when faced with powerlessness. Community organizers don’t take on campaigns that are not good for the community.  A healthy campaign reaches out with the possibility of real gain for all the participants

Foreign fighters in Afghanistan from the Muslim or the Christian world  can ill afford to pay for this war.  This chapter of warfare can be closed by loading up the trains, trucks, and air planes with all existing and spent war equipment.  By bringing instruments of war past and present, mines, spent tanks, everything, home for recycling it will not be used by anyone in Afghanistan or elsewhere to extend anyone’s conflict.  Then the world can turn its attention to binding up the wounds from broken relationships, the tangle of terrorism, and building a world that is incorruptible.

Fort Hood Shootings: Tragedy Waiting to Happen by peaceprobe

Major Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter was caught in an impossible matrix of shame.  As a Muslim he was asked to support the killing his fellow religionists.  Islam forbids the killing of other Muslims.  As a military man he was belittled and perhaps harassed for his growing Muslim convictions.  Good soldiers do not identify with the enemy.  Every day as a counselor and psychiatrist he was reminded of his impossible dilemma as he listened to the dreadful stories of broken soldiers caught in the vise of post traumatic stress syndrome disorder (PTSD).  Their stories of fatalism, guilt, suicide and other life changing experience in combat killing reminded him that he was a part of the system that kills other Muslims. He was caught between two shaming systems and there was no place to turn for help.

The military does not allow for selective conscientious objection.* Soldiers, including officers of all religious and secular persuasions who try to extricate themselves from previous military commitments are belittled.  And the bureaucratic path leads through months and even years of lonely and tortured hearings, appeals, reviews and rejections. Some go absent without leave (AWOL) only to grow exhausted over time with their semi underground life and loss of hope for a normal life. They may turn themselves in or even join the ranks of the homeless.  In previous wars they were welcomed in countries like Canada where they took up new lives.  Canada is no longer welcoming to objectors.

Objectors who are in uniform tend to act out of the deepest instincts of conscience that is available to them, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, or humanist.  Major Nidal Hasan is one in a long line of soldiers whose deep inner conviction led them to refuse to cooperate.  He did it in a more destructive and dramatic form.  If you want to meet other objectors you can visit Under the Hood Café outside of Fort Hood where G Is with objections to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan congregate.  I met six of them in a recent trip to Austin.  All of them described thoughts of suicide, anguish over their desire to get their lives back, frustration at the way the military refused to believe them when they objected, and counselling sessions with people like Major Hasan that helped little.   In our conversations the group of objectors thoughtfully contemplated various versions of objection, selective conscientious objection (not recognized by the military), complete pacifism (recognized by the military) or continuing to run.   However in the confusion of their stress, I was not sure if one or more of them could turn to violence directed at their families or even aimed at the military.

Like Major Hasan the non Muslim objectors were people who believed what the military recruiters who are required to meet quota, told them.  They thought they would get money for advanced education.  They believed that they were going to fight and kill persons who may terrorize America.  They believed what they would do was right, good, honourable and even heroic.   The reality and innocence of the people they have now killed overwhelms them.  Their consciences were stirred by a more deeply rooted universal respect for human life. When they acted on their conscience it was interpreted as disloyalty to the military and to their nation and their lives are not celebrated like the media reverently acknowledges those who die in America’s wars.

Despite the macho cultures from which these non Muslim soldiers came their bodies and minds are now closed down to more war. For the young soldiers I met in Austin TX, massive killings by air, sea and land were enthusiastically approved and roundly supported by their superiors and political leaders.  Each soldier I talked with has his or her own story of willy nilly, random shootings that are never investigated.  In Major Hasan’s culture, suicide attacks are encouraged as the way to leave a mark or discourage the enemy.  The dominant thread in both cultures is the ancient model, an eye for an eye and both have teachings about just war that are ignored by commanders, soldiers and the religious teachers who back them up.

The lessons from the Fort Hood shootings is one that all of us must hear and believe.  There are great numbers of people returning from the modern battle field who are wounded in spirit.  The belief in a system that threatens, shocks and kills does not bring real security.  We all need to listen to people like Major Hasan and his colleagues at Fort Hood and help them find a way out of the system that is killing them and others.   One way out for them would be a system of selective conscientious objection.  We can press for that.

We can also push for a democracy that provides as many rewards for unarmed warriors, peacemakers and service workers outside the military as those promised to military recruits.  Maybe we should even advocate a draft that  recruits the sons and daughters of the ruling class first.  In the long term we need to press for a dramatic cut in the military budget.  And for all of us who dream of the day when a culture of peacefulness without killing might prevail we need to get serious about all kinds of experiments that build a culture where conflicts are settled without weapons.

*Major Nidal Hasan June 2007 notes for speech at Walter Reed Hospital advocating option for Consciencious Objector status for Muslims in the conclusion.

Lucky in Vegas by peaceprobe

The invitation to a gathering of reflection on peacemaking in Las Vegas came several months ago.  I was honoured to join the group for a day because the question of how to respond to America’s current wars, its plans for dominance in space and the unfolding movement of robotic warfare challenges all of us, young and old, to think in fresh ways.  My time in Vegas would be completed with another adventure in contemplation in the desert sands where Creech Air Force Base trains pilots for robotic warfare.

The collapse of world wide finance and my lack of confidence in the big players may be creating a greater space for imagination.  When I complained to one participant, Vincent Harding, that I still have little confidence in what to do he gave me a little pastoral advice from an African proverb.  “How do you eat an elephant,” he asked. “One bite at a time.”  I left Las Vegas where the demons of irrational luck seem to be in control determined to free up the mirage of powerlessness in my mind.

I am done with letting the big players and gaming machines control the culture.  I know more than I have acted upon.  Economics is also a matter of spirit.   My mind’s deep freeze has kept me from the light within and the possibility of light in my opponents, the people who manage the remaining collapse of a world that takes care of the people who are “too big to fail”. Truth happens in experiments.   It is backed by courage and preparedness for the teachable moments.  My time in Las Vegas was one of the moments when I was taught.

My wake up call to finance capital was completed in the biggest detention center of Las Vegas.  But first I had to go to Creech Air Force Base 45 miles northwest in the desert. I wanted to meet a commander at Creech to discuss the work of Predator I and II, the drones that I heard so much about from Pakistani people when I visited that Muslim country in June.   I joined a group of seven. But, as we began to walk along the commercial entry way to Creech AFB we were detained by Clark County police behind a large movable cement barricade.  We were placed in the care of military police with heavy belts who pointed their big black guns at us.  It gave me a little extended time to think about the finances that pay the bill for Creech.

As we waited in front of the guns to be transported to Clark County Detention Center, two blocks from the Golden Nugget, one of Las Vegas oldest sanctuaries of luck, my colleagues asked me to redeem the time by giving a full voiced report on my recent trip to Pakistan for the benefit of my fellow detainees and our guard – caretakers.  With apologies to my friends back in Pakistan for the absence of tea service I was able to represent truthfully some of what I learned about their fears of being the objects of Predator drones and their hopes for an unfolding of justice with peace in South Asia.

By midnight six hours after the pilgrimage into Creech began, I had been fingerprinted several times, questioned repeatedly, tested for TB, had my blood pressure checked, asked if I had recently tried to commit suicide, and I repeatedly spelled and corrected my last name for the vast criminal bureaucracy of the Las Vegas region.   Somewhere along the way I was relieved of my shoes, socks, watch, ID, money, and everything but my pants and shirt.   Later in the night I was pushed into a 10 foot by 20 foot holding cell where 18 other people were already making some kind of peace or silently plotting revenge at police who had shouted or insulted them on their road to detention.

The sounds of the cell included broad sustained snores, other body noises and loud television,  a cacophony that reminded each of us non sleepers that we had reached a peculiar moment of truth.  By approximately four am a gruel like slop arrived for breakfast.  Most of us could not face the Wonder Bread and whatever else there was.  Nausea teased our stomach muscles.  The guards had thoughtfully placed a large plastic bag in the middle of the floor and told us to put any left over food that we couldn’t eat or would not stay down into it. “If you make a ‘blankety blank’ mess,” screamed the guard. “You can plan to be in the holding area for two more weeks.”

By the time of my release the second and third “gruelling” meals had come and gone.  As those hours passed, I got to know my cell mates.  Several had been picked up for the high crime of jay walking evidently a matter of major concern in the city of mostly bad luck.  Others were picked up for traffic violations.  Everyone except me had some other kind of outstanding legal problem.  For several men, simple records had never been updated.

My loss of shoes and socks became a matter of considerable concern since the temperature in the holding area of lucky town is just south of a cool fall day near the solar ice cap. While the street people slept through the fog like another day on the tracks, the rest of us shared our stories.

One man, a high roller was tracked for outstanding debts of $125,000 at two casinos when he was stopped on a traffic violation.  A couple calls and he zipped up his $700 dollar shoes and was off to another race. He told me he once won $600,000 in two hours but admitted his career on the strip had lost his family a lot more than he had won.  I managed to get a modest applause, enough to wake up the permanent sleepers when I told them I was in for “disturbing the war” at Creech AFB.

Actually I think I got lucky in Vegas because I was introduced to at least two angels in waiting.  I haven’t had a chance to talk to them very much yet.  You see angels always come to me in unkempt and upsetting ways.  First, the angel of unearned and unconscious powerlessness showed up in the gathering to do peace visioning.  I will be talking to that angel.  The second appeared in both the shouts of the Clark County Sheriff’s officers and in the up close and personal discussions with other detained people. My cell mates were curious about Afghanistan and Pakistan but they also reminded me to watch out for bully behaviour wherever it shows up, in Afghanistan, in Las Vegas police uniforms, on the back streets of Vegas or on Wall Street.  I will be having more conversations with this angel too.   The light and dark of the desert has gotten me revved up again.  I guess that is what a reflection session and retreat is supposed to do.  Thanks!

McCrystal’s Afghan War Memo by peaceprobe

This week General McChrystal’s review of what is needed in Afghanistan began to make its rounds.  Although the unclassified “multi disciplinary assessment” might not titillate your breakfast musings, it sets the tone for the coming debate and if we want to engage in the discussion, we better know what it says.  In a word the report calls for the ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force which includes NATO and other forces to change its internal culture by getting closer to the people, protecting the people, and tightening up its command structure while it decentralizes in order to respond to local conditions.   It repeatedly calls for the mission to be properly “resourced” which is Pentagonese for more troops and it urges more ability in language and cultural skills to relate to local people.

The memo reminds the Afghan government that it needs to clean up its act.  It alludes to the mantra of corruption as if this is a new characteristic of a “counter insurgency” situation.  The pages note that the abuse of power and privilege by the Afghan government has not helped.  However it does not remind its readers that corruption, abuse of power and opportunism, also standard form in US politics at home, in Iraq and in Afghanistan, are common themes in war and particularly where there are insurgencies.

The report is silent about religion or traditional communal decision making of Afghan village culture as a component for healing – well the memo actually does not use the term healing.  It makes no mention of gender roles or how traditional justice processes work among the various ethnic groups.  It vaguely acknowledges the possibility of selective negotiations and uses the term reconciliation. But the central theme is a call for what it names as a new strategy and warns that without it and proper resourcing things can get worse, much worse.

The memo lets us know that “conventional warfare culture is part of the problem”.   Immediately I thought of the US Air Force or the newly conventionalized robotic war machine at Creech Air Force Base near Las Vegas.  Would these projects and units like them that do so much damage to relationships, trust and long term confidence be shut down?  I tried to conjure up images of how a marine unit might look, devoid of its Hummers, trucks, and helicopters and ready access to a plethora of communication devices just a few of the elements of the conventional warfare culture that I know.

It’s a stretch to think of a marine unit “tasked” to build relations with the local people, sitting in circles of elders, sharing food, brain storming about what works and what doesn’t work.  I imagine those marines travelling by bicycle, without arms, uniform or even candy to give out. Maybe a sign somewhere on the bicycle would say “I am an unarmed soldier and I am here to help”.   I thought that General McChrystal should know that imaginations like the one implanted within me creates images for an army that could embrace serious internal cultural change.

For the record, McChrystal should be reminded that beginning one century ago an unarmed nonviolent army of 100,000 like the marine unit I described once existed among the tribesmen like the people McChrystal’s army now fights in border area of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Badshah Khan, its leader, was buried in Jalalabad, Afghanistan in 1988.  The cultural changes advocated here are not as remote to Afghanistan as conventional thinking might consider them to be.    I know that General McChrystal would still be worried about the security of his unarmed troops.  Should he be worried?  Yes!  Would ISAF death rate be worse than it is presently with all the armour, the weapons, and airplanes removed..  Probably not!

A bonus to a major cultural shift towards simplicity for foreign forces in Afghanistan may be its attractiveness back home in a society that is rooted in notions of sacrifice.  For conservatives it would mean lowering the costs. For liberals it would appeal to notions of really helping rather than breaking things.  Going low budget with constant self reflection has been tried by private groups and it works.  Implementation will require a different kind of consultant, contractor, trainer and analyst.  The new strategy could silently eliminate all the armed mercenaries that repeatedly sully the image of our country.  Everybody would win with this strategy, Afghans, Americans, conservatives, liberals even the Pakistani and Iranian neighbours who would feel less pressure to keep up in terms of missiles and military hardware. Successful implementation of the new culture of the International Security Assistance Force would clearly mean less troops, not more, as the  values behind the new culture take root.

Another suggestion that I liked in this memo is the call for people to think. To break through the fog of the more than 130 military acronyms in this document does require thinking.  But why not take General McChrystal at his word and think more deeply with him about what might work.  Neither President Obama nor his White House staff are particularly experienced in Afghanistan although some of them have done unarmed community projects and that is a plus if they take time to remember how they connected with communities.

One of the ways in which the Afghanistan effort has been “under resourced” for the last 8 years is thinking.  I don’t presume to have all the answers about security. However I believe that the people I have known and worked with in villages, provincial towns, and cities across this world including Afghanistan really have useful thoughts and solutions.  The problem is that no one can get to them because the contractors, the Hummers, the drones and the conventional warfare culture gets in the way.  It’s a big deal to change a culture.  General McChrystal will need a lot of support because he will get mean opposition if he in fact survives long enough to work out a vision.

The memo is reaching for something that may have a moral equivalency to conventional war.  Any soldier who resolves to find a way for change outside the standard instruments of war is stepping into testy waters.  That is why he or she thinks more troops are needed just in case nothing works.  The memo fails to show how more resources will bring the mission closer to success.  Military thinkers like the rest of us stumble around when we know we must work outside the box.  If more resources just brings escalation and deepens the resolve of both sides for victory using terrorism if necessary, the mission will fail.  If this process of culture change can turn us to deeper things, like how justice is accomplished, the conversation before us may help.

Torture: Trials of The Unspeakable by peaceprobe
September 10, 2009, 2:02 pm
Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Detainees, Impunity, Iraq, Viet Nam | Tags: , ,

Torture has been on my mind.  I know that I need to push back its cover from where it dwells in the shadows.  I know that my nation may refuse to do so when they use torture as a means of waging war as a path to peace.  Lecturing others about torture comes more easily. I have learned in the last fifty years that laws preventing torture, and molestation will not stop it.  But law will help.  However, only a moral conversion will change things.  People tell me human nature will never change.  I believe change is always happening.  It’s what we do with change that counts.

The challenges of torture raised by Abu Ghraib (Iraq), Guantanamo (Cuba) and Bagram (Afghanistan) are particularly striking for Christians since at the heart of our faith is the memory of the flogging, taunting and execution of Jesus.  It takes courage to face the horror, overcome my silence and make an honest attempt to talk truth.  I  read the Bible, and only see the agony narratives as sanitized crucifixion drama that builds to resurrection.  I like Easter because it gets life moving again.  But resurrection invites me to look into the face of my species with both compassion and moral confrontation, two threads that are hard to carry simultaneously.  Resurrection is understood by admitting and looking at the whole story which includes frame-up, betrayal, torture, conviction and slow painful death.

Six years ago this month I was in Baghdad where I talked to some of the earliest prisoners to be freed from detention after the American occupation began. I wanted a profile of what was happening and maybe some hints on how to intervene with protective actions.  The interrogation routines reflected patterns, revolvers pointed at heads, loud sounds, sleeplessness, shouting, taunting, accusations and more.  When these descriptions ended very often there was a sigh and the former detainee would look at me and say “and there were things about which I cannot talk”.  I could not imagine what the unspeakable things might be until I saw the pictures from Abu Ghraib.  Then the unspeakable “things about which I cannot talk” took shape, sexual humiliation, nakedness, and molestation. Similar interrogation methods were described to me years earlier in Viet Nam, and the Philippines.

Torture and abuse by the modern state over the last century abounds.
These Abu Ghraib torture events happened in an Arab culture where nakedness and sexual innuendo is forbidden.   The pictures displayed sexual humiliation.  Before Abu Ghraib when I read the story of Jesus’ arrest, interrogation, and execution I failed to notice the deeper threads of similarity to modern practices of the politics of domination.  In the first century it was as culturally unconscionable to display someone naked, particularly a Jew in Palestine as it is in Iraq today.  Is it possible to read the arrest stories including Jesus’ stripping and disappearance for a time when he was turned over to the soldiers as a process that included sexual humiliation?  Did Jesus experience not only humiliation but actual sexual assault?*

According to the record Jesus was flogged, a process designed to hurt and humiliate the prisoner.  After Jesus was handed over to the Roman soldiers, themselves foreign occupiers, he was mocked, given a crown of thorns, dressed in courtly purple and taunted.  The digital photos from Abu Ghraib may be the closest representation of what might have happened when Jesus was alone with soldiers, better even than Mel Gibson’s more macho representation in The Passion of Jesus.  What would a hidden camera among the Roman soldiers who taunted Jesus have revealed that we don’t know from the existing record?

Torture touches people at the interface of culture, faith, and fear.  The context of torture creates space for sexual misconduct.  What may have begun as interrogation for fact finding turns into a ritual of dominance, penetration and molestation. Does torture open us to a reptilian side of our nature buried deep inside our brain? We don’t want to look, especially when it turns sexual.  Looking makes us ashamed.  Our shame awakens our lesser selves that we thought we had put away with the progress of history.  Some of us turn our heads in shock when we view the apparently acceptable government approved interrogation rituals on prime time TV.

A crucifixion was an extreme formula of execution in Roman times.  At first, under the Republic it was used for slaves, but under the empire its use was enlarged to include criminals and persons involved in revolts.  Cicero called crucifixion “the most cruel and disgusting punishment” and the Apostle Paul talks of Jesus’ end, “even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8) almost to suggest that there are all kinds of less humiliating, less painful and quicker ways to be put to death.  Jesus may have been crucified naked as was often practised in crucifixion formulas of the time.  The first century historian, Josephus called crucifixion, “the most pitiable of deaths”.

If it happens, a nation’s recovery from a period of state torture takes decades.  In Latin America where state sponsored torture was rampant it took 15 years before Argentina and other sovereign states began to carry forward trials of perpetrators.  In the United States we are not yet far removed from Abu Ghraib.  Only recently have we learned of a pattern of sexual exhibitionism among State Department sponsored contractors in Afghanistan.

The response of the Obama administration which is to place torture at arms length with more study reflects an ambivalence about dealing with it now.  The brave words heard in the campaign reflected a  belief that we are better than the events of Abu Ghraib depict us to be, something we all want to believe about ourselves and our nation.  But denial also has even wider cultural support.  No leader can take on torture trials without using up considerable political capital and without exceptional support in the population.  President Obama does not have that support because people like me take so long to uncover and admit the depth of our own revulsion.

As I learned of the torture of Iraqi citizens in the wake of the US occupation I had an internal debate.  One voice said it is better to be conservative, methodical and thorough in order to make the unfolding drama of suffering more believable to far away citizens, legislators and military personal some of whom had their own doubts.  The stories we heard from former detainees were compelling and were reported by enough former detainees that I was convinced of their authenticity.  But months went by without wider confirmation in any media with pictures.  Were there symbolic actions, or other things that we could have done to jolt people even without the “smoking gun” of a picture?

When the photos from Abu Ghraib surfaced I was forced to look deeper into the interrogation process than I had before.  The people who supported me now could believe me too because the media gave confirmation.  But what if I could not depend upon media confirmation particularly in an era when being embedded with the military went largely unquestioned?  What if a soldier had not leaked his digital photos for the world to see?  How many more people would have been taunted, and betrayed, by state sponsored torture in Iraq because of my insistence upon evidence that would hold up with sceptics?

In a world where the door has not been closed and locked forever on torture by moral conviction or law I know I have to find a new way through to the heart of truth each time.  The fact that a central figure in my faith walked into an Abu Ghraib type event 2000 years ago reminds me of the continuity of the experience of torture.  I wish his cohorts who responded with denial, betrayal, silence and fear would have been more gutsy. I wish I wasn’t so much like them. There are times when moral conviction is so strong that silence is impossible.


* For a more thorough study of these themes read Prisoner Abuse: From Abu Ghraib to The Passion of Christ by David Tombs in Religion and the Politics of Peace and Conflict, ed. Linda Hogan and Dylan Lee Lehrke, Pickwick Publication, Eugene Oregon (Princeton Theological Monograph Series)