Friday, September 21, 2012

International Peace Day from Kabul, Afghanistan

On this International Day of Peace I am sitting in Kabul, Afghanistan with a handful of youth that want nothing but peaceful coexistence in their lives. This in some respects is like a dream because their entire lives have been surrounded by war, death, corruption, and struggle. Peace has been in short supply. For three years the Afghan Peace Volunteers have worked to develop friendships across ethnic lines in Kabul and various provinces throughout Afghanistan.  The work has been difficult, trust is hard to come by in this war torn land, but they are adamant that non-violence is the only way forward. I have sat with similar groups in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq, America and Israel. Rarely are their voices heard over the drums of war.

Established in 1981, by the United Nations General Assembly, the International Day of Peace was to coincide with its opening session. The first Peace Day was observed on September 21st, 1982. In 1982 the Soviet Union was increasing its troop presence in Afghanistan and facing fierce fighting throughout the provinces.

Thirty years later Afghanistan is still at war. The opponents have changed, and the weaponry has changed. The War on Terror, Armored Humvees, IED’s, suicide bombers, night raids, smart bombs, and drones have all entered the American lexicon. 

The constant through all these years is the suffering of the non-combatants. Just this week, a van was blown up by an IED in southern Helmand province, killing 9 women and 3 children. No group has claimed responsibility for the blast. A drone strike before dawn in Laghman Province killed 8 women gathering firewood and injured 8 more. I spoke with a father of six children in ParwanSa refugee camp. He has been an Internally Displaced Person for 11 years, living in a small mud-brick enclosure with a plastic, canvas, and cardboard roof. I asked if the government had offered any assistance for the coming winter. He said the government has done nothing; he could only count on God to take care of his family. Oct 7th will mark the 11th  anniversary of America’s war in Afghanistan. 11 years and $550 billion dollars later, peace is still elusive.

The war has pushed the Taliban out of power, but the current government is full of the very same warlords that were carving up Afghanistan prior to the Taliban’s rise. These “representatives” have very little backing among the people, mainly because they have continued to line their pockets while their constituents suffer. The call for peace may fill their speeches, but to work for peace distracts from their income.

The International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) as well as the Afghan Army and Afghan Police force, often employing strong-arm tactics,  struggle to bring a semblance of security to the countryside. Security in Kabul is tentative as well, with suicide bombings and armed attacks on the rise. On Sept 18th, a woman rammed a car full of explosives into a van containing 9 foreign workers, killing herself, all 9 foreigners, their Afghan translator, as well as passerby. While temporary security may be imposed with an iron fist, peace cannot be forced.

On Sept 19th, an Afghan holiday in the remembrance of the death of Burhanuddin Rabbani, a warlord turned “peace envoy” who was killed by a suicide bomber in his home, President Hamid Karzai called on Afghans to pursue peace. A generation that has known nothing but war has little faith in government calls for peace while the very same government loots the country. The government led peace initiative seems to have died with Rabbani a year ago.

The past week has been disastrous for Afghans, and points towards more mayhem in the future.  While profits are still being generated for arms suppliers, reconstruction experts, and contractors, peace has not been generated for anyone. In America, peace is never spoken of outside the context of war or security. In Obama’s acceptance speech in Charlotte, he mentioned America’s “pursuit of peace” exactly once, shortly after getting cheers for claiming, “Osama bin Laden is dead.”

A partial list of American military involvement since 1982 includes Lebanon, Grenada, Chad, Libya, Honduras, Bolivia, Columbia, Peru, Philippines, Panama, Iraq, Kuwait, Somalia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Haiti, Serbia, Afghanistan (currently, America’s longest war), Sudan, Iraq (again, after years of crippling sanctions that killed half a million children), and Libya (again). This is not an exhaustive list, it doesn’t include covert attacks, special operations, or America’s special relationship with Israel, which has rained down horror on Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza. Israeli drones continue to kill people in Gaza on a nearly weekly basis. American drones are currently killing people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Syria and Iran loom on the horizon, with American threats of intervention and war ramping up. Death is a top American export.

On the anniversary of Sept 11th, a hate filled Anti-Islam movie trailer was a catalyst sparking widespread protests and attacks across the world, leading to 30 deaths. On Sept 19th a French Satirical newspaper, under the guise of “free speech” released vulgar cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad (Peace be Upon Him) adding fuel to an already volatile fire. Peace Day is likely to be fraught with violence, like most any other day.

Yet, on this International Day of Peace groups will come together around the world (and yes, even in Afghanistan) to promote peace, cooperation, friendship and love. These efforts are necessary, if for no other reason then to remind people peace is an option, a possibility, and a personal responsibility. It is necessary to counter the flames of hatred. It is necessary to be inspired by those who walked this path before us. It is necessary for our sanity as human beings. As the darkness of our violence prone world threatens to overwhelm us, it is necessary to dance, to sing, to laugh, and to open our minds to creative opportunities to live in harmony with our world. It is necessary to stand together for even just one day and say, “No, just because you have superior firepower, or can rain down hell fire missiles, or fly planes into buildings, I will not be swayed, I will not live in fear. Your sickness will not persuade me, infect me, or deter me.” In this electoral season, choosing between Obama and Romney is a huge distraction, there is real work to be done. Our perverse system of endless war needs to be dismantled, our culture realigned. We need to begin again. War is over. Peace is the path.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

“We are at War. Somebody is Going to Pay.” George W. Bush, Sept 11th, 2001

Eleven years later, we are still at war. Bullets, mortars and drones are still extracting payment. Thousands, tens of thousands, millions have paid in full. Children and even those yet to be born will continue to pay for decades to come.

On a single day in Iraq last week there were 29 bombing attacks in 19 cities, killing 111 civilians and wounding another 235.  On Sept 9th, reports indicate 88 people were killed and another 270 injured in 30 attacks all across the country. Iraq continues in a seemingly endless death spiral into chaos. In his acceptance speech for the Democratic nomination for President, Obama claimed he ended the war in Iraq, well… not quite.

The city of Fallujah remains under siege. Not from U.S. troops, but from a deluge of birth defects that have plagued families since the use of depleted uranium and white phosphorus by U.S. forces in 2004. No government studies have provided a direct link to the use of these weapons because no government studies have been undertaken, and none are contemplated.

Dr. Samira Alani, a pediatric specialist at Fallujah General Hospital, told Al Jazeera,
"We have all kinds of defects now, ranging from congenital heart disease to severe physical abnormalities, both in numbers you cannot imagine. There are not even medical terms to describe some of these conditions because we've never seen them until now." The photographs are available on line if you can bear to look at what we have wrought. George W. Bush will loudly proclaim his “Pro-life” bona fides, and he’ll tell you he believes “that every child, born and unborn, ought to be protected in law and welcomed into life.” Apparently, “every child” doesn’t apply to the children of Fallujah, and the “law” doesn’t apply to George W. Bush.

Our soldiers, some physically damaged by IED’s, some mentally destroyed by PTSD, will pay for these wars for the rest of their days. Drug and alcohol abuse is out of control. Suicide among the troops is an epidemic. 2,916 Americans were lost in the towers on that fateful day, many, many more have perished in the intervening years.

Today we will be asked to honor the men and woman of our armed forces, but what does honoring the veterans entail? In its most recent report, The Veterans Administration estimates about 107,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. Mental illness plagues 45% of homeless vets and 70% suffer from some kind of substance abuse. So how do you honor our veterans? Are “Support Our Troops” ribbons still in vogue? How does our government honor our veterans other than use them as political pawns in stump speeches and cannon fodder for their wars?

84,000 American troops remain in Afghanistan. While the occupation is rarely mentioned in the U.S. mainstream media, that doesn’t mean the killing has stopped. On average, one U.S. soldier dies everyday.  Not an enormous sum, unless it is your mother, father, son or daughter that has perished. Few Americans notice. Afghan loses are not reported. They have loved ones who grieve as well.

The American public has turned their attention to feeding their families, keeping their homes, and finding employment. But what of the $2 billion dollars per week we are spending on war in Afghanistan? What would $2 billion per week look like in our devastated communities, in our schools, in creating jobs or in caring for our elders? Politicians in both parties claim our first priority is to reduce the debt. If they were really serious, if they were honest, they would end this occupation and stop calling for cuts to Medicaid, Food Stamps, and Social Security.

And what is the price extracted from the Afghan people? Security is still a dream, even in Kabul. As I write this 6 people have perished in a suicide bombing outside NATO headquarters, in the heart of Kabul. Several of them were impoverished street kids, peddling packs of gum to the westerners who frequent the area.

Hilary Clinton, Madeline Albright, Jan Schakowsky, and other prominent American women claim American forces are necessary in Afghanistan to protect the gains made in woman’s rights. On Sept 6th, Emma Graham-Harrison reported in the Guardian that 3 women in Kabul were attacked by a group of men because of their work as television actresses. One of the women was murdered. After seeking treatment at the hospital, the two survivors were taken to prison, where they face intrusive virginity tests and possible charges of prostitution or collusion in the attack. They face long prison sentences. This is not the Taliban; this is woman’s rights in Afghanistan today, rights that Hilary Clinton fears will be rolled back!

On the streets of Kabul it is not unusual to see burka clad women clutching starving children begging for spare change. Poverty and hunger is even worse in Kandahar and Helmand, areas that have seen some of the most intense fighting of the war. In southern Afghanistan 29.5% of the children are suffering from severe malnutrition. This compares to famine stricken areas of Africa, yet, officially, there is no famine in Afghanistan and hundreds of millions of dollars of humanitarian aid has flowed into the country.

In America, 35 million people are hungry or do not know where their next meal is coming from and 13 million of them are children. Who benefits from the  “War on Terror”?

On Sept 2nd, Hamid Karzai announced his choice for the new intelligence chief, Asadullah Khalid. Khalid is currently the country's minister of tribal and border affairs who oversees its southern security forces. In 2009 Richard Colvin, Canada's former deputy ambassador to Afghanistan, testified before Canada's parliament that his team had uncovered "very credible" evidence of torture, which allegedly included Khalid's direct involvement. “He was known to have had a dungeon in Ghazni, his previous province, where he used to detain people for money, and some of them disappeared," Colvin said in his testimony. "He was known to be running a narcotics operation. He had a criminal gang. He had people killed who got in his way." Khalid and Karzai dismiss the allegations as unfounded.

In Kabul, children freeze to death in the winter, and they starve to death all year round.  Meanwhile on the edge of Kabul a “New City” is being built. Hamid Karzai’s brother, Qayum Karzai, the owner of a construction company, benefits as his company “wins” government contracts without the hassles of competitive bidding. Karzai’s relatives are also benefiting from lucrative contracts in the oil and mineral sectors. In late 2011, Watan Oil and Gas, a company controlled by President Karzai’s cousins Rateb and Rashid Popal gained a contract with China’s National Petroleum Corporation. In 1989 Rateb was convicted for smuggling drugs in the U.S. and spent more than eight years in prison. The Popal family’s company Watan Risk Management also worked as a contractor for the US forces. In 2010, they were accused of paying off Taliban insurgents with a cut from NATO contracts. According to the NY Times, another brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai was involved in the heroin trade and was also on the CIA’s payroll for several years before his assassination in 2011. The Karzai family now brings in billions of dollars a year. 42% of Afghans live on less than a dollar a day. So we are bent on ridding Afghanistan of the Taliban while the government is full of warlords, gangsters, and drug dealers.

Since America’s intervention in Afghanistan, the heroin trade has exploded, doubling opium production. Afghanistan is now the source of 90% of the world’s heroin. This dovetail’s nicely with America’s “War on Drugs.”

The growth in the heroin trade coupled with the despair of daily living has contributed to an eruption of drug addiction. Addicts can be found huddled under bridges throughout Kabul. As these men succumb to addiction, their families are left to fend for themselves. Heroin floods the streets of Europe and Russia. Which banks benefit from the enormous cash flows generated by the heroin trade? Who in the Afghan government benefits?

The corruption is mind-boggling. We support terrorist elements, most recently in Syria and Libya, but before that in Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, and then find ourselves fighting them down the road. In a reversal of our usual modus operandi, it has come to light that during the Bush years the CIA tortured numerous members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an armed Islamist Group that had worked to overthrow Gaddafi for 20 years, before transferring them to Gaddafi’s regime for further torture. Some of these same fighters rendered and tortured by America and Libya now hold key leadership posts in the “liberated” Libya.

Private interests in Saudi Arabia continue to fund Sunni extremists around the world. Wikileaks released a Dec. 2009 cable from the State Department that complained that Saudi donors remain the primary financiers of militant groups like Al-Qaeda. In May 2010, the Sunday Times of London revealed that the Afghan Financial Intelligence Unit, FinTRACA, reported that since 2006 at least 1.5 billion dollars from Saudi Arabia was funneled to the Taliban in Afghanistan, with Al-Qaeda withholding a cut for their delivery services.  Why is there no outcry from the U.S.?

In 2011 overseas weapons sales by the United States totaled $66.3 billion, or more than three-quarters of the global arms market. Russia was second, with $4.8 billion in deals. Who benefits from the War on Terror and who benefits when America threatens war?

Over half of the sales, or $33.4 billion, consisted of arms sales to Saudi Arabia. These sales included F-15 fighter jets, dozens of Apache and Black Hawk helicopters, as well as an array of missiles, bombs and delivery systems, as well as accessories such as night-vision goggles and radar warning systems. These sales offset the flow of US dollars to pay for Saudi oil, and this explains why there is no outrage directed toward the Saudi regime.

The War on Terror exploits the tragedy of September 11 for the benefit of a very few. Poor people continue to pay an enormous price, while the elites, including our own government and the corporations it answers to, ignores everything but the influx of cash into their coffers. The war business is profitable if you refuse to count the cost of human lives.

In his acceptance speech for the Democratic nomination for President, Obama said, "Our destinies are bound together. A freedom which only asks what's in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity, is unworthy of our founding ideals." In closing, he said, "We travel together. We leave no one behind. We pull each other up.” Why is it our Presidents fail to include those they bomb in their lofty sentiments? The simple truth is our destinies are bound together with those who lie beyond the borders of our country as well.

A young, educated Afghan man, an advisor to Parliament, sees the corruption of his government and despairs. He asks me, “What is my share in this world?” He continues,  “Absolutely nothing. And for my child, the same.” His voice trails off. We sit drinking tea as night comes on.

Monday, September 03, 2012

2 Million Friends Calling for Peace

Four decades of war.  Two million people dead. Trillions of dollars spent. Money disappearing into the pockets of corrupt politicians, bureaucrats, policemen and the armed forces. No accountability. No transparency. No infrastructure. The misery and poverty of the majority of the people continues unabated, decade after decade.  Children freeze to death in the winter. They starve to death all year round. The question remains, “Who benefits from this misery?” The human cost of war doesn’t enter into any politician’s calculations.

In October 2011 Secretary of State Clinton emphasized a new three-track strategy of “Fight, talk, and build,” claiming to “pursue all three tracks at once, as they are mutually reinforcing.” One year later, it is clear that the 3rd Afghan strategy of the Obama administration can be added to the scrap heap of failed strategies along with the “Af-Pak” strategy and the “Surge”. No one is talking, nothing is being built, fighting is the only track that continues unabated. Security, even in Kabul, is tenuous. Peace seems a distant and illusory concept.

On Sunday, September 2nd, the Afghan Peace Volunteers held a press conference in Kabul, Afghanistan to introduce a new strategy, called the “2 Million Friends” initiative. Built on a foundation of hope and goodwill, this initiative calls on ordinary citizens of all countries to join with ordinary Afghan citizens, who are tired of corruption, hatred and war, to be friends. When asked about the role of international people, Roz Mohammed, a young man from Midan Wardak replied, “The international people are just like us, ordinary people who want to work with us for peace.” The wish is for 2 million friends, in remembrance of each of the 2 million Afghan victims of 40 years of war in Afghanistan, to join together and appeal for peace. 2 million friends to tell our respective governments, "Enough! We wish to live without war."

“2 Million Friends” is not just an initiative to be “liked” or “shared” on the Internet. It is about recognizing our shared humanity. When we see the suffering of a friend, we do not stand by and wish things were different, we act to end their suffering. “2 Million Friends” is a call to action here, here, and here.

On December 10, 2012, International Human Rights Day, “2 Million Friends” will present a petition to the UN calling for an immediate ceasefire in Afghanistan, leading to direct, substantial talks to end the war, end the government corruption and begin to advocate for the welfare of the majority of the Afghan people who have suffered for too long.

The Afghan Peace Volunteers is a unique organization in Afghanistan. Its members are young volunteers from all the major ethnic groups. They live together and promote peaceful coexistence, simple living and self-reliance. They receive no salary, and they don’t promote any particular religious or political party. They are truly independent. In the fractured, war torn country of Afghanistan, this alone is a remarkable achievement. When asked why they focus on the youth, Ali, a young man from Bamyan Province replied, “We need everyone’s help, but we focus on the youth because they are the future of Afghanistan.” Shaima, a young woman from Parwan added, “When the youth have information about non-violence and peace they will not be so willing to continue to fight.” The Afghan Peace Volunteers are growing, even in the face of enormous challenges, and they invite everyone who desires peace through non-violence to be their friend!

To become one of 2 Million Friends, visit
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