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Afghanistan: No peace without mutual understanding
NewsNotes, July-August 2009

“How can there be peace without people understanding each other, and how can this be, if they don’t know each other? How can there be cooperative coexistence, which is the only kind that means anything, if [people] are cut off from each other, if they are not allowed to learn more about each other?” – Lester B. Pearson, former Canadian prime minister and 1957 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Afghanistan and Iraq are separated by just 750 miles – the shortest distance across Iran – and a world of difference. At $800 Afghans earn one-fifth of Iraqis’ GDP. The rate of poverty and unemployment among Afghans is twice as high as in Iraq, and the average lifespan is 45 years in Afghanistan compared with 70 for Iraqis.
The contrast only begins to illustrate the challenge the U.S. faces in trying to understand this volatile region. The U.S. needs a better grasp of Islam and Christianity, of the geography, languages and cultures of the people, if it is to be an effective peacemaker in the region.

By relying instead on its military power, the U.S. has adopted a skewed and short-sighted policy toward these nations bridging the Middle East and Central Asia. In June Congress approved a supplemental budget that includes $75 billion to fund military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan for the rest of fiscal year 2009. The measure provides only $7 billion for humanitarian, civil affairs, reconstruction and diplomatic efforts.

However, the scale of U.S. military aid to Afghanistan seems beyond what the country can effectively use. For example, the U.S. plans to build up Afghan forces at an estimated cost of $20 billion over the next few years – compared with a national budget of just $1.1 billion this year.

The mere presence of foreign troops, along with mounting civilian casualties, serves as an effective recruiting tool for our enemies. With few jobs available, unemployed young men have little choice than to join the Taliban and fight for $7 or $8 a day. Unfortunately, when U.S. or NATO forces pursue Taliban soldiers, they often push their quarry across the border into Pakistan, where they link up with like-minded militants who together threaten to destabilize the state.

Ultimately, U.S. policies like these are apt to be self-defeating. A clear-cut military victory in Afghanistan or the wider region seems unlikely, and civilian deaths are stoking anti-U.S. sentiment. In addition, for every civilian killed in recent fighting in Afghanistan, an estimated 20 have died of poverty and hunger. Human crises like these cannot be resolved with weapons.

The conflict in Afghanistan also seems to conflict with criteria of the Church’s traditional, if now discredited, just war theory. The fighting does not adequately distinguish between combatants and civilians. The wanton death and destruction often seem out of proportion to the gains that are sought. An outright military victory over insurgents – non-state actors – seems increasingly unlikely. Sadly, the Church’s modern teaching on war seems to go unheard, for example, “Nothing is lost by peace; everything may be lost by war” (Pius XII, 1939) and “[War] is always a defeat for humanity” (John Paul II, 2003).

Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) said after visiting Afghanistan, “One American soldier charged with working with local groups told me that when he arrived in a remote village he was assumed to be Russian because they hadn’t heard that the Russians had quit Afghanistan [in 1989]. This is the kind of information gap we are talking about.”

This degree of isolation illustrates the steep challenge the U.S. faces in helping a country provide water and health care, education and promotion of women, security and democracy for its own people. These are worthy objectives, but our friends and allies must set their own targets and timetables to achieve them. If we truly want to learn more about each other for the sake of peace, we might first have to assume the perspective of local citizens. The thought of a powerful moral leader in another time, another place, might be instructive:

“Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest person whom you have seen, and ask yourself if the next step you contemplate is going to be of any use to that person. Will that person gain anything by it? Will it restore that person to a control over his or her own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to freedom for the hungry and spiritually starving millions?” (Mahatma Gandhi, 1947)

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