The Common Good

Build, Don't Destroy in Afghanistan: An Open Letter to President Obama

Sojomail - November 19, 2009


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Hearts & Minds by Jim Wallis

Build, Don't Destroy in Afghanistan: An Open Letter to President Obama

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Your voice is being heard. Already, thousands of you have signed a letter and contacted the White House urging a new way forward in Afghanistan. Today, Sojourners staff will be meeting with White House officials to hand-deliver the following letter. I encourage you to read it and to endorse this message if you have not done so already. Support for a new way forward is growing. InterAction, a coalition of 187 non-governmental relief and development organizations focused on the world's poorest and most vulnerable people, has now written a letter of support for this new approach that you can read here. As the president’s decision draws near, please, as always, pray for peace.

Dear Mr. President,

In your speech to the United Nations General Assembly this fall, you eloquently stated one of your core beliefs, that while too often peace remains a distant dream:

We can either accept that outcome as inevitable, and tolerate constant and crippling conflict, or we can recognize that the yearning for peace is universal, and reassert our resolve to end conflicts around the world ... For the most powerful weapon in our arsenal is the hope of human beings -- the belief that the future belongs to those who would build and not destroy; the confidence that conflicts can end and a new day can begin.

We share that belief, and urge you to make it your guiding principle in Afghanistan. We speak not as military or political strategists, but as religious leaders seeking to faithfully apply our moral values to this most crucial issue. We have been watching, listening, and praying as the political arguments and counter-arguments about what to do in Afghanistan fill the air. We commend you for taking time to make your decisions in such an important matter which will affect the lives of so many.

We believe that after eight years of war we need a whole new approach in Afghanistan. And we respectfully and prayerfully suggest to you a different strategy that we would name: the humanitarian and development surge.

First, lead with what we know works -- massive humanitarian assistance and sustainable development. We know that what can re-build a broken nation; inspire confidence, trust, and hope among its people; and undermine the appeal of terrorism is massive humanitarian assistance and sustainable economic development. And it costs less -- far less -- than continued war.

Many of us as religious leaders are deeply involved with the people and organizations who know places like Afghanistan the best; and they are neither the military nor the private contractors who increasingly dominate U.S. foreign policy in war-torn regions. Rather they are the NGOs, both faith-based and secular, doing relief and development work which have been there for years, have become quite indigenous, and are much more trusted by the people of the country than are the U.S. military. We’ve also learned that it is vitally important that humanitarian and development assistance should be provided, as much as possible, by independent civilian and non-governmental organizations, both international and local -- rather than using aid as a government adjunct to military operations. Another way to say it is that the best face of America to the world is a baseball hat and not a helmet.

Of course, we recognize that effective development needs security, and when we have massively intervened in a country as much as the U.S. has in Afghanistan, we can’t responsibly just walk away -- as has tragically happened to that country in the past. But we should lead with economic development now, starting in areas that are secure with the plan of growing the transformation from there and providing only the security necessary to protect the strategic rebuilding of the country. That kind of peacekeeping security might better attract the international involvement we so desperately need in Afghanistan, both from Europe and even from Arab and Muslim countries. Let the non-military strategies lead the way, rather than the other way around. Let us not make aid and development another weapon of war, by tying it so closely to the military; but rather provide the security support needed for the development work to succeed -- led by both respected and well-established international organizations with strong local connections.

Second, we feel deeply about the ethical and moral issues that are at stake in our decisions about future policy in Afghanistan -- legitimately protecting Americans from further terrorism, protecting the lives of American servicemen and women, protecting the Afghan people from the collateral damage of war, defending women from the Taliban, genuinely supporting democracy and, of course, saving innocent lives from the collateral damage of war -- to name a few.

We also strongly recommend a diplomatic surge. We urge you to continue pursuing political and diplomatic solutions to these complicated issues, promoting stable governance in Afghanistan and Pakistan, seeking political integration of those elements of the Taliban that are willing to cooperate in preventing the use of their territory for launching terrorist strikes, engaging with the United Nations and other states in the region to build diplomatic and economic support for regional stabilization and economic development, as well as international policing to prevent the spread of extremists and the use of terror.

But Mr. President, as you deliberate on these momentous decisions, we are concerned that the discussion in Washington, D.C. is far too narrow, with only two points of view being seriously considered.

One strategy supports a robust strategy of counter-insurgency, requiring a substantial escalation of troops that would bring the total number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to as many as 100,000. Yet, this only increases the massive American footprint in that volatile country; which is now one of the primary causes of our problems there, and is clearly helping to fuel the insurgency. Add in a corrupt Afghan government, a highly decentralized society, and a physical terrain that has confounded every other occupier in history; and we find little reason to be hopeful about the prospects of military success through more escalation.

The other prefers counter-terrorism, relying on precision targeting technology to apply military pressure on the most dangerous and extreme operatives who are the greatest threat to us. Our counter-terrorist missiles and unmanned drones may cost less in American lives and treasure, but they have very significant political and moral costs. In war, a laser-like focus is seldom possible, often leading to tragic results in unintended consequences and innocent casualties. The collateral damage of our technological war has already been great, resulting in many civilian deaths, further alienating the populace and, inadvertently, producing even more angry young recruits for terrorism.

And we fear the solution that may be emerging in Washington could be a confused combination of the two strategies, bringing us the worst of both worlds.

We humbly suggest it is time for a meeting at the White House with both American religious leaders and the heads of the leading international development agencies, some of whom have been in Afghanistan for years, with many indigenous employees and partners, who are trusted by the people of the country. These organizations can contribute their experience and wisdom on what U.S. policy would best work, and what kind of security they would need to really do the kind of development in Afghanistan that is most needed. Along with the military and political advice you are receiving, this input is crucial to your decision. And it is time, perhaps for the first time, for an on-going moral and ethical conversation between government and the faith community about the moral implications of our policy decisions.

Mr. President, we assure you that in taking the approach of effective aid and development, and real engagement with the moral issues that confront us in Afghanistan, you will have our support. As always, you are in our prayers as you seek the right decisions to these most difficult questions and choices. We look forward to hearing from you.


Jim Wallis, President and CEO, Sojourners
Noel Castellanos, President, Christian Community Development Association
Rev. William J. Shaw, Pastor, White Rock Baptist Church, Philadelphia, PA
Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, President, Skinner Leadership Institute
Rev. Rich Nathan, Pastor, Vineyard Church of Columbus
Thomas L. Jones, former chair, Social Justice and Peacemaking, Presbyterian Church USA
The Honorable Douglas W. Kmiec
Arturo Chavez, Ph.D., President and CEO, Mexican American Catholic College
Ingrid Mattson, President, The Islamic Society of North America
Dr. Anthony Campolo, President and Founder, Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education
Fred Davie, The Arcus Foundation
Diana Butler Bass, Author and Educator
Harry Knox, Silver Spring, Maryland
Brian D. McLaren, author, speaker, activist
Rev. Sharon Watkins, General Minister and President, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Rev. Alexia Salvatierra
Rev. Wes Granberg-Michaelson, Reformed Church in America
Thomas and Karen Getman, The Getman Group
Mubarak Awad, American University
Robin and Nancy Wainwright, Middle East Fellowship
Norm Nelson, Compassion Radio
Susheilla Mehta

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