Pursuing Peace in Afghanistan

Last week, General Petraeus testified before Congress that the war in Afghanistan is making progress.  While Petraeus may believe his comments, the situation on the ground contradicts his statements.  Afghanistan is a country that is overwhelmed by decades of war filled with foreign military forces, armed opposition groups, and a struggling government. Since 2001, there is general consensus that American led ISAF has not resulted in progress for Afghanistan.

Environmental degradation, poverty, and inadequate health care delivery  are some of the serious challenges facing this country.  Electrical outages are common and clean water does not appear to be in Afghanistan’s immediate future. It is also apparent that the Kabul’s infrastructure has not benefitted in a meaningful way from the billions of dollars that have flowed into Afghanistan since the U.S. invasion. The sewage and sanitation system is exposed and as the busses, cars, truck, and donkey carts maneuver the paved and unpaved roads around the city they create clouds of deadly air. The streets and neighborhoods are a collection of brick and mud homes, bombed out buildings, and piles of rubble that have  survived the  thirty years of war but do not provide adequate shelter for their residents. Garbage piles, excrement, and animals abound creating a smelly and unsanitary environment. It is these conditions that explain why Afghanistan has the highest rate of fecal matter in the air of any place in the world. These poor living conditions result in nearly 3,000 people dying a year from diseases and medical conditions related to the pollution (wagingnonviolence.com) and a life expectancy of forty five years. Afghanistan is also the third poorest nation in the world. The country is overflowing with orphans, widows, unemployed, and underemployed. The United Nations reports that 36 % of Afghans live on less than a dollar a day. Compounding the problem is that since the US invasion Kabul’s population has grown by over 600 percent. Outside of Kabul, the situation is not much better. Nearly 850 children die from respiratory, gastrointestinal diseases, and malnourishment  per day (Save the Children, 2010). These are just some of the challenges facing the nation as people continue to deal with thirty years of war that have gripped Afghanistan.

Violence is the other major challenge facing the country. The Red Cross says the security situation in the country is deteriorating and life is untenable (International Red Cross, March 15, 2011)  The threat of violence is never far from people’s minds and the reality that violence could break out at any time is a constant challenge for Afghans. Since December 2010, levels of violence have increased across the country and Kabul has been rocked by three suicide bombings. While the ISAF is hidden behind 12 foot blast walls rung with barbed wire and sentry post, the day to day security operations are left to Afghans. On nearly every block there are people with automatic weapons patrolling the streets, acting as security for private institutions, and staffing the official and unofficial checkpoints that dot the city. The situation is further complicated by the blast walls and the barb wire which make the city look like an armed camp.   The resulting siege mentality and threat of violence creates futility and shows that the current strategy in Afghanistan is not working.

However, the Afghan people have not given up. There are a number of Afghan lead groups that are looking for viable alternatives to rebuild and reclaim their country. The consensus developing among these groups is that the environmental, poverty, and health situation are directly tied to the reliance on violence.  Force has  not worked in repairing the destruction that has been done. Further, it has failed to provide security and sucked up the resources that could be used to provide the basic prerequisites needed for daily life. These groups have launched community building initiatives which are focusing on asking how  we build peace and live without war. They have begun publicly communicating a minority view but one that is logical, contains a hope for the future, and is growing in popularity. They are saying that the international community and Afghans need to be honest and realize that the continued reliance on violence is compounding problems. Instead, nonviolent alternatives need to be pursued.

Two of these groups, the Open Society and the Afghan Youth Volunteers,   gathered people from across Afghanistan in the capital in a walk to spread their message. Starting at the Emergency Hospital and walking to the United Nations these adult and youth peacemakers carried a message to Petraeus and the world that “Peace is a prerequisite to Progress”. This walk was the beginning of three days of Peacemaking. Joining these groups are a delegation of Americans and Australians who are working to create an international community of peacemakers committed to building a future that is peaceful, economically stable, and without continuous security crises. However, for these efforts to be successful people from around the world need to join and support these efforts. In the words of one of the peacemakers “We are the future, and if we aren’t there may be no future”

PATRICK KENNELLY is the Associate Director of the Marquette University Center for Peacemaking and is participating in the peacemaking efforts organized by the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers and Voices for Creative Nonviolence.  He writes from Kabul, Afghanistan and can be contacted at kennellyp@gmail.com


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