Without a Change of Course, Afghanistan Will Become the U.S.' Next Great Disaster in 2009


Afghanistan will come roaring back onto our TV screens in 2009, with U.S. plans to escalate military operations there. It will crowd out the current Gaza invasion -- like that, in turn, swept away the Iraq occupation, now yesterday’s news -- from our commercial media’s limited attention span.

However, for some of us who work in the peacebuilding field, the war in Afghanistan never left.

Each day, I read articles from Afghani and international press about the violence engulfing that failed state. The U.S. military releases reports of people it has killed, although it never calls them people.

Insurgents, militants, radicals, rebels, terrorists, Taliban and al-Qaida, but never call them people, fellow human beings. Our government reports their deaths like sales figures, production quotas.

We cannot ever call them people -- sons, brothers, fathers, uncles, friends -- because that would challenge our ability to accept their deaths as positive goods, progress in the "war on terror."

We can never allow ourselves to acknowledge that each of these deaths extinguishes a human being who will never breathe again, eat a meal, listen to music, sit with friends or watch a sunset.

We can never allow ourselves to grieve, to recognize that others will grieve, or to feel the shame and failure of what we have done. We did not destroy another person. We merely killed the "enemy."

I am not saying that "we" are "bad" any more than that "they" are "good." I understand conflict. I understand that lives and quality of life are at stake, no matter what we do or don’t do there. All I am saying is that killing is not progress, it is never good. It represents a supreme failure, an ultimate "defeat for humanity" in the words of Pope John Paul II on the eve of the Iraq war.

What if we took a different approach? What if, instead of always trying to win the war, we set about to build the peace. What if we measured building a peaceful world like we measure business success?

In that case, every act of violence anywhere in the world would be recorded as a "defect" in "quality" in our "production" process, not registered as a positive gain. Every act of killing would be recognized as a complete product failure to be scrutinized for what we can learn about how to do things better.

What if we measured building a peaceful world like we measure military success? Every death at the hand of another -- no matter whose death, no matter whose hand -- would be a battlefield defeat to be studied for what we can learn for the next campaign, the next theater of peacebuilding operations.

What if we adopt a public-health model that regards killing as a preventable disease that ends lives before their time? We can set out to eradicate killing, just like we did with smallpox.

We can no longer accept killing as inevitable, much less good. We need to embark on a new policy of "zero tolerance" for killing, by us or anyone else.

President-elect Barack Obama famously said that he wants "to end the mind-set that got us into war in the first place" not just end a particular war. Let us ask him to begin with Afghanistan and to not repeat the mistakes that he saw others make with Iraq. Let's try something different this time.

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