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As Admin Preps ‘Enduring Presence’ in Afghanistan, Peace Activists Build Ties to War Victims
While the U.S. military is preparing to extend what is already the nation’s longest war, new ties are emerging between the peace movement here and in Afghanistan. The group "Afghan Peace Volunteers" recently invited international peace activists to help launch a campaign called "2 Million Friends for Peace in Afghanistan," a nod to the number of Afghans killed in the last four decades of war and occupation. We’re joined by two U.S. peace activists recently back from Afghanistan: Ann Wright, a retired Army colonel and former U.S. diplomat who helped oversee the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan in 2001; and John Dear, a Catholic priest and longtime peace activist who was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan to discuss the Obama administration’s plans for its troop presence over the next several years. The White House has long billed its 2014 withdrawal deadline as an end to the Afghan War, but reports have recently surfaced it plans to keep some 10,000 troops in Afghanistan well beyond that date. Panetta explained what role the U.S. will play in Afghanistan after the NATO combat mission ends.
DEFENSE SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: We are going to maintain an enduring presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014. We will be drawing down our forces. Obviously the Afghan army will assume full responsibility for the security of the country, but we will be there to provide support, to provide training, to provide assistance, to provide help on counterterrorism and to provide support for the forces that are here. So we will be maintaining an enduring presence here.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: While the U.S. military is preparing to extend what is already the nation’s longest war, new ties are emerging between the peace movement here and in Afghanistan. The group Afghan Peace Volunteers recently invited international peace activists to help launch a campaign called "2 Million Friends for Peace in Afghanistan." Since two million Afghans have been killed in the last four decades of the war and occupation, they called on two million people from around the world to counter this history of violence by pledging their friendship to the people and youth of Afghanistan. Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire spoke at the ceremony in Kabul.
MAIREAD MAGUIRE: You remember that two million people from Afghanistan have died in violence and in war and in killing. We’re here to remember every single one of those people who died needlessly. And for this, I am sorry. And I say sorry to the Afghan people for what the governments of the U.S. and NATO and other governments have done to the Afghani people, and I say, "Not in my name."
AMY GOODMAN: Nobel Laureate Mairead Maguire.
Well, for more, we’re joined by two guests who recently returned from Afghanistan. Ann Wright is a retired Army colonel, former U.S. diplomat, spent 29 years in the military, later served as a high-ranking diplomat in the State Department. In 2001 she helped oversee the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan, where she served as deputy chief of mission. Then, in 2003, she resigned her post to protest the war in Iraq. John Dear is with us, a Catholic priest, longtime peace activist, author of 30 books on peace and nonviolence, recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! John, you returned just two nights ago from Afghanistan. Why did you go? What did you see there? And your response to Leon Panetta’s surprise visit to Afghanistan?
REV. JOHN DEAR: It was such a revelation. I wanted to go. It was my first time, and been working for 11 years denouncing this war. And we were invited with the Afghan Peace Volunteers, this small, intentional community of young people working for peace and nonviolence, to launch this campaign. So, I’ve always wanted to go, but to actually see—I mean, from the air, it was like a thousand miles of the Alps—and the rugged terrain, which we call the "graveyard of empires," the poverty, the legacy of war, the corruption, the pollution. It was—it was very hard to see the suffering of the people and this ongoing cycle of violence. And everywhere we went, we heard, "End the war. Stop our suffering. Do what you can. Tell the people in America to continue to work to stop the killing now."
In the midst of so much suffering and injustice, it just boggles the mind. Here are these 25 young people in Kabul, who have committed their lives to Gandhian nonviolence. And Ann and I and Mairead have traveled the war zones of the world, and we’ve never seen anything like it, their steadfast dedication. They’re doing public peace marches. They built a peace park in one of their villages. They’re bringing in internationals. They’re doing Skype sessions with young people around the country. And they’re continually calling for an end to the war and the killing.
And so, they invited us to join them Tuesday with this U.N. official to launch this call. And again, I’m just learning so much being there. Two million people have been killed in the last four decades—10 years of the Soviet occupation; the civil war with the warlords, who are all still there, working in the Karzai government; the Taliban oppression; and now 11 years of our war and occupation. And these kids, at great risk to their lives, all of whom have lost friends and loved ones, standing up and being a beacon of light and peace. So that’s why we went there, to offer them some solidarity. But it turned out to be a great experience for us as longtime activists. And the message, too, was, that we would share with activists and all your listeners, is we have to continue to work to end the war and try to begin a new road toward healing and recovery.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And Ann Wright, of course, this is not your first time in Afghanistan, but I’m wondering if you could reflect on the changes from the—from the time when you were a diplomat there and now as you’re hearing Leon Panetta talk about an enduring presence of the United States in Afghanistan.
ANN WRIGHT: Indeed, I was there 12 years ago as we reopened the embassy. I’ve been back three times now. The comment of Secretary of Defense Panetta that we will be leaving behind 6,000 to 10,000 military troops, I think, is a deal breaker. I think the forces that are standing against the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan now will not—will not put up at all with any sort of foreign forces left there. So, as President Karzai and President Zardari of Pakistan are meeting in Turkey just these last two days on a road map of peace, which is kind of taking the road map out from the hands of the United States, which has been trying to weasel its way in, after it spent billions, if not trillions, of dollars on war in Afghanistan, that has meant that so many millions of people in Afghanistan actually have not received schools, have not gotten health clinics, roads that have not been built, but it’s all war. And the people of Afghanistan don’t want war anymore. That was the common thread of all of the talks that we had with people in Kabul. We didn’t go outside of Kabul on this trip, but people want peace. They want—they want the Americans out. They want the NATO forces out. Of course, they are concerned about what the future is, because the brutality of the Taliban, the brutality of the warlords, as John mentioned, many of those that are in the Karzai government. They are concerned about that. But they are more deeply concerned that this occupation, that’s already gone on for 12 years, will continue.
AMY GOODMAN: When U.S. defense chief Leon Panetta was at the presidential palace to meet Hamid Karzai, he remained vague on the exact number of troops that will remain in Afghanistan.
DEFENSE SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: With regards to the number on the enduring presence, that will be an issue that will be discussed by the president with President Karzai, in consultation with him. And then, ultimately, I assume, when they feel it is appropriate, that will be revealed to not only the American people but the Afghan people, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: John Dear, the 2014 deadline, the response of people on the ground in Afghanistan?
REV. JOHN DEAR: Well, again, we heard, everywhere we went, war is not the solution. What do you—I remember in one of the refugee camps, one of the leaders said, "What has all of this warfare brought us? Everything is destroyed. You’re not building anything. The school system—there is no school system, basically. And people are starving." The chronic malnourishment rate in Afghanistan, the U.N. just said, is the same as the worst places in Africa. So, I think all the troops have to come out, and we have to find a nonviolent, non-military solution. Of course, as Ann said, everybody is scared and apprehensive. Does this mean the warlords will take over? We heard a lot of people saying that. Everybody is arming. The division and the violence is so deep in that land and those poor people. But I don’t think the American war or occupation is ever going to bring peace. And 10,000 soldiers remaining there is going to only aggravate it.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to ask you about the American drone war. You were arrested as—in one of the first civil disobedience protests against drones. The technology now has made it possible for the United States to wage war with unmanned drones without risking any American lives, yet having enormous devastation. Could you talk about these—this new level now of drone warfare?
REV. JOHN DEAR: It’s so horrific and scary and inhuman. And it meant so much to me because of our action with the Creech 14. We had crossed onto the headquarters of the drone, onto the base in Nevada, and were arrested a few years ago. And the youth, who are practicing nonviolence, have all lost loved ones. And I spent a lot of time interviewing them, and they told me details about their rural villages, how the drones are hovering every other night—they sound like low, buzzing sounds—and how they killed their relatives. One of the boys said, for example, "My brother went out with his friends" — there’s nothing to do; it’s total poverty — "to sit in a park on a summer evening." And the drones blew up all the group of young people, and there was nobody left. And all—everyone who said—told me their stories of war said that every U.S. aerial bombardment and drone attack has killed innocent people, despite any claim that they’re targeted or—which I wouldn’t believe in, to begin with. They’re kill—they’re killing countless women and children and innocent people. So they’re also terrifying the people. And the money going into this, when meanwhile they’re starving, and there’s no water, and there’s no schools and no jobs. This is—it’s horrific evil that we’re wreaking upon these people. And it’s not bringing peace. This is not working. So, that’s why I don’t believe any of this lie.
AMY GOODMAN: Ann Wright, you’ve also been arrested in the drone protests. This news just from last night: up near Syracuse, something where 13 to 15 anti-drone protesters convicted of trespassing Thursday night, five sentenced to two weeks in jail, the protesters charged after they spent more than two hours on June 28th at Hancock Air Base’s main entrance while attempting and failing to deliver a citizens’ indictment for what they’re calling "Reaper drone war crimes" committed at the base.
ANN WRIGHT: And hurray for them. I was part of the Syracuse 34 or the Hancock 34, the first group that got arrested up there. And there’s been a series of arrests there. They are really taking the military to task in Syracuse, and rightly so. The drone warfare, where in Afghanistan this last year 447 drone strikes already this year, the highest number in the history of Afghanistan; right next door, Pakistan, where the CIA has its drone operations, and I was a part of a delegation just last month into Pakistan; in Gaza, where the Israelis are using drones, and in that eight-day assault, attack on Gaza. And, in fact, if I could just kind of bring Gaza and Afghanistan together—
AMY GOODMAN: Where you both were, is that right, in Gaza?
REV. JOHN DEAR: Just Ann; I wasn’t there.
ANN WRIGHT: In Gaza, but we both were in Afghanistan. As we were talking to some seamstresses that are being hired, so to speak, by the Afghan Youth Volunteers to sew comforters that can then be given to people in these internally displaced camps to try to keep them alive during this harsh winter, one of the seamstresses, a woman of very, you know, limited education but great heart, she said, as we were talking to them, "We are so concerned about ourselves, of course, but I want to tell you about other women, and we’ve heard about the attack in Gaza and women in Gaza that have been attacked by drones." And this bringing together of people of conflict, people of—that are living in these occupied lands now, is so important. The drones are horrific. The image of the United States stinks throughout the world, and these drones have a heck of a lot to do with it.
AMY GOODMAN: John Dear, as you were in Afghanistan, we were broadcasting from Oslo, Norway, the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. There were protests of hundreds outside the day before that the European Union was getting it this year. Your—you’ve been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Your response to this year’s award?
REV. JOHN DEAR: Well, it’s just outrageous and tragic and sad that this war is going—I mean, the award is going to—I don’t even know how to describe it—a group of nations that are leading war around the world. But it was very hopeful that our friend Mairead Maguire, my friends Archbishop Tutu and Adolfo Pérez Esquivel—what happened was, they issued an open, public letter denouncing the award.
AMY GOODMAN: Unprecedented, and they’re Nobel laureates.
REV. JOHN DEAR: Right. And they called for the committee to resign and that the Nobel Committee should be—like the Nobel award for literature should have experts at literature, we should have peace experts give out the award. Well, what’s happened is that sparked a serious discussion within senior levels in Sweden and Norway. And I feel that’s hopeful. And I hope, you know, the award would go to people like the Afghan Peace Volunteers or people who are teaching peace and nonviolence. And there are many good people who need to be lifted up and honored.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you both very much for being with us. Reverend John Dear, longtime peace activist, author of 30 books on peace and nonviolence, has been arrested in over 75 protests, most recently as a member of the Creech 14, the first group to commit civil disobedience against the drones, recently nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, also a Nobel laureate. And I want to thank you, Ann Wright, for joining us, as well, a retired Army colonel, former U.S. diplomat. Both of them just back from Afghanistan.