The Nobel Peace Prize: A Message of Hope

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.

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.

Afghanistan: How to define failure

The recent report of the International Crisis Group (ICG) on the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan is bad news for those who believe in a military solution to the conflict. The report offers further evidence that the U.S.-led counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan has been unable to defeat or weaken the Taliban.

For the year 2013, the United Nations has reported an 11% increase in violent attacks and security incidents during the summer months, and a 14% increase in civilian casualties for the year as a whole. The U.S. military claims lowers numbers, but most analysts consider the UN figures more reliable. Unpublished assessments estimate a 15-to-20% increase in violent attacks for 2013, according to the ICG.

Violence appears to have escalated in the early months of 2014 as well. An Oxfam statement, quoted by ICG, reports “clear signs that armed opposition groups have gained ground in rural areas where security responsibilities have been transferred to the [Afghan security forces]. …  Security has deteriorated in some provinces and areas that were previously considered safe.”

Whatever the exact numbers, the trends show continued and probably increased levels of violent insurgency in Afghanistan. Little or no success has been achieved in suppressing what General David Petraeus described in 2011 as “an industrial strength insurgency.”

This after 13 years of U.S. and allied military effort, including the ‘surge’ of American forces under the Obama administration that brought U.S. troop levels to 100,000. This after the buildup of Afghan security forces to an estimated 345,000 troops by January of this year. This after estimated U.S. expenditures in Afghanistan of $641 billion through fiscal year 2013. This after tens of thousands of soldiers, insurgents and civilians have lost their lives.

After all that cost and effort, the Taliban is stronger than ever, and insecurity reigns through much of Afghanistan. That’s how you define failure.

Hagel and Kerry: No Arm-Chair Warriors

I am encouraged by the nominations of Vietnam veterans Chuck Hagel and John Kerry to the top cabinet posts of Defense Secretary and Secretary of State. It feels like a long overdue acknowledgment and recognition of the experiences of our generation. Perhaps it will reflect and reinforce the deep skepticism toward war many of us learned from serving in the military during that time.

Our country is usually safer and less prone to sanctify military action when our decision-makers have experienced the suffering and horrors of war. Spare us the arm-chair warriors (‘chicken hawks’ the veterans derisively call them) sacrificing soldier lives for geopolitical fantasies.

When I saw the photos published in last week’s New York Times of Hagel and Kerry in their class A uniforms, so young and uncertain, I could see myself many years ago. Like Hagel, I was an enlisted man, never rising above the rank of Spec 4, the same as Hagel’s rank in the photo.

Hagel and Kerry were on the front lines of battle and were wounded in combat. I was stationed safely back in the States playing in the army band. But we were part of the same turbulent, perplexing experience of serving in an unpopular and unjust war.

Vietnam shaped our lives profoundly. As he was medevaced out of the country, Hagel vowed “to do everything I can to avoid needless, senseless war.” Kerry returned to civilian life to become a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, testifying in 1971 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

I spoke out against the war as an active duty soldier, part of the GI peace movement that spread through the military in those years. I spent my time when not on duty circulating petitions and organizing protests among fellow soldiers. When military commanders punished us for being ‘troublemakers,’ we filed a law suit in federal court to defend our First Amendment rights.

The Vietnam experience drove me to spend my life trying to prevent war and now to researching and teaching ways of building peace and resolving conflicts nonviolently.

I hope Hagel and Kerry will bring more realistic, less militaristic perspectives to U.S. military and foreign policy. Perhaps our nation can finally learn the lessons of Vietnam (and also of Iraq and Afghanistan), to avoid the temptation of war and focus on building peace through international cooperation.

Talking with the Taliban

According to Jonathan Landay of McClatchy Newspapers, the High Peace Council in Afghanistan is developing an ambitious plan of direct talks with the Taliban that could cede to them political control of their southern and eastern strongholds. The plan calls for a ceasefire and negotiations between insurgents and the Afghan government next year. The government of Pakistan is helping to spearhead the initiative and select the leaders of the Taliban and other rebel groups who would take part in the negotiations.

The plan is contained in a Peace Council document, obtained by McClatchy, which states that by 2015, insurgent groups “will have given up armed opposition, transformed from military entities into political parties, and [will be] actively participating in the country’s political and constitutional processes, including national elections…. NATO/ISAF forces will have departed from Afghanistan, leaving the ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) as the only legitimate armed forces delivering security and protection to the Afghan population.”

News of the peace blueprint combines with other recent developments: Pakistan’s release of Taliban prisoners, the beginning of talks between the Taliban and their historic enemies in the Northern Alliance, and indications that Obama administration may be lowering expectations for a U.S. military role beyond 2014. Together they suggest that a genuine peace process may be in the offing. Many of the essential ingredients are there—including power sharing between insurgents and the Afghan government.

Opponents of the war should support plans for negotiations and power sharing, but we should also insist on human rights guarantees, protection of women’s rights, and a greater role for Afghan civil society, including women. Political negotiations should be accompanied by an inclusive process of consultation and mobilization among Afghan civilians, so that the governance system in Afghanistan reflects the needs and interests of all elements of society, not just the men with guns.

A Window of Opportunity in Afghanistan

Pakistan’s weekend release of several Taliban prisoners is a clear indication that insurgents and their Pakistani military supporters are ready for talks. The Haqqani network announced last week that it is willing to participate in peace talks under Afghan Taliban leadership. The Obama administration should capitalize on these developments and press for a negotiated end to the war.

Pakistan’s release of Taliban prisoners came in response to a three-day visit to Islamabad by the Afghan High Peace Council, the body created in 2010 by the Kabul government to oversee peace negotiations with the Taliban. The United States could encourage the process by following Pakistan’s lead and acting on the proposed transfer of Taliban detainees from Guantánamo to Qatar. Turning over the handful of Taliban prisoners being held in Guantánamo would further boost prospects for peace talks.

The administration says that the local parties—the Kabul government, the insurgents, and Pakistan—must take the lead in negotiating a peace agreement, but U.S. leadership is indispensable for achieving progress. Some in Congress and the administration are wary of negotiating with the Taliban for fear of conferring legitimacy on the insurgents. Women in Afghanistan worry that negotiations will empower those who want to turn back the clock on the human rights and development gains of the past decade. These are legitimate concerns, but they are not an argument for opposing diplomacy. The alternative—continued armed conflict and perhaps civil war—will mean further human losses and will jeopardize and ultimately undermine the prospects for development and human rights.  Renewed civil war would be a damning verdict on a costly decade of U.S. intervention.

Opinion polls show that Afghans overwhelmingly oppose a return to Taliban rule. The best guarantee against a Taliban takeover is the inclusion of the Afghan people in a peace process. The Afghan Women’s Network and other civil society groups have called for an inclusive process that provides a role for all significant sectors of Afghan society. Women in particular should be guaranteed a seat at the table. Research shows that peace agreements in which civil society groups have an active role in monitoring and implementation the terms of a settlement are more likely to succeed.

The withdrawal of U.S. military forces will be crucial to the prospects for successful negotiations. The Pentagon is pressing for a security agreement with the Kabul government that reportedly allows for the long-term presence of as many as 20,000 U.S. troops. That could be a deal-killer, since insurgents have insisted that U.S. forces leave. Maintaining a limited number of non-combat troops during the initial transition period may be appropriate—as security assurance for the Kabul regime, and as bargaining leverage to gain Taliban cooperation—but Washington must be willing to accept an agreement that includes complete military withdrawal. We should also be prepared to support the deployment of a Muslim-led interim security force to monitor and implement a peace agreement if the local parties request it.

Many obstacles stand in the way of a negotiated settlement. Even if formal talks begin soon, the process is likely to take many months, perhaps years. All the more reason to get started. The stage is being set, and the time to act is now. President Obama should use some of the political capital from his impressive election victory to exercise leadership for long-term peace.

Solidarity with Malala

It may turn out to be one of those decisive turning points, an act of unspeakable brutality that sparks a wave of public revulsion and unleashes forces of decency against violence and fanaticism.

The savage shooting of 14-year old Malala Yousafzai by a Taliban militant in Pakistan last week was meant to intimidate girls and all those who would dare to speak for freedom and the right to be educated. Instead it has had the opposite effect, prompting widespread revulsion and protest against the Pakistani Taliban.

The attack was specifically targeted at a brave girl whose ‘crime’ was to demand the right to go to school and to condemn extremism and violence in her native region of Swat. In recognition of her courage and commitment to peace Pakistani Prime Minister Yousef Razi Guilani last December awarded her the government’s National Malala Peace Prize.

On October 10 a bearded man approached her school bus in the town of Mingora as it was preparing to take students home after morning classes. The gunman shot her at close range firing bullets into her head and leg and also injuring two classmates. The Tehreek-a-Taliban Pakistan later took responsibility for the crime and said she was guilty of ‘being pro-Western’ and ‘promoting secularism.’ Malala is currently recovering from her wounds in a UK hospital.

The shooting has generated nearly universal public indignation. All across Pakistan religious leaders, political officials, newspaper editors and bloggers joined in condemning the shooting. Schools in Pakistan were closed after the shooting in a one-day strike to show solidarity with Malala. Demonstrations in her support have occurred all over the world.

The massive public outcry against Malala’s shooting is a hopeful sign. It illustrates the power of public opinion and mobilized civil society as a force against the scourge of violent extremism.

Let us all stand in solidarity with Malala and with the millions of people in Pakistan and Afghanistan and around the world who want freedom and the right to aspire to a better future. They are our best allies in the struggle against terrorism and violence.

Give Peace a Chance in Afghanistan

The New York Times reported last week that U.S. officials are abandoning hopes of a peace settlement in Afghanistan. If true this spells disaster for the Afghan people and defeat for the American war effort.

It’s hard to know which is more tragic—the apparent U.S. decision to reject the strategy of peace, or the naïve and unrealistic basis upon which that strategy was initially based. U.S. officials believed that the military surge of 2009-2010 would batter the Taliban into accepting a ‘reconciliation’ process that essentially meant surrendering to the Kabul regime. That strategy was doomed from the outset and obviously has not worked. Insurgent forces remain strong and continue to exert influence and cause insecurity in many parts of the country.

The apparent strategy now is to let the Afghan government and the insurgents fight it out among themselves. The hope is that the Kabul regime will somehow prevail. That strategy seems equally doomed to failure. If the Kabul government could not defeat the insurgents with the backing of nearly 100,000 U.S. troops and tens of thousands of additional foreign forces, how will it succeed when most of those forces are gone?

The Pentagon is planning to keep ten to twenty thousand U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014 to help prop up the Kabul regime, but it is unlikely such an approach will succeed when a much more robust force has failed. How long will Congress and the public support keeping U.S. troops in harm’s way for what is obviously an impossible mission?

The likelihood of the Kabul regime and the insurgents reaching a peace agreement on their own is very low. Research on peace agreements in other countries at war shows that the success of negotiation depends upon multinational support, usually led by the UN.

Rather than consigning Afghanistan to continuous war, the U.S. and its allies should pursue a multilateral peace strategy. Work to achieve a ceasefire, appoint a UN-led team of senior mediators to support negotiations both nationally and in Afghanistan’s fractious geopolitical neighborhood, and pledge financial and political support for the resulting negotiated agreement. That may be the only way to save the Afghan people from a grim fate and salvage at least some positive outcome from the long U.S. intervention.

Help Afghan Women End the War

Our political leaders say that the military mission in Afghanistan is intended to protect women’s rights, but war itself is a threat to those rights. Last week an air strike in Eastern Afghanistan killed eight women and girls whose only ‘crime’ was to be out in the pre-dawn darkness collecting firewood for their families.

Thousands of innocent people have died since the fighting began in 2001, many of them women and children. More than 3,000 civilians died in 2011, according to UN figures, the highest number yet recorded. Although most of these casualties are the result of insurgent attacks, U.S. actions are also contributing to widespread civilian suffering.

In our interviews with Afghan women over the last two years we found universal agreement that the war must end. The women we met revile the Taliban and oppose their return to power, but they also want the fighting to stop. They realize that they cannot secure their rights in the militarized environment that now exists in the country.

U.S. officials claim they are achieving military progress, but the facts suggest otherwise. NATO troops are facing what General David Petraeus has described as an “industrial strength insurgency.” Taliban forces control much of the countryside. Last week insurgents attacked a fortified base in southern Afghanistan, killing two U.S. marines and destroying or severely damaging eight NATO jets, the largest destruction of military equipment since the war began.

A day later four more U.S. troops were gunned down by their supposed Afghan allies. That makes 51 American soldiers killed by Afghan troops so far this year. These insider attacks are a mortal blow to the U.S. mission. NATO commanders no longer trust their Afghan partners and are restricting joint operations. Efforts to train and arm Afghan forces are increasingly untenable. Why would we want to give weapons to Afghan troops who might turn their guns against us?

It should be blindingly obvious after all these years that there can be no military solution in Afghanistan. The United States and its allies desperately need a strategy for ending the war.

The first step in such a strategy should be establishing a ceasefire. The United States should halt all military operations and bombing raids, and invite the insurgents to do the same. We should work through the United Nations to support a comprehensive international peace mission to negotiate a political settlement within Afghanistan and a diplomatic compact among neighboring states. We should withdraw our remaining troops as insurgents agree to a negotiated settlement and pledge support for the Kabul regime as it accepts a power sharing arrangement.

Reaching a peace settlement will not be easy and poses many risks, but it is preferable to pursuing an endless unwinnable war. If we really want to help the women and men of Afghanistan, we should assist them in ending the war by building a sustainable peace.

Inside Attacks in Afghanistan

The insanity and horror of the war in Afghanistan are worsening. According to ABC News twenty U.S. soldiers have been killed there in the past two weeks. Ten of the soldiers were shot in cold blood by Afghan soldiers or policemen. Another American soldier was killed by an Afghan police recruit yesterday. General Martin Dempsey, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is in Kabul today discussing the problem with U.S. and Afghan officials.

The number of such attacks has increased dramatically, 30 so far this year, compared to 11 in all of 2011.

The military refers to these shootings as ‘insider attacks.’ Previously they were labeled ‘green on blue.’ Whatever we call them, they are a terrifying manifestation of the impossible predicament our troops are facing.

It’s bad enough that U.S. forces are under constant attack by Taliban insurgents. Now our troops are increasingly threatened by our supposed allies in the Afghan army and police, troops we are training and whose salaries we are paying (to the tune of $43 billion since 2002.)

A NATO study claims that the insider attacks are not caused by Taliban infiltration but are the result of personal disputes or outrage. If true this is hardly reassuring. It suggests an extraordinary degree of hatred and mistrust between many Afghan recruits and U.S. troops.

These insider attacks are a dagger in the heart of the U.S. mission. They strike at the core strategy of training Afghan forces to replace our troops. If we cannot trust the troops we are recruiting, how can the mission succeed? How can our soldiers do their job if they have to constantly look over their shoulders?

Why are we continuing to sacrifice U.S. soldiers to this mission impossible? It is time to bring the war to an end, as quickly as possible. The U.S. should immediately declare a ceasefire and begin direct negotiations with the insurgents to reach a political solution.