Look! Take an Afghander at that perennial FUBAR

We see exactly what we see in Afghanistan right now, the logical mess at the end of nearly two decades of mistakes compounding mistakes.


I’m sure many of us older players recall where we were when the planes hit on 9.11.2001.

I was teaching my 8 a.m. Peace and Conflict class. Students rolled in and yelled at me to turn on the TV, which naturally didn’t work. They excitedly told of a plane hitting the World Trade Center in New York, but no one had any idea was it was about other than it was a catastrophe. 

Then the Dean poked his head in the room and said a second plane struck the other tower, one hit the Pentagon, and one crashed into a field in Pennsylvania and it was the horrific work of terrorists. 

Students turned to me. “OK, Professor Nonviolence, now what?”

I stood behind my podium and took a beat.

“Three things,” I said. “One, you know we will go to war and that some people will suffer a massive U.S. military attack for this, even if many civilians get killed. Two, if I were an omnipotent president of the U.S. I would order all the weaponry removed from our 400-ship navy, fill them all with the goods of life like food, tools, and medicine, and send them steaming to the poorest places on Earth. Three, I will advise you right now to watch out for your civil liberties.” 

OK, that may not be the most detailed or erudite response to challenging and challenged students, but it was what I had in the moment. I looked forward to our Peace and Justice Studies Association conference the next month in early October to get far more complete and convincing answers from my intellectual betters. 

Yeah, that didn’t happen. My illustrious colleagues had no systematic answer, only wondrous, brilliant, and cogent problem statements. Barbara Wein of American University in DC did offer us at least some elements of an alternative to war, as did Michael True of Assumption College in Massachusetts, but overall I left bereft of additional help for my students. 

We are Americans, and we pride ourselves on rolling up our sleeves to see if we can sort out tricky problems. I teach and write in the field of peace and nonviolence, so I decided that my job was clear, to explore this to the best of my abilities. 

When I do that, I’ve learned my greatest ability is to tap into everyone else’s. So I did. 

I attended several academic and activist conferences in 2002 and 2003. At every one of them I offered a workshop session titled Nonviolent Response to Terrorism. I pretty much had the most attendees in my workshop at every conference I attended. People came seeking answers. Back then it was a thing.

Imagine their initial disappointment when all I wanted to do was elicit their ideas, their wisdom, their creativity. I basically facilitated a series of collective brainstorms over a nearly two-year period. During that time I dipped into the literature on terrorism, and began to write pieces of what would become a book that was published in 2004 by that title, Nonviolent Response to Terrorism.

Interestingly, the activists and academics pretty much came up with the same set of ideas, though the activists generally expressed themselves in accessible Anglo-Saxon monosyllabic terms, while scholars employed arcane multisyllabic Latinate. Who could have guessed?

We envisioned a seriously structural approach, beginning with a few immediate actions and then longer-term measures. 

Briefly, short term: 

·       smart sanctions

·       mediation

·       legal

·       nonviolent resistance

longer term: 

·       halt arms trade and transfers

·       build sustainable just economies

·       teach peace and conflict transformation methods in schools and via media

·       repatriate refugees with a win-win process

·       support nonviolent indigenous struggles for reform, justice, and liberation

Each of these button points deserves an entire book–oh, that’s right, there are multiple books for each of them. The scholarship on all of them has only strengthened since that time. 

Two things are missing, however, in the translation. One, very few have looked at this synergistically still to this day. This is a pity. Two, governments in general and the U.S. government, in particular, have failed to implement many of these much at all. 

Hence, we see exactly what we see in Afghanistan right now, the logical mess at the end of nearly two decades of mistakes compounding mistakes. 

You will see many notes by many critics of the Afghanistan misadventure claim to have predicted this debacle. This is true, many of us did. 

Sadly, most policymakers ignored us. They turned to the generals out of a kneejerk assumption that conflict must be handled by “the professionals.”

Those policymakers picked the wrong professionals. As usual.


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