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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 17, 2009

A practical peace would free future generations

Our president, Barack Obama, understood the irony of winning the Nobel Peace Prize while he is commander-in-chief of the military of a nation waging two wars. He mentioned this in the acceptance speech he delivered earlier this month in Oslo.

Obama, as he promised in his campaign, is winding down the war in Iraq. Most Americans agree now that the war in Iraq was misguided — entered into under false pretexts. There were no weapons of mass destruction and the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon had nothing to do with Iraq.

Beyond the staggering cost in dollars, a burden crippling our economy, there is the cost to human lives, both American and Iraqi. The war has also cost Americans support around the world, and inspired more terrorism.

The war in Afghanistan is now a matter of great discussion and debate across our country as Obama is sending 30,000 more soldiers to fight there. Views range from favoring a military build-up with the goal of winning the war to immediate troop withdrawal.

About three dozen people turned out this week for an event sponsored by the Guilderland Neighbors for Peace at the public library. Robert Greenwald’s frankly activist film, Rethink Afghanistan, was shown. He made the film this year in segments so it could air online and influence public policy.

Gritty, sometimes blurred footage of a camp of displaced people in Kabul City shows an old woman trying to care for five orphans. “They’re hungry, thirsty, and I don’t know what to do,” she says.

The old woman has no feet and asks God to kill her.

Another scene at the same camp shows a man with a little, barefoot girl in ragged clothes. “This child, I can sell her but no one will buy her,” the father says. “She is innocent, but I am poor. I have nothing.”

The film later reports that both the old woman and the barefoot little girl have died.

No one likes to watch innocent children and old women dying. We all can see that wars, any wars, hurt the innocent.

The wars America is now waging are different than earlier wars, though, where the entire country was painted as an enemy. Soldiers are supposed to both fight insurgents and help citizens.

Money meant for worthwhile projects is squandered by corrupt contractors who siphon off funds, while there is poor government oversight.

Many in the Guilderland crowd who came to view the film were angry at Obama. Several offered simple solutions. One asked why the situation in Afghanistan had to be viewed as win-or-lose rather than as win-win. But leaving a volatile region unstable would inflame the problems.

In his speech at Oslo, Obama spoke of his admiration for those who had won the Peace Prize before him. “Violence never brings permanent peace,” Martin Luther King Jr. had said in accepting his prize. “It solves no social problem: It merely creates new and more complicated ones.”

Obama said he knows that there is nothing weak, nothing passive, nothing naïve in such a philosophy.

But, he said, “I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”

We wonder, though, if our country’s fighting in Afghanistan is making America safer.

If the “evil” is terrorism, the battlefield is not the best place to fight it. An analysis by the not-for-profit Rand Corporation last year examined 648 terrorist groups between 1968 and 2008 and found that 43 percent ended because they were incorporated into the political process and 40 percent ended because  police or intelligence agencies seized or killed group leaders.

Intelligence and police work would be less costly in terms of money spent, lives lost, and reputation destroyed, and it could well be more effective.

Sara Daly, a former CIA counter-terrorism analyst who went on to work for the Rand Corporation, wrote over six years ago that good intelligence rather than military might is the best way to protect our homeland. “Information gathering is the most powerful weapon in the struggle to dismantle terrorist networks and prevent attacks,” she said.

Obama said in Oslo that war appeared with the first man. Will it disappear only with the last man? We believe people have the power to change their world. Slavery was once considered an inevitable part of the human condition and now has been largely eliminated.

Our favorite part of Obama’s Oslo speech was his reference to President John F. Kennedy’s thought: “Let us focus on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions.”

Obama went on to talk about adhering to standards that govern the use of force, and achieving a “just peace.”

A just peace, he said, must include not only civil and political rights, it must encompass economic security and opportunity.

On hearing these words, we were reminded of a man from Pakistan, Muhammad Raza, who visited Altamont Elementary School earlier this year. A Pushtan, Raza, like those in neighboring Afghanistan, grew up in a war-torn country. “I was a student in the days of the Cold War,” he said. “I have been a witness to huge violence for a long time — three decades. It has impacted me deeply…I felt myself responsible to alleviate what I could. We want to produce a critical mass who stand for peace, tolerance, and democratic values.”

A lawyer and a Fulbright Scholar, he has used his education to liberate others, building community schools in poor areas.

“We wanted to provide a quality liberal education to poor students who might otherwise end up in a madrassa,” he said, referring to the Islamic religious schools that educated many of the Taliban. During the war with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, the madrasses in Afghanistan and Pakistan preached war on infidels — the enemy then was the Soviet Union; now, the enemy is America.

Raza went on to describe the “mushroom growth of madrassas”: “Hundreds of thousands of youth graduate from madrassas without any useful skills. Their ultimate goal is to create another madrassa…Schemers vandalize our youth and use them as cannon fodder.”

Raza also said, “The government of the United States has historically supported military dictatorships rather than representative governments. There is a perception the U.S. government is not people friendly, that it promotes policy at a cost to the common people.” The common people should be at the forefront of our country’s policies.

At the end of his Oslo speech, Obama drew applause as he urged, “Let us reach for the world that ought to be — that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls.”

Helping farmers and businesses, building schools and libraries in places like Afghanistan where people can’t find work, where poverty is crushing, would keep them from becoming the “cannon fodder” of the Taliban.

 Let us work toward an attainable peace.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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