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President Obama claims that the war in Afghanistan is ending, which is partly true for American forces, but for the Afghan people, the fighting continues and is intensifying. In 2013 nearly 3,000 Afghan civilians died, one of the highest totals of the 13-year war. Casualties among Afghan army and police forces are at record levels. So far during the war, more than 13,000 members of the Afghan security forces have lost their lives. Most of these deaths have occurred in the last three years, according to a New York Times analysis.

After 13 years of armed conflict, Afghanistan urgently needs a plan for ending the war and achieving a negotiated political settlement. Instead the United States is planning for what critics have called another decade of war. The recently signed Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between Washington and Kabul calls for keeping 10,000 U.S. troops and an additional 2,000 NATO troops on the ground in Afghanistan for up to ten years. The mission of these troops will focus on training Afghan security forces, but U.S. troops will also be involved in ‘counterterrorism operations,’ which are commando missions and night raids against alleged terrorists that have aroused resentment among Afghan civilians.

The BSA calls for U.S. forces to have an ‘advising’ role, which means American officers will continue to guide Afghan combat missions. The agreement maintains the U.S. bombing raids and drone strikes that have caused civilian casualties and provided fodder for Taliban recruiters.

Rather than continuing to focus on military solutions, the Obama administration should pursue a diplomatic strategy to end the war. The inauguration of President Ashraf Ghani and the creation of a unity government in Kabul may provide an opportunity for progress in long-delayed and so-far unsuccessful efforts to establish political dialogue with the Taliban and other insurgent groups. The International Crisis Group has called upon the UN Security Council and Secretary-General to create a team of high level international mediators to bring together all major Afghan stakeholders in a negotiated political agreement that seeks to end the conflict.

The proposed diplomatic initiative could be part of a renewed UN mission in Afghanistan. The new mission would retain many of the humanitarian, development, and election support programs of the current mission, but would differ in adding the explicit goal of ending the war and fostering post-conflict stability. It would be charged with hosting multi-level negotiations and preparing for the implementation of the ensuing agreement. This would include the development and deployment of a neutral third-party peacekeeping force, which would be needed to help enforce the peace agreement and provide support for what is bound to be a difficult political and security transition.

After 13 years of fruitless and costly war in Afghanistan it is long past time to give peace a chance.

In recognizing Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi, the Nobel Peace Prize Committee is sending two messages: encouragement and hope for Muslim women around the world, and support for the continuing relevance and importance of Gandhian principles of nonviolent action.

I am especially moved by the award to Malala. She has inspired young women in Afghanistan and Pakistan who, like her, aspire to improve their lives through education and who reject the obscurantism of violent extremists.

When I was in Afghanistan a couple years ago doing research for our study, Afghan Women Speak, I met a number of brave women who are working for human rights, including members of the Afghan Women’s Network. They talked about the constant threats they face in the streets, especially the lack of protection for women despite the presence of many troops. One said, “When I leave the house in the morning and say good bye to my children I don’t know if I will ever see them again.”

The attack on Malala was the embodiment of their worst nightmares, but her recovery and resolve and now her receipt of the Nobel Prize offer inspiration that their best hopes can be realized. The extremists want to intimidate and subjugate women by confining them to the home. Malala’s example shows that despite the worst a woman can aspire to and achieve success in determining her own fate.

As we know, people learn best from personal stories. Malala’s story, now reinforced by her acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, is a powerful antidote to extremist propaganda.

The folly of bombing

If bombing were an effective way of ending terrorism and violent extremism, Afghanistan and Iraq now would be oases of tranquility. Pakistan would be a peaceful paradise. Israel would be safe and free from the fear of terrorist attack.

Despite more than a decade of U.S. bombing and large scale military intervention, the Taliban controls large swaths of territory in Afghanistan, and ethnic militias and violent extremist groups dominate Iraq. Hundreds of U.S. drone strikes and bombardments by the Pakistani army have not pacified Waziristan. Thousands of Israeli strikes have not diminished Hamas’ grip on Gaza. Air strikes and military interventions in these cases have hardened local resistance and increased the flow of militant recruits.

In his September 10 address, President Obama compared his new policy of military involvement in Iraq and Syria to ongoing U.S. efforts in Yemen and Somalia. The President said that U.S. air strikes and the arming of local allies in these countries have been “successfully pursued.” But Somalia remains unstable and violent and without a central government. Yemen is torn by multiple insurgencies and in recent days has been experiencing armed rebellion in the capital. If this is success, why bother?

Einstein once said that insanity is the act of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

As President Obama unveils his strategy against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, critical questions remain unanswered:

  • Why is the U.S. strategy focused so extensively on military measures when the President himself has stated, and many experts agree, that overcoming the threat posed by ISIS is fundamentally a political problem that will require political solutions?
  • Why do we think limited military efforts will succeed now when more robust military measures over the past decade were unable to bring stability and security to Iraq? When will we learn, as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in 2008, that “we cannot kill or capture our way to victory” in the fight against terrorism and insurgency?
  • Why does the President says there will be no ‘boots on the ground’ when he has already sent hundreds of U.S. military advisers to Iraq? How will we avoid the slippery slope of deeper military involvement if American advisers are killed or kidnapped?
  • How do we ensure that the weapons we provide to local militias in Iraq and Syria are not used against us or our allies in the region? News reports indicate that some of the weapons recently recovered from ISIS fighters in Iraq were made in the U.S.
  • How is it possible to fight against the enemies of the Assad regime in Syria without helping that regime?

In his statement yesterday on the conflict in northern Iraq Pope Francis helped to clarify the moral basis for military action against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and also defined its limits. President Obama should take some pointers.

In cases where there is unjust aggression, said the Pope, a moral duty exists to stop the aggressor. This is not an endorsement of war but a reiteration of the ‘just cause’ criterion for when limited military force may be permissible. It is a statement of the ‘responsibility to protect’ principle endorsed by human rights groups and adopted by the United Nations and most countries.

When innocent populations face imminent threat of attack, it is morally justified to take action to stop the killing. No nation alone should decide how to respond, the Pope emphasized. The determination of whether aggression has occurred and what should be done to stop it is up to the United Nations. The responsibility to judge and act belongs to the international community, not an individual country. The pontiff also emphasized that the imperative to protect does not mean bombing or making war.

President Obama on the other hand clings to the threadbare argument that U.S. bombing and drone strikes in the region are necessary to protect American military advisers based hundreds of miles away in Baghdad. The administration is claiming open-ended authority to launch military strikes and seems to be planning a protracted military campaign to counter ISIS.

No one objects to preventing extremists from murdering civilians and taking over cities and towns, but President Obama should follow Pope Francis’ advice and bring this issue to the UN Security Council. Let’s work with other nations to develop a comprehensive strategy for countering ISIS and cutting off its sources of recruits, weapons and money.  If further military action is deemed necessary, it should be multilateral not unilateral.

I’ve been asked by Jim Wallis and the team at Sojourners for my thoughts on how to respond to the current humanitarian and security crisis in Iraq.

I believe the United States should work through the United Nations to develop a coherent humanitarian, political and military strategy for addressing the needs of persecuted minority communities and countering the security threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS.

Unilateral U.S. military action is unsustainable and unwise over the long run. If further security measures are needed to protect civilians from ISIS, they should be multilateral, not unilateral.

Read my comments here, posted in today’s God’s Politics blog.

Aiding Afghanistan?

A startling statistic appears in the most recent quarterly report of Congress’ Special Inspector General Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR). U.S. appropriations for the ‘reconstruction’ of Afghanistan have now exceeded the funds committed by the United States for the Marshall Plan at the end of World War II.

The inflation-adjusted cost of the Marshall Plan for the period 1948-1952 was $103.4 billion. The equivalent figure for funds committed to Afghanistan so far is more than $109 billion. Think of it, more money has been spent in Afghanistan than was provided to 16 countries of Western Europe for reconstruction in the aftermath of World War II!

The Marshall Plan is considered one of the most successful development programs in history. It helped to rebuild war-torn economies and solidified the basis for democratic governance and prosperity in Western Europe.

What about U.S. aid to Afghanistan? What has been accomplished? Here are some quotes from the latest SIGAR report:

  • Audits reveal “poor planning, shoddy construction, mechanical failures, and inadequate oversight.”
  • “It is questionable whether the Afghan government can sustain many non-security reconstruction programs in such sectors as health, education, and economic development.”
  • “U.S.-built schools and health facilities often cannot be staffed or supplied. … some facilities  have fallen into disrepair; others are unsafe, incomplete, or unsuited for their intended purposes.”

A far cry from the Marshall Plan!

The poor results of foreign aid in Afghanistan result in part from the Kabul regime’s lack of governance capacity. The countries of Western Europe had pre-existing institutional structures that could be rebuilt, but Afghanistan has never had an effective system of national governance. State revenues fall far short of government expenditures. According to the IMF, “Afghanistan has one of the lowest domestic revenue collections in the world” (the result of minimal payment of taxes).

Another failure factor is the link to armed conflict. Aid for Europe came after World War II in a period of relative calm, while development efforts in Afghanistan have come in the midst of intensive armed conflict. Foreign aid has been “securitized” and used to advance the military strategy of defeating insurgents. Approximately 60% of U.S. aid has been used to support Afghan security forces.

Militarized aid strategies seldom succeed. Similar attempts to fund indigenous armed forces and win “hearts and minds” through humanitarian programs failed in Vietnam and Iraq.

The bottom line: development aid cannot succeed in the absence of good governance, and it cannot bring victory in wars of dubious purpose.

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