Fighting for a Peaceful Tomorrow

The war in Iraq has officially come to a close, President Obama announced Wednesday while visiting soldiers in Fort Bragg, NC. The president congratulated thousands of soldiers present and noted the heavy cost of the war.

“More than 1.5 million Americans have served in Iraq,” he said. “Over 30,000 Americans have been wounded, and those are the only wounds that show. Nearly 4,500 Americans made the ultimate sacrifice.”

The Wikileaks reports, leaked in 2010, detail 109,032 Iraqi deaths since the Iraq invasion began in 2003.

As the war in Iraq ends, the war in Afghanistan continues to rage on. The U.S. invasion on Afghanistan that began the war on terror was launched on Oct. 7, 2001 in response to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

In subsequent years to follow, U.S. and NATO forces have engaged in vicious combat against insurgent operatives throughout the Afghan region, which has led to many countless lives lost, including civilians. In response to the conflict occurring in the region, other groups have become involved.

These individuals aren’t armed as their counterparts are nor do they use any method of violence to carry out their mission. These individuals do not believe war is the answer to resolving the issues occurring in the region and have dedicated their lives to working towards a nonmilitary solution to ending conflict in Afghanistan and restoring peace.

Kathy Kelly, three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee and co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, didn’t want to support the military system. She wanted to challenge it.

“I wanted to find ways to do that governed by the nonviolence counsel of Mahatma Gandhi and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King,” Kelly said. “I’ve been very influenced by the teachings of King. His ‘Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence’ speech seems very relevant to me today.”

The war in Afghanistan has drawn comparisons to the Vietnam War. Though America hasn’t seen the implementation of the draft take effect during the current conflict as did during Vietnam, America is faced with a war that has proven to be both costly and timely.

The cumulative cost of both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 has already surpassed $1 trillion. In fiscal year 2011, the Pentagon requested a budget of $159 billion to fund the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

“It costs $1 million to keep one U.S. soldier on the ground for one year,” Kelly said adding “$2 billion per week” is being spent in Afghanistan.

Some of the money that goes to the U.S. aid organizations and security contractors goes right into the pockets of war profiteers, she said.

“The U.S. has to spend thousands of dollars every day,” she said. “There are 7,000 trucks that take off every day to deliver supplies to U.S. troops. Those trucks go along roads run by war lords and drug lords who charge money for every single truck to pass through.”

Mary Ann Wright, a former United States colonel and foreign diplomat, resigned from the U.S. State Department in 2003 in opposition to the war in Iraq. Shortly after resigning, she began speaking out about her concerns on U.S. involvement in the Middle East region.

Wright said money spent in Afghanistan should be used to better the lives of the Afghan people. She said hundreds of billion dollars have gone into the country and very little of it has gone to the average citizen.

“With the attention of the international community, there should be more schools and clinics built,” Wright said. “There are 70,000 people living around Kabul in complete poverty right next to multimillion dollar huge stonewalls, which protects U.S. military installations. The people live in horrible mud covered tents. I don’t know how they keep from freezing to death every night in the cold.”

Kelly said 30 years of warfare has left the country battered.

“Kabul used to be a city with greenery and some fresh water running through it,” she said. “Now it is heavily polluted. It has the highest concentration of fecal matter in the air of any country in the world. At least 3,000 people die each year just from breathing the air.”

Wright said Kabul is not a safe capital.

“There are suicide bombings almost every day in Kabul,” she said. “The hotel I stayed in last year was burned to ground three months after I left. There were aid workers from India that were killed in that little hotel where I was.”

Kelly further elaborated the high pollution has lead to many diseases for the Afghan children.

“Many children die every single day in Afghanistan,” she said. “And they are dying from gastrointestinal disease, respiratory disease, malnourishment and eventual starvation. The average life expectancy is 44 years of age. A fifth of the children who do survive birth won’t live beyond five years of age.”

President Obama initiated a July 2011 deadline to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan; but additionally, increased troop deployment in the region to combat growing insurgency. Wright doesn’t believe U.S. involvement is going to be minimized in three years.

“The U.S. is planning the expansion of the U.S. embassy,” she said. “Over a half of billion dollars will be spent, which will make it the largest embassy in the world. I think the plan is for a much longer and stronger involvement and I am very concerned about that.”

Connecting Voices

The “Dear Afghanistan Project” was founded with the primary purpose to connect people from around the globe with the Afghan people living in the war torn region in an effort to promote peace. The “Dear Afghanistan: A New Year’s Call for Peace” held Jan. 1, 2011 connected people from around the world with the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers, a collection of Afghan youth who are working to promote peace in the region.

Doug Mackey, the project’s technical director, said he and fellow activists have been organizing the global call-ins for over a year. He said he wanted to give people around the world the opportunity to hear each other’s voices, in addition to sharing the voices of the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers.

“When we hear another person’s voice, we listen and we become friends,” Mackey said. “Then we learn to love each other. When we love each other, we stop fighting each other. We need to keep amplifying the voices.”

Wright said the call-in was remarkable because it was the second time it was held during a two week period. She said it shows the real concern lots of people from around the world have about the situation in Afghanistan that has left its civilians in a phrase “no place to turn.”

“The call-in showed the international concern of citizens saying we understand what’s going on and we want to help end the violence,” she said. “We were willing to call in, email and text message on New Years day to show this concern was very important.”

Mackey said he and fellow activists plan to continue the global call-in to help connect the voices of the youth and those who are young at heart who care about peace.

“We’ve cracked open live streaming,” he said. “We want to continue to build the people’s journey, which is the way of bringing the voice of particularly young people in war torn countries together with voices of the young people of the occupying countries.

Mike Ferner, president of Veterans for Peace, said the call-in received a good steady response and over a thousand people took part. He said it was significant and it meant a lot to the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers.

“The Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers were happy to discuss nonviolent methods to help rebuild their country,” Ferner said. “They proposed education and rebuilding in infrastructure. They are interested in rebuilding the country in a way that doesn’t include military force.”

Mackey said killing is never the solution and that it goes back to the golden rule that’s found in every religion.

“If we are going to treat people the way we wanted to be treated, we wouldn’t be killing each other,” he said. “7 to 20 percent of the deaths are innocent civilians. We need to melt down the borders a friend at a time by increasing the number of conversations and people involved in these conversations.”

Mackey said Terry Rockefeller, whose sister Laura Rockefeller, was killed on 9/11, took part in the global call-in via skype to talk with people in Afghanistan.

“There is quite a connection there as you can imagine,” Mackey said. “This is a woman whose sister’s death was used to invade other countries and she’s trying to stop the invading. She doesn’t want her sister’s death to be used that way.”

Mackey added the conversation between Rockefeller and the Afghan youth was very moving.

“She was in tears with the kids in Afghanistan,” he said. “The kids in Afghanistan are saying ‘Please Terry, don’t cry.’ Terry said to them that her tears were tears of joy because they were able to talk to each other, and because they could talk to each other, they could help stop the madness. That kind of conversation goes a long way to inspiring others.”

Andrea LeBlanc, board member of Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, has much in common with Terry Rockefeller. Her husband was also killed in the 9/11 attacks.

“Before I knew for sure he was on one of those planes, I was immediately heart sick because I knew the country would retaliate and there would be more innocent deaths and suffering,” LeBlanc said. “I felt really hopeless about stopping it. The following year when I heard about Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, it was a big relief to me to find a group of people who had suffered the same kind of loss, but had the same belief that war was not the answer to the situation.

Kelly agreed.

“I’ve been a part of a group of people who would rather advance the works of mercy rather than the works of war,” she said. “So sometimes that has taken me into prison, war zones and volatile areas. I’ve been in multiple war zones and that’s each time confirmed my belief that problems aren’t solved by dropping explosives on people and leaving families bereaved at the sense of desired revenge.”

LeBlanc feels very strongly that nonviolence is the better way to deal with conflict because violence only produces more violence. She said military intervention doesn’t seem to be solving the problem.

“Our main concern with Afghanistan is that we think war is wrong in the first place,” she said. “We want the voice of the Afghan people heard in America, which isn’t being done by the media. The media has an enormous responsibility to tell the whole story, which is to find the people who are living the consequences of what we’re doing and find out what they want. The people we’re in touch with in Afghanistan feel U.S. presence is making their lives worse, not better.”

A Complex War

Ferner said the situation in Afghanistan is far more complex than it’s understood to be. He said it’s not simple to say there’s a good guy and bad guy.

“There are much more forces and interests involved,” Ferner said. “There’s a lot going on and it doesn’t necessarily revolve around the United States. I think we are so used to looking at things from our own perspective, in which the U.S. concerns and interests define the whole thing. We’re certainly a major component there obviously, but there’s a lot more going on there than the simplified way it’s presented here by the government and news media.”

Ferner said the average person he talked to was interested in one thing, and that was having the killing stopped. He said the killing and fighting is being driven by a very few people with very large interests.

“The U.S. interest is having a strategic position in that part of the world to control resources,” Ferner said. “There could be a number of war lords in Afghanistan protecting a privileged position as a member of the government, or a certain territory they’ve gotten control of and are getting rich by allowing military supplies through these routes. Then there may be those who are fighting to seek revenge because a war lord wronged them and their family or they may be fighting to kick out the country that’s occupying them.”

Wright said there is much fighting amongst so many different groups in Afghanistan.

“There is the U.S., NATO, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and the Afghan military and police,” she said. “Afghanistan is reeling from violence from all sides.”

Ferner added, “There’s a whole lot going on that we don’t see in the news reports we’re getting. There’s no short answer.”

A Peaceful Solution

Kelly said a solution would be for the United States to apologize. She said there should be an expression of real sorrow.

“The United States shouldn’t give out a charity, but make reparations,” she said. “There should be international courts to which these war lords would be brought to accountability. Referendums should be happening across Afghanistan. There should be a peace keeping transitional force until such elections are held.”

Ferner agreed reparations should be made. He said the U.S. government owes a huge substantial amount of money to the people of Afghanistan.

“It has to be in the form of reparations,” he said. “Aid is given out of generosity. Reparations are given after acknowledging fault for wrongdoing.”

LeBlanc said the Afghan people are calling for the military to withdraw from their country. She said Afghans should be able to rebuild their country, so they can make decisions about how they want things done and not put it into the hands of foreign contractors.

“Every time we shoot a missile, we become less liked,” she said. “It needs to stop.”

Wright said U.S. sentiment varies place to place because a lot of people in Kabul say if the international community leaves, war lords and everybody else would be fighting even more for the spoils that are there. She said there are groups of people that say the international community needs to stay because they are providing a certain level of protection.

“A lot of people in Afghanistan are very concerned about the war lords, who are the real criminals in their own country,” she said. “There are some who are a part of the government and have been supplied with weaponry and funding. They have the private armies that they are able to use. The U.S. and the international community will have to address that because that will be the next problem.”

Ferner said he met with a range of people who were knowledgeable about political affairs in Afghanistan. Folks he met were interested in coming to a solution that didn’t involve military force, he said.

“I met with Ramazon Bashardosp who is a member of parliament and a former presidential candidate,” Ferner said. “His overriding interest is to have a solution to the problems in Afghanistan, which is a nonmilitary solution. He thinks there should be a rapid withdrawal, built up international peacekeepers and immediate prosecution of anyone that has been committing war crimes. ”

Wright said there are a lot of people who are saying the Afghans are going to have to resolve these issues and the longer the U.S. international community pursues this aggressive offensive operation, it postpones the time the Afghans need to come to whatever agreement it is.

“I think the U.S. should work for the United Nations peacekeeping force to replace the NATO offensive force,” Wright said. “If the U.S. would start working on this right now, then in a year and a half or so, a true international peacekeeping force could be something that would replace U.S. involvement. An immediate withdrawal would be very difficult. I feel steps would have to come before withdrawal.”

Ferner said he also met with Malalai Joya, a former member of parliament who was kicked out because she was outspoken about human rights. He said there were threats made against her life and she had gone underground.

“Joya is interested in a nonmilitary solution,” said Ferner. “She wants the U.S. and foreign armies out. She also wants the Afghans to take care of their own problems and bring justice to those where justice is needed.”

Mackey said there needs to be a nonmilitary solution. He said there needs to be a cease fire.

“We need to use a cease fire as a beacon of hope to everybody,” he said. “And we need to build on that hope. People will listen better when there’s hope.”

LeBlanc said she doesn’t believe the war was handled well because so many civilians have suffered and it hasn’t solved anything nine years later. She said she doesn’t believe the Afghan people’s suffering has been presented to Americans.

“Americans need to know about the suffering of the people and the real aspirations of the Afghan,” LeBlanc said. “They want to live their lives, enjoy their lives, receive education and feed their families. The more people get to know one another and understand we all have much more in common than what separates us, then we will find it difficult to bring terror on them.”

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