Recently we took our young children for some American history in Williamsburg, Va., and Yorktown, Va., site of the final battle of the American Revolution. The Yorktown park ranger recounted how George Washington was desperate to end the Revolution; he never imagined the war would last six years. My husband and I exchanged looks. We had just seen a friend off to his second deployment with the Army Reserves; last time it was Iraq, this time Afghanistan.
Today we are involved in endless wars, and no politician seems “desperate” to end them. Instead, discussions revolve around keeping troops in Iraq beyond the mandated withdrawal date. The children were chasing butterflies and picking buttercups, and we had no inkling if anything the tour guide said registered. But the following morning our 4-year-old son told me, “Mom, sometimes we kids fight.”
“I have seen this,” I told him.
“Sometimes kids fight over toys, when we want the same toy.”
“Yes,” I answered, wondering if this was the prelude to a confession of crimes committed against his sisters, until he continued. “But grown ups fight over the earth, and they call it war. And it makes George Washington sad.” I guess he had been listening to the park guide after all. “God doesn’t want us to be warring,” he said. “God wants us to be peace-ing.”
Indeed. Ten years into the U.S. war in Afghanistan, how well are we doing with our peace-ing?
Certainly the initial goals of the U.S. invasion have been met. The Taliban are no longer the government. Al Qaeda training camps have been destroyed and key terrorists killed or captured, including Osama bin Laden in neighboring Pakistan.
The Afghan government may be riddled with what we view as corruption and nepotism, although many Afghans would call it taking care of their tribe. But it is an elected government, and it does not aid terrorist groups. Just the opposite—Afghan police and security forces every day put their lives on the line in defense of their people.
And herein lies the problem. Violence rates remain high in Afghanistan. The United Nations reported 1,462 civilian deaths in the first half of 2011, up from last year. Most are killed by antigovernment forces using landmine-like improvised explosive devices, detonated when a person steps on a pressure plate. Although “only” 80 civilians were killed by International Security Assistance Force air strikes, and Afghans understand the Taliban and insurgents are responsible for nearly 80 percent of civilian deaths, the United States does not get credit for attempts to protect civilians. Instead it is blamed, in the belief that the presence of U.S. forces in the country exacerbates the violence.
This exposes some of the key problems with counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere. First, it is very difficult for centralized violence (exemplified by U.S. military organization) to meet effectively and contain highly decentralized violence. Second, one cannot argue persuasively that every life is sacred, especially those of noncombatants, while killing noncombatants. And third, restraining airpower to curb civilian deaths, however laudable, is not building peace.
Catholic peacebuilders know that peacebuilding requires participation, right relationship and reconciliation, but these are in short supply in Afghanistan. Reconci-liation efforts to reach a political settlement have apparently so far focused only on the combatants; victims of the violence, many of them women, do not have a seat at the table. Exclusion from the peace table is what leads women to despair that too often political reconciliation means men with guns excusing and paying off other men with guns for the violence they have done against women. For reconciliation to be just and for any Afghan political agreement to stick, women must have seats at the table.
Endless war is unsustainable. The global war on terror, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has cost the United States $4 trillion, nearly 30 percent of the U.S. debt, yet many of those in Washington lamenting the budget deficit are unwilling to rein in military spending seriously. The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, is right when he says, “You can’t kill your way out of an insurgency.” It is time to get peace-ing.