Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Blaming the Victim, Politics of Empire | Tags: Afghanistan, Canada, corruption, counter insurgency, military contractors
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.
Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Christian Peacemaker Teams, Militarism, Nonviolent defence, Politics of Empire | Tags: Afghanistan, Canada, drones, listening to the people, peace, right to life, Taliban
In the heart of Kandahar, Afghanistan (population 450,000) a bomb went off last week killing 43 people. “Anything can happen to ordinary Afghans. We are not safe. We are without value. We have no right to life,” said one victim whose family is among the living wounded. Who does he turn to? Who will speak for his family?
In 2002 I was in Afghanistan with Christian Peacemaker Teams. It was a time of change. Our peacemaking mission was welcomed. People allowed themselves to dream that the 20 years of war that began when the Soviets invaded might be ending. I returned home hoping that we could place peacemakers there because I saw signs that suggested unarmed violence reduction could augment what villages, groups, and individuals already had, based upon their own patterns of peacebuilding developed over generations.
I listened to village elders describe how they deal with violence, murder and injustice. I heard people describe the bombs that fell near or on their homes after 9/11. I was surprised by people’s candour, their hospitality and their confident formulas for conflict resolution. I am old enough to know that hospitality may be a means of masking the truth, but I also know that by accepting their generosity we each became surer of one another’s sincerity.
I saw rubble and rusting hulks from the Soviet period, the acres and hectares of destroyed city where warlords once fought for spoils. On the road to Bagram Air Force Base I witnessed deserted fields, irrigation systems and villages where crops of wheat and vegetables once fed people of Kabul. “Where have you been all these years?” asked an Afghan when he heard we were sent from the people working for peace. Similar sentiments came from others too, in small gestures of kindness and big dreams shared privately over tea.
I learned from seasoned Afghans that armed and uniformed soldiers would have great difficulty creating the conditions for reconciliation. Even as a civilian I was not convinced that I had a secret instrument for peace. I wanted to be honest but worried that Taliban and the war lords would ignore my fumbling peace probes. Being a foreigner particularly an American didn’t help. After decades of work in conflict situations I had learned to live with my uncertainty. My instinct told me to test and try various words, actions, suggestions in conditions where violent conflict resolution had become routine. Surprise! Something usually works even when society seems to be coming apart .
The signs of the futility of foreign military intervention have been there for at least eight years, and for centuries for those of us who take the time to read the pointers in Afghan history. When a nation is submerged in the political economy of war, turning the dial towards a peaceful direction is more difficult than juggling American citizens to consensus for health care reform. The promise of more foreign troops erects an even higher threshold.
Neither drones, nor F-15s nor brilliantly trained marines can find the path to harvest a new political economy where the things that make for peace sprout and blossom. If the dominant threads of development, crop improvement and infrastructure, are combat-clothed, security is lost for everyone. Suspicion, and opportunism always win in conditions of war. We should not be surprised by the daily rants from the foreign press describing corruption and opportunism. War and development don’t mix. Even the recent elections are exercises in political entertainment, devoid of trust. Our huge social-cultural mind set that violence can be redemptive does not work.
As American or Canadian or British soldiers continue to depart for the conflicted front I hope someone tells them about the kindness of the Afghan people. I hope the soldiers can listen in ways that generations before them would not or could not.
If they do listen they may come home early, not because of bullet wounds or truck bombs, but because they learned that they were sent into a conundrum of the impossible. They will remember the wise voices in the villages where they took extra time to listen. For some foreign soldiers those voices will resonate within because their hearts have been prepared. For them this will launch a new vision that includes all of humanity. I want to support them.
The US and its NATO partners are tired. The people of Kandahar are tired. Everyone is less secure. The 2500 Canadian soldiers in Kandahar, like their partner to the south are stuck. The government of Canada, its people and its soldiers anxiously await 2011 when the government has promised to end the military “mission”. Meantime the United States is preparing to send 20,000 additional soldiers. Without a “right to life” where is the hope? The way we invest in Afghanistan is more costly and treacherous than security swaps on Wall Street. Must we wait until all sides are exhausted to end it?
For the past 8 years I have been thinking about what we can do for Afghans who ask, “Where have you been”? Peace people, let us find our voices. Here are three suggestions.
1. Listening delegations can be organized to spend time in Afghanistan to learn and feel the void of meaning in the violence. Their experience will rev up all of us to engage.
2. Local efforts of listening to returning soldiers will help them sort out their story and complete at least a piece of our own. What have they learned from the Afghan people? about war? about this war? about themselves? about what is worth living for or dying for?
3. When the town meetings happen or the legislative telephones wait to ring, how about a simple message, “The Afghan War is bad for my health”.
Find the local and national organizations who are already working on these items.
For people of faith there must be a response for the words from Kandahar, “We have no right to life.” When I came back from Afghanistan in 2002 despite my best efforts I could not find the people and financial support to place teams in the field there. A whole team of peacemakers could have been placed there for the cost of just one foreign soldier. And for the cost of another soldier several local teams could have been trained and put to work. Those bold words are still calling out to me. “Where have you been all these years?” And, where are we now?
Filed under: First Nations People, Nonviolence | Tags: Canada, native people, peace, revenge
Last week I attended the fourth in a series of council meetings in my township, Alberton. The room was full again because the council was scheduled to vote on making a zoning change so that Weechi-it-te-win, a native family services organization could purchase a farm where it would open a new facility for youth. Dozens of worried, angry people have spoken up and shouted out at the council meetings. “Our Way of Life” is threatened said one young man who is starting a family. Across the highway from the projected facility, FOR SALE signs have appeared in several yards, a visible signal of protest although the owners must not be serious because their prices are highly inflated.
I first learned the language of threat used with the phrase “Our Way of Life” during the 1950s emanating from white supremacists in Alabama as the civil rights movement heated up. My home was then in Ohio. I knew something was wrong about race relations but couldn’t figure out how it affected me and my way of life. So in the late 50s as a student at Eastern Mennonite University (Virginia) I wrote and delivered a speech for an oratorical contest condemning segregation and racist thinking . It was actually a pretty safe thing to do. In those days we generally believed that racism was wrong but it didn’t occur to us very often that people like me could do something about it. After the speech a few people came to me to suggest that I may have stepped over the line and some people were offended by my speech. It was all very polite. Nothing like the doomsday, “Our Way of Life” protests I felt in Alberton last week. Or maybe I just was not listening very well.
The other day I learned that some Americans say that Obama’s health reform agenda is dangerous because it threatens “Our Way of Life”. Although I am living in Canada where I enjoy public health care I occasionally sneak a peak at American news where some commentators tell me how bad the Canadian health system is. I could not have known this by living here in Canada because for the first time in my life I go to the clinic for preventative check ups regularly and I am getting healthier. I have only lived here for five years so I might have a myopic view. In Chicago where I lived before I only went to an emergency room if I was really sick, and I worried that they would clean out my billfold.
This ongoing tussle with the shadowy side of our common life brings me back home here to Alberton township, (dispersed rural population 1000) where the council voted down the application for the native run youth facility on zoning grounds. The “Our Way of Life” people and the strict zoning interpreters on the council won out for now. I wonder what the council would have done if zoning changes were requested to pave the way for a university computer research facility. Would that fit into the Business Park zoning designation. That would have really challenge “Our Way of Life”. And if the paper mill that employs 650 people would close or downsize what would that do to zoning and “Our Way of Life”?
Now in Alberton I am faced with the same “Way of Life” problem I faced fifty years ago when I was a student in Virginia. Do I stay quiet, keep the lawn mowed, and try to be nice to my neighbours? Do I make a sign “Natives, Non Natives, There is room for all of us” and walk or bicycle the forty or so miles of Alberton roads inviting my neighbours to a conversation. I am not sure how I feel about walking these roads alone. The tone of the meetings in the council chamber is stuck right now but what happened in Alabama tells me that things don’t stay stuck forever, even though Birmingham is not yet perfect..
The North American continent is stumbling towards a “Way of Life” that could be good for all of us. The unfinished project of equality, and democracy sometimes gets in the way of “Our ‘current’ Way of Life”. The lawyers scramble for the spoils when we have disagreements like this. Law helps but it doesn’t change my deeper side. I learned to try to be true to what is right in Sunday School a long time ago. I am not always successful. Education helps me sometimes but I forget very quickly. So how do I listen to my moral conviction, and outrage and help harvest them into a “Way of Life” that awakens the best for all of us, native, non native, timber worker, unemployed, professional, youth and retired? Adjustments to an always changing “Way of Life” may be inconvenient in the short run. I think I can handle this walk through the valley of shadows but I will only know as I do it one step at a time. I invite my neighbours to walk with me.