Filed under: Nonviolent defence, Politics of Empire | Tags: Afghanistan, drones, military contractors, military draft, peace, peacemaker teams, Taliban
In April 2004 the world was awakened to a horrible scene in Fallujah, Iraq. Insurgents had ambushed a vehicle carrying civilian U. S. Government mercenary contractors and killed them. Two of the burned corpses were hung from a bridge in downtown Fallujah where they dangled for several days as photos of them flashed around the world. Commentators immediately compared the Fallujah footage to that of dead American soldiers dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993. The victims in Somalia were American soldiers. The victims in Fallujah were American mercenaries employed by Blackwater Inc., renamed XE in 2007.
In this century we are entering a new era of mercenary warriors. From the strategic point of view, modern mercenaries fulfill a crucial requirement. They provide logistical and selected security support for invading forces in the field, and in addition on the political level they allow policy makers to engage in off-the-record, arms length and clandestine activities on the margins and outside of the law. This was formally called “plausible deniability”. In the recent past mercenary soldiers for profit have also served in Bosnia, Liberia, Pakistan, and Rwanda. They have guarded the Afghan President Karzai and built detention facilities in Guantanamo and elsewhere. On February 10, 2010, the Iraqi government ordered all Blackwater Inc. including subsidiaries out of Iraq or risk arrest. The order includes anyone involved with Blackwater in the deadly shooting incident in 2007 when they killed 17 civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square.
Due to a hostile local population the occupation of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan have required heavily armed guards, escorts, and sharp shooters to provide logistical protection for the millions of tons of military supplies. It is dangerous work and requires people who have been trained. The contractors, some from third world nations like the Philippines also staff the kitchens, the PXs (tax-free general stores for soldiers that offers rock bottom prices) and provide thousands of other support activities. Most mercenary contractors who carry out security related functions are former military. The Pentagon argues that despite lavish salaries, using military contractors is cheaper than training soldiers for the work. What is not said is that if the American armed forces were to carry out all these tasks the U. S. Government would have to implement a military draft which would be unpopular and set up the sons and perhaps the daughters of the privileged classes for the danger and inconvenience of military service.
Paramilitary units in Colombia, Philippines, Haiti, Afghanistan and many countries around the world perform similar functions to what private sector mercenary contractors do for the U. S forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. U. S. Operatives sometimes together with mercenaries have been involved in strategy formation, training, and sometimes in financing usually in conjunction with local government military groups. Even the Taliban got its start in the early 1980s as a paramilitary project developed and financed by U. S. personnel in conjunction with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Like the mercenary soldiers of Blackwater, virtually all of whom have had careers in the U. S. military, the Taliban grew up fighting and to this day this is the only profession they really know.
The Taliban and Colombian thug-like paramilitary units function at the margin of traditional customary law. Modern mercenary contractors often also function outside constitutional law. Both blur the lines between judicial process and police activity arrogating to themselves life and death decisions that any responsible society must legislate. These soldiers know the law of the gun. When or if constitutional government is restored they seek a place within the institutions of security work, but rarely leave their habits of threat, killing and improvised seat-of-the-pants law making. Former Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld insisted that war by mercenary contract is cheaper but his calculations failed to include the re-education of the first generation of Taliban fighters back into civilian life from combat with the Soviets in the 1980s. Nor did his calculations include the cost to the American people of the expansion of its imperial culture of security.
Mercenaries working under private corporations also have carried out specialized tasks for the CIA including the loading of Hellfire missiles onto Predator drones. They have engaged in search, capture or assassination of enemy leaders in areas like the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Officially, the Blackwater mercenaries killed in the 2004 events in Fallujah were in the line of duty “to protect food shipments.” However there is apparently some doubt if there were in fact any food shipments on that day.
In 2003-4 I made several trips to Iraq. At the close of the first trip, an Iraqi with whom I had consulted extensively, rushed to the CPT (Christian Peacemaker Teams) apartment. He insisted that I must meet with some very important people for an extended lunch 16 hours before I was to depart from Baghdad. Our CPT schedule was piled full of planning and projects. I didn’t want to go to the dinner because I suspected I was about to be the recipient of a mountainous request that CPT had neither the personnel nor the money to respond to. But I agreed to go with other CPTers. The dinner turned out to be a gathering of representatives from some of the senior families of Fallujah. I figured it out about two thirds of the way through introductions. The entire group was made up of leaders. I waited knowing that they wanted something.
They asked about CPT. I knew that they already knew a great deal because two persons in the circle had spent extended time with us. We explained our decision to focus on detainees, house raids and the rights of Iraqis. We gave two examples of cases we were working on. We were frank about our limitations. There was some silence, and then one person asked if we ever do anything outside of Baghdad. We said, “Yes.” Have you every been in Fallujah? “Yes we have visited Fallujah.” I thought I knew where the conversation was going so I didn’t ask anything further so that the conversation about Fallujah could not develop. I didn’t want them to ask if we could put a team in Fallujah. They persisted with broad hints about the needs of Fallujah.
As I left that meeting, the spokesperson of the group took me aside. He identified himself as a senior police officer in Iraq. As he prepared to say something to me his cell phone rang. It was his counterpart, a U. S. Colonel. I waited and tried not to listen to what was being said. The call ended. He looked at me and said, “The U. S. Forces detained my nephew some weeks ago. We can’t find him. Could CPT help us find my nephew?” I said we could try although our team was already over committed. We tried but we were not successful. I don’t know if his nephew survived detention. I don’t know if the police officer survived the last seven years.
This encounter took place six months before the first battle of Fallujah which followed the killing of Blackwater contractors. As I write this I wonder how many of the people in that circle on that day are still alive, still live in Iraq or have any normalcy in their lives. I wonder if an unarmed peacemaking team in Fallujah might have made a real difference to the U. S. strategy, leading not once but twice to the destruction of that city. I believe trained and disciplined unarmed peacemakers in good numbers could have done without arms what armed soldiers could not accomplish — protect the people of Fallujah.
The story does not have to end here. We are not condemned to surviving in a world where the law is decimated by successive generations of paramilitaries. But the answer will probably not come from the Pentagon nor from the White House which may not be able to escape the grasp of a citizenry whose houses of worship celebrate the institutions of violent intervention. Congressional efforts to rein in support for paramilitaries or mercenaries have been timid. We will know if unarmed spiritually based peacemakers can do this when we become even more resolved to create a corp that can be in the Fallujahs that are waiting to happen.
Every one of us is impacted by a dominant culture that insists that military or police force will make things right. Every day that culture tells us that dirty tricks usually done in secret are required for our survival. After all, it’s argued, someone has to do this dirty work. It’s called a noble work and the Blackwater mercenaries are required for the work. It will take an expanding world wide but grass roots culture reaching beyond national borders to fashion a body of Christian peacemakers to be an effective power to block the guns and be part of transforming each impending tragedy of war. Little by little there will be change.
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: Afghanistan and Pakistan | Tags: drones, Pakistan, peace, Pukhtoon, Taliban
A Pakhtoon representative for international aid groups travelled for two days by foot and bus from the his tribal area in South Waziristan, to meet with us in the Rawalpindi, the partner city of Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. A kindly but firm man in his early thirties, he described his work. There was no edge in his voice as he outlined the lives of Taliban in the villages he knew best. People in his communities all know the Taliban because family members are Taliban, he told our five person delegation from Voices for Creative Nonviolence, visiting Pakistan in May and June of this year.
Our new friend’s voice rose with fear when he spoke of drones, his word for the remotely piloted US Predator I or II aircraft that occasionally are observed in the skies above tribal villages where he is at home. “Even the children have learned not to play in groups at the slightest sighting of a drone. They whisper that a Hellfire missile may target them.” For sixty years villages in his Pakhtoon tribal area have not experienced significant government presence from Islamabad. This policy is a continuation of British colonialism’s rule reaching back another100 years.
In May the Pakistan army entered the Swat Valley, the lush Swiss like mountainous home to more than two million Pukhtoon people. The army’s announced goal was to push out the Taliban who had consolidated their power and were beginning to extend their influence even further towards Islamabad. A banker I met who had fled the Swat valley with more than a million other people when the Pakistan military arrived was animated about the Taliban. “We must be rid of them.” he said, “I don’t care if they are chased out by the Indian Army or American drones. I want them out dead or alive.” The banker, an ethnic Pukhtoon, warned me not to listen to the attitudes of the poorer classes because they didn’t understand the real situation.
The Internally Displaced People (IDPs or refugees) from Swat Valley and other Pukhtoon tribal areas were tentative in speaking their minds. They may have been cautious about our peace delegation or worried about other Pakistanis listening in to our conversations. We were alarmed by their stories of a harrowing flight in the wake of Pakistani army commands. “We were ordered by Pakistani army people to leave immediately. We fled with nothing but the work clothes on our back,” said one farmer. Another refugee told of a neighbor women who asked her husband to grab her new baby sleeping in a blanket. Only after they had fled for some distance did the family discover that there was no baby inside the blanket. The husband had grabbed the wrong blanket. The family was prohibited from returning to find the child. Stories abound of parents separated from their children, spouses and other extended family members. Some IDPs have begun to return to the Swat Valley.
More than anything the displaced people are confused. For two years they have watched Pakistani military units stand by as Taliban forces took over local police detachments and asserted control over schools and the local judiciary, and rolled back women’s opportunity in society. Some told of assassinations, particularly beheadings. A Pakistani photo journalist we met has been in hiding because she fears government reprisals since her pictures of the persecution of women in Swat Valley gained world wide attention earlier this year. Others described grass roots sympathy for the Taliban religious teachings. These teachings are disseminated by daily radio broadcasts. We were told by different people that the real enemy was Central Asian peoples with the Taliban, America, China, the Pakistan military, the Taliban, India, even Israel.
For the Pukhtoon people “Talib” means student. Taliban (students) are young boys who come from poor families and attend Madrasas, Islamic schools sometimes called seminaries. A Pukhtoon leader from Peshawar told me that a poor family has three choices for their children, “send them to government schools if they exist and let them remain hungry, stay out of school altogether and remain hungry, or attend a Madrasa where they memorize the Koran and eat decent meals”. Thousands have chosen the foreign financed Madrasas since the Soviets invaded Afghanistan 30 years ago. Many of those young students are now grown Taliban fighters in places like the Swat Valley and Afghanistan. The Taliban movement was a project of the military intelligence services of Pakistan. It began with generous support from US military and intelligence agencies.
The Taliban is not the only Pakistani movement pushing for stricter Islamic law. For example, the much older Jamaat-e-Islami has been hard at work expanding its support among Punjabi and Sindhi peoples where it has exercised significant influence in University student movements and led relief efforts for IDPs. “We want you to stop giving money to the Pakistani military now.” said one representative of the JI, “because your money makes our society more violent and it supports the Taliban.”
Other people representing a more secular thread of Pakistan are worried that the Taliban and militant Muslims of other stripes are gaining. “You actually have militants in the nuclear program,” a nuclear physicist told us. “The Taliban drift is a major problem. This will be a drag on us for at least a decade.” As the Taliban have taken their war of truck bombs and road side explosives from Pukhtoon country on Pakistan’s western border and Afghanistan into the majority population centers including Lahore and Karachi the mood in much of Pakistan has turned dramatically against the Taliban – so much so that the Pakistan military must get serious about confronting its erstwhile “asset”. The Pakistan military intelligence developed the Taliban in the early 1980s to provide security on its western border while its main units of the army faced India on the eastern Punjabi plains and Kashmir.
The cultural distance between Pakistan’s great urban centers and the remote villages that support the Taliban is enormous. Even sending the military into some of the tribal regions not under direct government rule like North or South Waziristan may be akin to sending out former Wall Street finance wizards to Iowa to run a tiny organic farm. A Human Rights worker told us, “The Taliban did deliver law and order where the government failed. Pakistan authority had not entered some tribal areas for 60 years and finally when it is entering those areas it is with a gun.”
Although Pukhtoon tribal society encourages revenge, elements of traditional modes of reconciliation survive in the village jirga (councils of elders). “If you go to the elders in civilian clothes they will welcome you with an honour and protection reserved only for guests.” The pattern of an eye for an eye, the ideology of all sides, can be broken with sincere words backed up by actions over time. I believe this is the partly the work of Richard Holbrook, the special US negotiator for Pakistan and Afghanistan. If he searches he will find Pakistanis in all parts of Pakistan anxious to be partners and give leadership. Such a movement needs support from inside and outside the Obama administration to overcome the residue of revenge that still survives from 9/11.
The ideology of a primitive reconstruction of law and religious order that is the record of the Taliban frightens Pakistanis and some Americans. For us in the US, Christian reconstructionism and Dominion theology reminds us that our faith can be hijacked too. By engaging with the hard face of Christian theology more deliberately we can at least become familiar with how “Talibanization” is not just a phenomena of western Pakistan.
Pakistan is gifted with a layer of South Asian wisdom that views the Taliban and all the world beyond the simplistic and confining categories of good and bad, light and dark. I was the recipient of some of that insight during my recent visit. Some of these voices will probably be silenced and imprisoned in the coming months as has been the pattern in Pakistan over the last 60 years but their influence will endure. Our delegation found discussions of peace and nonviolence welcomed by various religious and ethnic camps. There is a depth of conviction and hints of hope within Pakistan. Hopefully those in power will listen before the violence brings down another Pakistani government and perhaps its long time unreliable patron, the United States.
Our work on this side is to find ways to lift the veil of secrecy. This situation is complex but complexity should never deter us from working through the fog towards the cultural nodes that hold out promise for reconciliation. The US embassy is scheduled for a 736 million dollar face-lift in Islamabad with Marine guards, and civilian-military contractors. It will be protected by advanced digitized security gimmicks. A quirky Iraq-like US green zone in another Muslim country may in fact constrict the space so needed for experiments in peacemaking. Most of all Pakistan needs room to sort out its own priorities and determine how Muslim convictions in the context of the rainbow of Pakistani cultures can energize it into the future.