Press Release: Takoma Park Passes Peace Resolutions!

Takoma Park City Council Tells Congress:
Move Money from Pentagon to Communities 

Repeal Indefinite Detention

Takoma Park, MD:  At its regular meeting on May 21, the City of Takoma Park joined numerous other cities in the nation in passing two resolutions, one asking Congress to cut the military budget substantially and use the savings to fund local and state needs, and the other addressing the indefinite detention provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act.

The resolution entitled Supporting Federal Budget Reprioritization states “The City Council urges the United States Congress to make major reductions in the Pentagon budget in a manner that does not harm the safety of our troops, with the savings invested in state and local needs so that the City of Takoma Park and other local jurisdictions can repair their deteriorating infrastructure, reverse budget cuts to education, health care, and other needs, and otherwise improve the welfare of their residents.” The resolution points out that United States military spending is higher than it has been since World War II, in inflation-adjusted dollars, and that the Pentagon budget has more than doubled, in constant dollars, since 1998.

“The vast majority of the people of the U.S. are struggling to make ends meet. Money spent on wars, unnecessary weapons systems, and foreign military bases should instead be invested in our communities,” said Takoma Park resident Fran Pollner.

The resolution entitled Urging Monitoring and Repeal of the Indefinite Detention Provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act states “It is the sense of the City Council that the National Defense Authorization Act and the Authorization for Use of Military Force do not now, and should never, authorize the Armed Forces of the United States to investigate, arrest, detain, or try any person within the United States, or to militarily detain without charge or trial civilians not captured on any battlefield, and that Authorization for Use of Military Force expires upon the end of combat operations in Afghanistan by the Armed Forces of the United States.”

The resolutions were voted on following several months of advocacy in which residents of the city presented testimony at weekly Council meetings. 

The Maryland coalition Fund Our Communities, Bring the War Dollars Home supported the resolution addressing Pentagon funding. The coalition is comprised of 60 organizations, including veterans’ groups, labor unions, religious congregations, and advocacy, political and service organizations. Members include the NAACP/MD, CASA de Maryland, Progressive Maryland, the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO, UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Healthcare-Now of Maryland, the Network of Spiritual Progressives/MD, and many others. A current list of member organizations can be viewed here:  http://ourfunds.org/coalition-members/

Like the Takoma Park City Council, the Fund Our Communities coalition is demanding a re-prioritization of the Federal budget, with money moved from military expenditures to the creation of jobs that will fix our failing infrastructure and convert the U.S. to a green economy; to education and health care needs; and to fully-funded veterans’ services.

The resolution on indefinite detention was brought to the Council by the Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition ( http://mococivilrights.wordpress.com/ ) and endorsed by several groups in Montgomery County and Maryland, including the Maryland ACLU.

During the Council’s deliberations, Council member Fred Schultz emphasized the importance of local resolutions such as these, stating, “Revolutionary change starts at the bottom, not at the top. That’s how all the big changes have come about. So, we shouldn’t be waiting on our senators or congressmen or president to do these things.”  

Following the vote, Mayor Bruce Williams commented, “It was important to hear the outpouring of support for these resolutions from the community.”

Both resolutions can be found here, beginning on page 33: http://citycouncil-takomapark.s3.amazonaws.com/agenda/2012/052112-agenda.pdf

 

We Defeat Lockheed Martin!

Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett recently proposed in his annual budget a no-strings-attached grant of $900,000 to Lockheed Martin, headquartered in Bethesda. We objected–loudly–at public hearings held on the budget in April. Last week, the county council cut this proposed grant out of the budget! As a result, our libraries and schools will have almost a million dollars more and the biggest arms purveyor in the history of the world will see a slight decline in its profit margin.

Following our testimony at the budget hearing, Council member Marc Elrich commented drily that the county could probably find better ways of spending $900,000. This was the only public comment any member of the council made on the issue at the time.

Yet The Washington Post immediately criticized the county council in a vitriolic editorial in which it accused the council of engaging in “demagoguery masquerading as social justice.”

Lockheed Bites Back

Lockheed Martin and its friends at The Washington Post are still outraged that in 2010 the Council refused to pass a special law to give Lockheed Martin a unique tax advantage that would have cost the county $450,000 per year — at a time when the county was faced with draconian cuts to critical services. The county executive, at the behest of Lockheed Martin, had asked the council to change the legal definition of a hotel, specifically to exempt the patrons of Lockheed Martin’s new luxury hotel in Bethesda, MD from paying the county’s 7-percent hotel tax. The proposed law would have applied to no other facility in the county.

After hearing from citizens on this outrageous bill, the council tabled it and never voted on it, effectively killing it. As a result, patrons of the hotel, called the Center for Leadership Excellence (CLE), must pay the lodging tax, just like the patrons of every other hotel in the county. The Washington Post and Lockheed Martin consider this situation grossly unfair. The proposed grant is designed to recompense Lockheed Martin for two years worth of the tax.

Let’s put this tax exemption proposal in perspective by taking a quick look at Lockheed Martin’s finances. In 2010 the company took home $3.9 billion in profits from the portion of its business that is paid directly by taxpayers (84 percent). Lockheed Martin’s CEO, Robert Stevens, received $21.9 million in compensation in 2011.  So this company is doing quite well for itself, thanks to the taxpayers, and our largesse will continue into the future. One example: It is now estimated that the F-35, a Lockheed Martin product, will end up costing taxpayers a total of $1.5 trillion dollars. If you laid out $1.5 trillion end-to-end in $100 bills, you could circle the Earth at the equator 59 times.

Despite the extraordinary wealth of this company, The Washington Post believes that council members are being “craven” in requiring the CLE to remain subject to the county’s hotel tax, given that only Lockheed Martin’s personal invitees can stay at the CLE — that is, members of the public can’t make a reservation there. Let’s consider this argument a bit more closely.

When Lockheed Martin’s own employees stay at the CLE, according to the Post, the corporation passes on the costs of the hotel tax to the appropriate federal contract. In other words, Lockheed Martin is already compensated by the federal government for any lodging costs the company incurs, and given federal procurement regulations, the company can charge indirect costs on top of the local taxes it pays. This means that Lockheed Martin gets its money back, with interest, on its employee lodging costs.

Even if Lockheed Martin didn’t get that money back, it would still make no sense to exempt this extremely wealthy company from paying a tax on employee lodging costs. The company also invites contractors and vendors to stay at the hotel. Why should these people not be required to pay a tax that they would pay if they instead chose to stay at the Marriott?

In reality, Lockheed Martin rents rooms to more than its employees, contractors and vendors. It uses its world-class conference center for . . . conferences. For example, the law school of the University of Southern California will hold a conference at the hotel in October. A registration form, available online until recently, asked conference participants to indicate whether they intended to stay at the CLE and pay a nightly rate of $225 during the conference or whether they would find their own accommodations. Since Lockheed Martin claims that the hotel is used almost solely for its employees—the bizarre rationale for the proposed tax exemption—this conference looks a bit suspicious. After citizens presented a copy of the conference registration form to the Montgomery county council during the public hearings on the budget, documenting that Lockheed Martin’s definition of “employee” is quite expansive, the form was removed from the website.

It is extraordinary that the company would make an issue of this tax. Although the amount of money—$450,000 per year—is significant to Montgomery County, it is essentially a rounding error for Lockheed Martin.

There’s more: not only are Lockheed Martin and The Washington Post furious at the county council for questioning the wisdom of a special million-dollar gift to Lockheed Martin to compensate it for having to pay the tax. They are also still irate that in 2011 the council briefly considered a non-binding resolution asking Congress to support the needs of local communities and cut military spending. Lockheed Martin suddenly had a job for a few of its 91 lobbyists: kill the resolution, which they did. Within a few days of Lockheed Martin bullying the council, a couple of council members were “persuaded” that the resolution was a bad idea. Since the resolution no longer had majority support, it was not brought up for a vote.

The Politics of Jobs

In its recent editorial, the Post once again castigated the council for having had the gall to briefly consider a resolution that never even came up for a vote. “Last fall,” the Post editorialized, “council members flirted witha resolution urging Congress to spend less on national defense. They backed down once it dawned that defense contractors such as Lockheed are among Montgomery’s biggest employers. In effect, council members were advocating layoffs for their own constituents.”

Contrary to The Washington Post’s assertion, the council did not decline to pass the resolution because it suddenly dawned on them that Lockheed Martin employs about 7,200 people in the county. Council members backed down under extreme political pressure, brought to bear on them from Lockheed Martin. In fact, the county is home to NIH, FDA, and other large federal agencies that employ far more people in the county than does Lockheed Martin. Without a reprioritization of federal spending, many people working in these agencies are quite likely to lose their jobs.

Even worse, the Post’s argument implies that the availability of local jobs supported by federal military contractors should deprive citizens of the ability to advocate a change in foreign policy and a say in the allocation of federal resources. Large military contractors, in fact, have distributed their subcontractors and their factories throughout the country in a politically astute manner. Economist and former Pentagon official Alain C. Enthoven once observed, “The ideal weapons system is built in 435 congressional districts and it doesn’t matter whether it works or not.”

In the 2009 fight by a coalition of advocacy groups to kill the F-22, a plane made by Lockheed Martin that no one in the Pentagon wanted—from Rumsfeld to Panetta—Lockheed Martin placed several full-page ads in The Washington Post that consisted solely of a list of every congressional district in the country, alongside Lockheed Martin’s estimate of how many jobs would be lost in each district if the F-22 was cancelled. So much for subtlety. The plane doesn’t work, it’s extremely expensive, and we don’t need it for our “security,” but note to Mr. or Ms. Congressperson: fund this plane or we’ll see that jobs will be lost in your district—one of which will be yours.

The Washington Post and Lockheed Martin are working in lock-step to intimidate anyone who questions the idea of a reallocation of federal resources away from the current excessive level of military spending. Moreover, they also used their extraordinary power in an attempt to coerce our local county council to do their bidding in a blatant corporate welfare scam.  This time we won, and in the process, we saved Montgomery County almost a million dollars, money that we need for our schools and county services.  Hooray!

A Reflection on MLK Day

“Dr. King would be proud of you,” a DC policeman  said to me and some five other women four years ago as we were being escorted into a paddy wagon. We had been arrested in protest of US treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and had spent the night in jail. We were profoundly moved at his kind words; it was a gift never to be forgotten. In gratitude, one woman asked the guard if he’d like us to sing a song for him.  Surprised, he said yes, and so we sang “Down by the Riverside.” He joined in the song with us before he closed the door to the van. “Gonna lay down my sword and shield, down by the riverside . . . I ain’t gonna study war no more.“

Last week, on Jan. 11, I joined with Witness Against Torture, a Catholic Worker group, and others in another protest of the ongoing indefinite detention of prisoners at the center of U.S. shame. Again, we dressed in orange jump suits and black hoods and marched solemnly from the White House, to the halls of Congress, and finally over to the steps of the Supreme Court, in a line stretching several blocks. Each of us represented a prisoner at Guantanamo who is still waiting for his day in court.

It rained that day, and as one person said, even the heavens were weeping.

On the tenth anniversary of the founding of this horrific prison, we called for its end. We also called for accountability for the true criminals, those who have made a mockery of the rule of law by establishing and maintaining this prison, depriving those abducted and taken there of even a crumb of justice. And we called for repeal of the new law (the National Defense Authorization Act) that legalizes indefinite detention of American citizens—the final nail in the coffin of habeus corpus and thus of democracy.

I am frankly tired of doing this every year on this infamous anniversary. I am tired of remembering what we have done. I am tired of knowing about the people who are still dying because of the actions of my country and about others growing old in prison, with little chance for freedom or justice. I am sick and tired of this.

Here’s what Frida Berrigan had to say about it:  “This is a day of great shame — ten years of torture, indefinite detention, violation of the human rights and rule of law. This tragic and criminal anniversary comes just 10 days after the US Congress and President acted, through the NDAA, to make GTMO near-permanent, commit more deeply to reprehensible policies, and expand detention powers at precisely the time when we should be dismantling this pseudo-legal and immoral detention apparatus. So here we are again. Grudgingly, unwillingly, . . .  to draw attention to what is still going on at Guantánamo and Bagram.”

I wonder what Dr. King would say today about this path our country has taken and what he would recommend we do. What do you think?

 

 

Military Spending and the “Deficit Reduction” Bill

Confused about the impact of the “budget deal” on military spending?  Hawks are screaming—so maybe real cuts to military spending are on the chopping block, right?

Well, no. Here’s why:

The bill just passed offers two possibilities for potential cuts in military spending. Let’s consider each of these:

(1)  Budget caps: This covers FY 2012, which begins in October. The budget caps require that spending not exceed a certain level throughout the government. The budget cap for military spending is contained within the so-called “security” category consisting of the Pentagon, State Department, Homeland Security, and the discretionary part of Veterans Affairs. For FY 2012, the budget cap for “security” spending is a grand total of $5 billion below the 2011 level; analysts have suggested that total “security” spending exceeds $1 trillion. If it is $1 trillion, we are talking about cutting one half of one percent of our “security” spending.

You can safely bet that the Republican-dominated House and the accomplice Democrats in the Senate will ensure that the miniscule $5 billion reduction in “security” spending does not come from the Pentagon, but from our Veterans, from our already hobbled and much-needed diplomatic resources, and from foreign aid. In short, the budget cap will not lead to reductions in bloated military spending.

War spending, now and in the future, is carved out and is exempt from any cuts.

The bill calls for a special Joint Committee tasked with recommending an additional $1.2 trillion of deficit reduction—either from spending cuts or revenue.  If the Committee can agree on a set of recommendations, these recommendations will then have to be voted on by the full House and Senate.  There is no reason to believe that such a Joint Committee would recommend significant reductions in military spending, or that Congress would vote reductions should the Committee recommend them.

It is far more likely that the majority of any budget cuts will be borne by the poor, the old, the sick. More jobs will be lost and none created, while unemployment insurance payments are denied. And our deepest national problems will fester.

(2) Automatic spending cuts:  If the new Joint Committee fails to reach agreement, the bill calls for automatic 15% across-the-board cuts in discretionary spending, including Pentagon spending. The White House claims that, under this scenario, Pentagon spending could be reduced by as much as $500 billion over a decade. The catch here is that the 15% spending “cuts” for the Pentagon are computed by looking at planned spending (from the Administration’s February 2011 budget submission), not current spending. That is, Obama’s 2011 budget projects significant annual increases in the Pentagon budget for the next ten years, and the automatic spending “cuts”—if they ever came–would begin with these proposed increases in Pentagon spending.

I don’t know about you, but in my family budget, I define a spending cut as “less than what I spent last year,” not “less than what I was hoping to spend next year.”  But in the Alice-in-Wonderland logic of this bill, money going to the Pentagon could actually increase but be called a “cut” if the increase was less than Obama proposed in his 2011 planning document.

The maximum real cut to Pentagon spending even remotely possible under the bill is less than 1%.

Smoke and mirrors.

Report on “Move Over AIPAC”

From Helma Lanyi, Episcopal Peace Fellowship and Peace Action Montgomery

Code Pink put on an expertly executed, top-notch conference with important speakers on Saturday, May 21, timely workshops, and the usual lively display of street theater during today’s demonstrations outside the convention center.

Yesterday, Saturday, about three hundred people were seated in a large hall inside the Mt. Vernon Methodist Church near the Convention Center to hear the main speakers, Profss. John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt, authors of the 2007 book on Aipac and its influence on U.S. politics through their financial contributions to Congress.  Their speech reiterated the theme of their book and was somewhat depressing in that, yes, it is all true:  AIPAC really is that powerful and has proven its power over and over.  To the question whether it should not be registered as a foreign agent the answer is no because it is run by Americans, not foreigners.  Since the U.S. permits dual citizenship many officials are, indeed, citizens of both countries and seem to assume that U.S. interests are automatically identical to Israeli interests.  Any serious conflicts are papered over, for example. When a U.S. citizen dies in Israel’s custody or simply territory, the U.S. does nothing, as in the example of Rachel Corrie or the sole U.S. citizen on the Marmi Marmara, the first Flotilla boat last May.  The attack on the U.S.S. Liberty 44 years ago where Israel killed U.S. troops is another, unmentioned, example.

This all is deplorable, but, as both authors noted, is disastrous for all concerned, and that now includes Israel which is unable, it appears, to change its political direction in view of the changing realities of the Arab spring.

The question of one or two states was discussed at length:  Ehud Barak said that either Israel will become non-Jewish (by including everybody) or non-democratic.  According to Mearsheimer, AIPAC is helping Israel commit national suicide by advocating no change and no accommodation with the Palestinians.

On the positive side:  Disagreements can no longer be kept behind doors, not in the age of the Internet.  Change is bound to come.

I was amused when Mearsheimer suggested that we individual citizens needed to employ “Saul Alinsky type practices” when fighting AIPAC, and he said that as a fellow Chicagoan.  He teaches at the Univ.of Chicago.

Two panel presentations followed lunch and displays of books by the authors or related groups.  Ambassador Chas Freeman was one of the panelists and seemed to have the time of his life among the group of peace friends of various intensity and backgrounds.  He signed his book for me and I told him that he and Noam Chomsky are a breath of fresh air, and he liked that.  It occurred to me that we had not only top academics in Mearsheimer/Walt but also a high ranking member of the diplomatic corps.  You recall that he was nominated by Pres. Obama to head the National Security Council but withdrew because of AIPAC’s campaign against him: he allegedly was not pro-Israel enough.  When I heard him two weeks ago he told the anecdote that in the late 1980s he had lunch with a high-ranking Israeli for whom he had helped establish contacts in Africa.  This Israeli asked him what position he envisioned for himself in the upcoming administration of George H.W.Bush.  Freeman said he would do whatever he was asked to do and this Israeli friend urged him to be more specific, saying:  “Whatever you want, we will get it for you.”  Freeman was shocked that a foreign national had that much say over a U.S. administration.  Freeman was now on a panel with a Palestinian woman who blogs as “Gaza Mom” which might be good to read.

Another panel discussion by members of “End the Occupation,” included, among others, Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, and Noura Erekat who impressed me especially.  She is a lawyer for human rights and spoke passionately about fairness for all, including Israeli settlers.  (A questioner suggested that, for legal reasons, settlers in occupied land be considered enemy combatants, and she strongly condemned that because they are civilians and unarmed, even though some settlers are, in fact, armed.) This panel discussed the legal questions in connection with the Palestinian attempt at gaining statehood in September. Each member was united in emphasizing that no matter what shape or form the new entities would have, the goal was always to have freedom, justice, and equality for all human beings.  That is the umbrella over all specific items fought for.  As Phyllis Bennis said, the U.S. needs a new foreign policy based on human rights and international law.

We then split up into workshops.  I decided on one led by Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb about ways to refute the charge of anti-Semitism.  I knew her from Fellowship, the Fellowship of Reconciliation magazine.  She was not able to come but a capable young mentee of hers who also lives in Nyack, New York, in an “intentional community” (I gather a modern equivalent of a utopian commune) offered to facilitate our large group. Rabbi Gottlieb, by the way, is the first person who articulated for me a suspicion I had for some time that so-called “interfaith dialogue” is nothing but a block to genuine encounters and communication unless participants are willing to expose themselves to genuine openness, which is not the case in my experience.

I want to mention that I felt honored that Hedy Epstein, the 80-plus year-old Holocaust survivor and member of the first international attempt to end the siege of Gaza in December 2009, was in this workshop.  She was with Jean Athey of Peace Action Montgomery who wrote her Letters from Gaza at that time.  The group was not permitted to cross into Gaza under the Egyptian leadership of Hosni Mubarak.

The dynamic of “anti-Semitism” today is directed primarily at Arabs, and those present spoke eloquently about it.  My own background as a German-born person and the hostile assumptions I had to deal with all my life are so…yesterday!!!  Still, I echoed Hedy’s comments about the need to be very specific when speaking to people.  Prejudices and assumptions are a shortcut to encounters.  However, I think that my own journey of overcoming the “collective guilt” the world put on all German-speaking people can be of use for others who are engaged in conflict.  Our own hearts have to be pure, so to speak.  We cannot long for revenge because then, we, too, are guilty.  This obviously can be discussed further some other place.  Gandhi and all other non-violence practitioners have written about it.

It was a long day.  I made it back for the outside demonstration today, which, as usual, resembled a circus.  There were the dressed-up members of AIPAC on their way to lunch who either ignored all opposition or looked at us with bemused, superior, smiles.  There were not only the Code Pink folks with their tent; their separation wall which Medea Benjamin, founder of  Code Pink, demanded to be torn down (Mr. Netanyahu, tear down this wall, like Pres. Reagan in Berlin); the Code Pink aged clown, a regular at their events; but there were also the ultra-conservative Rabbis in top hats and three quarter length coats, who held signs opposite the convention center, on the same side as the Code Pink folks.  These rabbis denounced the Zionist state of Israel!!  –  and there were all sorts of signs.  One woman silently held a photo of a wounded, bleeding Palestinian carried away by another, right by the wall.  Other signs asked the U.S. to start getting Israel off U.S. welfare!  Another asked to end the occupation and give self-determination to Palestinians, and many more.

There was one other noteworthy and moving event: Jewish Voice for Peace, the progressive group led by Shelley Cohen Fudge, organized a reading of the very, very moving poem/drama “Seven Jewish Children.”  It was apparently performed here in DC at the Jewish Community Center by J-Street Theater and we were all urged to support that theater and I will do so now.  The play should be seen, not discussed.  It is only 10 minutes in length.  Written by Caryl Churchill, it can be downloaded at Royal Court Theater, www.royalcourttheatre.com.  I would dearly like to see it read/performed by everyone who can do so in their parish/community.

On my way home I reflected on the conference:  How we see the entire Middle East is now yesterday’s news.  We are facing new times and we need to be ready to see things in a new light.  The guidelines articulated by the speakers and panelists and even workshop members are a great guide for this new age we are entering in the Middle East.  We who are working for freedom, equality, and justice are ready, but are the bureaucrats in the State Department and White House ready as well?  Please contact your representatives on all those points, mostly the unhealthy relationship with AIPAC which does not represent all Jews in the U.S.  In fact, a sign stated: “I am for peace, and AIPAC does not represent me.”

I also congratulate the women of Code Pink:  I used to think that they were a tad too “in your face” for me, but today I take my hat off to them. This was substance throughout with a minimum of fluff and noise.  This old feminist is quite proud of these ladies’ accomplishments.  They practice solidarity, equality, caring, a consensus-led way of doing things.  Medea Benjamin is clearly not a top-down leader but a consensus builder.  It is possible to get things done in a non-hierarchical manner.

Saw many old friends, Donna Hicks and Newland Smith of the Palestine/Israel network, also Cotton Fite, also many local Palestinian-Americans, local Muslim peace friends, progressive Jews and  local Episcopal Peace Fellowship members like Steve France.  I am also happy to include Kem Sawyer who just finished a book on Gandhi for children, and Rev. Susan Burns of Redeemer Episcopal Church in Bethesda who organized a vigil at the Capitol when Netanyahu is addressing Congress.  The vigil is in protest over the deportation policy by Israel of the Episcopal bishop of Jerusalem, Bishop Suheil Dawani.  Informally we called it “Bibi, let our bishop go!”

I hope our little chapter will grow in grace and strength with the addition of these members.   Enjoyed catered lunch provided by Busboys and Poets, the place where the party continued after I had gone home.

Nation Building in Afghanistan? You’ve Got to be Kidding!

I have to confess to being a bit vague about the concept of “nation building.” I assume that it includes developing a country’s economy, improving the infrastructure, and instituting functioning systems of governance and services. Presumably to achieve these goals, we have committed massive amounts of money to Afghanistan, a desperately poor country in need of all these improvements. And the U.S. is not the only one: other governments and private groups have also spent prodigiously in Afghanistan. But what has been the result of all that money?

The NGOs

Much of the non-military money flows through non-governmental organizations (NGOs). People told me that there are somewhere between 800 and 1,600 NGOs in Afghanistan, most of which are located in Kabul. Some NGOs spend their own money raised from generic donations abroad (e.g., the International Committee of the Red Cross/Crescent); some were established specifically to raise money for projects in Afghanistan (e.g., Women for Afghan Women); and many depend on grants or contracts from government groups like USAID.

Here are some of the impacts of these foreign NGOs:

  • It is primarily the NGOs that deliver services in Afghanistan, not the government. The activities of so many NGOs undercut the role of the government. Moreover, they lessen the pressure on the government to develop systems of services, since some are available through the private sector. However, the NGOs will not stay. When they leave, which they will, nothing will survive.
  • The NGO pay structure weakens the ability of the government to attract competent and qualified people to the civil service. NGOs pay six to seven times more than government—so why would a competent person choose to work for the government when there is a better option? One person told me that he knew of physicians who were driving cars for NGOs; it simply pays much more to work as a chauffeur for foreigners than to work as a doctor.
  • NGOs have established a system of legal corruption. We know what illegal corruption is: money passes through your hands and you keep some portion of it for yourself. What we might call “legal corruption” is the system in which indirect costs, overhead, etc. dramatically dilute the total amount of money appropriated for a project. Combine that with the extraordinarily high pay levels for foreign consultants and NGO administrators working in Afghanistan and you find that very little of the money that has been allocated for “nation building” in Afghanistan benefits the people.

The Afghan Government

Government is the other mechanism for nation building. Afghans are shocked, puzzled and furious that the Karzai government, which they recognize as holding power only because of U.S. support, is such a pathetic excuse for a government. What are the problems with the Afghan government? Here are some examples:

“I bought a car for our office and needed to register it to get a license plate. But we didn’t have money for bribes and anyway, we objected to the idea of bribes and so we refused to pay. It took us three years to get the car registered. If we had paid the bribe, it would have taken a day.”

“There is no justice. There was a murder of a child this week; the perpetrators were caught—we saw this story on TV. But we know what will happen: the families of the perpetrators will go to Karzai, pay him some money, and the killers will be released and be back on the streets. At most, they will spend six months in jail—probably not even that.”

“I am trying to recover my house that was confiscated by a war lord in the government. I go every day to the Ministry of Justice, but I can’t get anywhere. I’m very pessimistic.”

Everyone in the country experiences such examples of corruption, most in many different forms and often daily. People rightly resent this and are infuriated every time they encounter it. It is hard to know whether or not the U.S. government cares. Available evidence would suggest not—certainly not enough to do something about it.

How can “nation building” occur in the face of such corruption? The Afghan government needs to be reformed, top to bottom, and then strengthened, but since we gave our blessings to the last totally fraudulent election and have continued to financially support the government even though we know how corrupt it is, it seems unlikely that we’d ever require real change.

Meanwhile, people suffer. The unemployment rate of Kabul is estimated at 50%. A city designed for 600,000 has an estimated 5 million inhabitants, as people have moved there to escape fighting in the countryside. Many houses in Kabul are made of mud and are very primitive. But, the price of real estate in central Kabul has gone up so much that, I was told, a city lot now costs $3.5 million. The war lords and the internationals bid the price up.

While the world fights its proxy battles in their villages, using massive amounts of firepower, the war-weary people of Afghanistan struggle to survive. And very little of the money that has been poured into the country gets to them for the things they would like most: medical care, schools, jobs, decent housing, clean water.

We have this picture of the Afghan people as rather fierce and foreboding, mountain warriors. And yet, all the people I met were kind, gentle, and sweet, and many have this wonderful sense of humor. They do not deserve what we and the rest of the world have done to them. Well, no one would deserve that.

A Way to Help: What You Can Do

Senator Richard Lugar said this week, “The broad scope of our activities suggests that we are trying to remake the economic, political and security culture of Afghanistan — but that ambitious goal is beyond our power.” While I disagree with essentially everything else he said, I do agree that with our current approach, the U.S. will do no good in Afghanistan. But the myth that Lugar and others are propagating is that Afghanistan is hopeless because of its cultural backwardness and that the U.S. has seriously attempted to help the people of that country. What he neglects to mention is that we are the ones who have empowered criminals and given them positions in the government; we are the ones who have bragged about bringing “democracy” while certifying a fraudulent election; we are the ones who have controlled this country for ten years–one of the poorest countries in the world–and have not seriously attempted to budge its dismal infant or maternal mortality rates.

There are, however, a few people who genuinely, passionately care about Afghanistan and whose work belies the idea that nothing can be done there to improve the lives of its people. One of these is Fahima Vorgetts who directs the Afghan Women’s Fund of  Women for Afghan Women. I had the privilege of seeing firsthand what she is achieving.

Three Prefabricated Classrooms for Village Girls

Fahima, an indefatigable Afghan-American, seeks out villages with elders willing to support girls’ education and helps them set up schools; she finds out what it is that they need first in order to establish a school and, in collaboration with the people of the village, works to secure it—for example, books, a teacher, even a building.

Women Show Dresses Made by Coop Members

She identifies women desperately in need of work and assists them to establish coops and offer training in certain skills, such as sewing or jewelry making. She helps communities establish women’s literacy classes and maternity clinics. And she does all this with the small amount of money she raises privately in the U.S., from donations and the sale of Afghan handicrafts. No money goes into the pockets of highly paid international consultants. None of it goes to “indirect costs” or “overhead.” No corrupt officials take a piece of this pie. All the money goes directly to the villages and helps the Afghan people in ways that truly make a difference in their lives.

Girls in Class Partly Supported by the Afghan Women's Project

People were fooled into thinking that Greg Mortensen was building schools when, apparently, he wasn’t. I’ve seen directly what the Afghan Women’s Fund is achieving and so I know that it is not only legitimate, but incredibly cost effective and highly successful. If we really want to help the people of Afghanistan, supporting projects like this is the way to do it.

To contribute, send a check to Afghan Women’s Fund, 978 Yachtsman Way, Annapolis MD 21403. Donations are tax deductible.

Peace Without Justice: A Strategy for Carnage in Afghanistan

“It seems that the U.S. and NATO cannot imagine any other options for getting out of Afghanistan other than to kill their way out or buy their way out,” Fabrizio Foschini, who is with the Afghanistan Analysts Network, tells me.

Under Petraeus, the U.S. tried the strategy of killing their way out, with the night raids being a prime example of this approach, he explains. “They’ve killed a lot of people, some innocent, some guilty. It has not made for good public relations with Afghans.  And the insurgency did not collapse; in fact, the kill or capture operations are often cited as a major grievance, especially among people in rural communities in the south. These tactics are a huge factor in the increased grassroots support for the insurgency. The U.S. may have temporarily weakened the command and control functions of the Taliban. But they cannot kill all the insurgents.”

Now, he says, the U.S. is trying the other approach: to buy their way out, as exemplified by a new program in rural areas called Afghanistan Local Police, or ALP. “The U.S. is creating community-based groups designed to increase security on the ground, while at the same time using the program to persuade Taliban members and other disaffected persons to change sides and support the government. But the ALP often behave like militias. Rural communities are reporting rapes, killings, extortion and other crimes by the ALP. And,” Fabrizio declares, “without U.S. forces, the Afghanistan government might not be able to control the ALP.”

The Afghanistan Communist government tried the exact same thing in the late 1980s, he explains; arming locals in an attempt to dilute ideological opposition, the government ended up creating militias. Three years after initiating the program, the government ran out of money with which to pay the local armed groups it had built and funded. No longer getting paid, these local militias joined with the Mujahideen and destroyed the country in a violent civil war that caused untold numbers of deaths. The war lords holding power in the government today are beneficiaries of that program, and Fabrizio worries that history is repeating itself.

“If you take people who are active against the state, give them official authority without proper vetting or training—all that does is increase their power. The communities assess these groups differently from the military,” Fabrizio adds drily.

Reconciliation and Transitional Justice

The key buzz words in Afghanistan related to peace are “reconciliation” and “transitional justice.”  The ALF program is seen by the U.S. as part of “reconciliation,” that is, persuading insurgents to change sides.  Transitional justice means creating mechanisms to address past human rights violations.

In Afghanistan, these two concepts are often diametrically opposed.

A human rights worker explains the dilemma. “Justice and peace are linked,” he says. “You cannot have a stable peace without justice.” He then points out that the Taliban have committed massacres and that everyone in the country—including him—has lost family members and been victimized in other ways by the Taliban. “If the Taliban join the government,” he says, “how can the Afghan people support it?” And yet “reconciliation” seems to be heading in that direction.

When I ask another analyst about justice and reconciliation, he says flatly about both, “There is none. These are all pretexts to spend money. It’s all fake.” This is something I have heard from several people—that the $50 million the U.S. spent on the big “Peace Jirga” last summer was another giant rip-off.

This analyst sees the various international players–especially Pakistan, Iran, India, and the U.S.—as much more important than the Taliban in determining the outcome of the war. “They are fighting each other in Afghanistan. For example, Iran is providing guns and training to the Taliban to foil the U.S. Meanwhile, Pakistan sees the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan as counter to its interests, particularly since India provides support to a Baluch minority in southwest Afghanistan and Pakistan views this as a cover for Indian activities in support of Baluch rebels inside Pakistan. So, Pakistan supports the Taliban as a way to counter Indian influence. The Taliban are puppets, tools. Those playing the game are sitting outside. So, how can a peace conference reach a settlement if it includes only Afghans? The war is not about a few local Taliban fighters. Unless you involve all the international stakeholders and resolve the issues among them, you will not achieve any kind of peace.”

And “transitional justice”?  A human rights group that is trying to gather information on past massacres worries about personal safety and desperately tries to maintain a low profile. With the massacres having been perpetuated by current government ministers and police commanders, it is remarkable that employees of this organization have so far escaped major retribution—a staff member was, in fact, arrested because of his work to uncover the truth about one massacre, but the organization was able to get him freed. Transitional justice is a nice concept, but in Afghanistan, that is all it is.

What About Women?

Women, of course, constitute half the population of Afghanistan. Their oppression under the Taliban government was used by the Bush administration as a way to garner sympathy and support for the war. At first, women seemed to have benefitted from the invasion. In Kabul, anyway, following the overthrow of the Taliban, women could leave the house without being accompanied by a male family member, work outside the home, and go to school. In the rest of the country, though, very little changed for women.

“Reconciliation” is viewed with alarm among women in Kabul; they worry that the limited human rights they now have will be taken from them if the Taliban joins the government.  In fact, the Taliban has set three preconditions that the government must agree to prior to any discussions taking place:

  • Women must not be allowed to go to school;
  •  Women must not be allowed to go out of the house unless accompanied by a man; and
  • All foreign troops must leave the country.

Women I spoke with in Kabul emphasized that support for the basic human rights of women on the part of the Afghan government is extremely shallow.  A high proportion of both the legislators and the ministers are former war lords and Mujahideen,  and their views on women differ very little from those of the Taliban. One women’s advocate told me that Afghan government leaders say they support human rights for women only because of the desire to continue the flow of international money. As soon as the money dries up, the “support” for women will disappear.

Reconciliation at What Price?

The killing of Osama bin Laden has brought with it stronger calls from the U.S. government for talks with the Taliban and for “reconciliation.” But the people of Afghanistan that I have spoken with are worried that they will be sold out once again in this process, and that the peace they long for will be purchased at the price of justice. If that proves to be the case, how shameful for the U.S. and how tragic for the people of this benighted land.

 

Baby Toes, Precious Gems, and Nuclear Waste

In a village outside Kabul, I visited a women’s literacy class. With notebooks and textbooks in their laps, about 20 women of all ages sat on cushions around the wall, while a couple of toddlers rolled around in the middle of the room. The babies had no toys and so they played with each other’s toes: one baby would lie on the floor and stick her feet out. The other baby would grab the little girl’s toes and pull. Then the children would fall over, laugh, and start again. They played this game for at least fifteen minutes, a long time for toddlers.

I asked the women to tell me how the war has affected them, and they all started talking at once:

“My two sons were killed. They were both engineers.”

“My husband was killed.”

“I lost my son.”

“My home was destroyed.”

“Both my children were killed.”

One woman summed it up: “The war has destroyed our lives.”

My friend Fahima, who is taking me to visit development projects, told me that she no longer asks that question because the outpouring of tragedy and grief is more than she can bear.

Despite suffering on a scale that is unimaginable to me, these women are determined to overcome the problems that the war has foisted upon them, and their participation in this class is testimony to their determination and commitment. They want to learn to read and then develop some skills that will enable them to overcome grinding poverty and bring a better life to their children—their surviving children, that is.

They begged us to stay for lunch, but Fahima said we didn’t have time. As we were walking out the door, one woman brought out a big loaf of warm, flat, country-style bread and invited us to tear some off and eat. I tried it and it was delicious. They encouraged us to take the entire loaf, but we said, no, no. Finally, one woman unzipped my rather large purse and crammed the loaf into it. I was secretly glad and didn’t protest, as warm, freshly cooked bread is one of my favorite foods. That loaf of bread became lunch for Fahima, our driver, and me.

Women's Literacy Class

Rumors and More Rumors

I have been struck by the many stories of U.S. and NATO malfeasance. Some of these stories seem clearly false to me, others highly unlikely, while a few may have some truth to them. Some examples:

  • German troops, while stationed for two years in the mountains of Badakhshan, frequently closed the roads and tunnels at night so that they could secretly mine precious gems, which they took out of the country and sold abroad.
  • In Helmand Province, the British essentially destroyed an entire mountain in uranium mining operations. They took the uranium and did not compensate Afghanistan for it.
  • Americans have brought massive amounts of nuclear waste from the U.S. to southern Afghanistan, where they have created a huge dump. The radioactivity from this dump threatens the health and lives of Afghans throughout the country.
  • The police chief in Kandahar was recently assassinated in his office on a Friday, a day that he normally does not go to work. It is proven that an American phoned him in the morning and told him to go to work that day. He was surely killed by the Americans. While it isn’t clear how the Americans would benefit specifically from this assassination, on the other hand, Americans frequently commit crimes of violence in order to show that they are needed in Afghanistan.
  • A group of Taliban fighters was intentionally allowed to escape by American forces–released in fact, after having been captured by some Afghan army soldiers. These Taliban had the latest U.S. weapons, far better than the ones the Afghan army has, and they also had American food provisions with them. Undoubtedly, these Taliban are being supplied by the Americans and supported by them.

Underlying such stories is the belief that the occupation forces are here for their own purposes, such as stealing the resources of the country, not to help the people of Afghanistan. The Americans, in particular, according to this narrative, intentionally foment discord and violence to justify their presence; some violence they commit themselves, but they also encourage violent acts by others, using divide and conquer tactics to create or exacerbate ethnic tensions.

The construction of huge, permanent-looking military bases, along with reports of new negotiations to maintain a U.S. presence in Afghanistan for at least ten to twenty more years, lends credence to rumors like these, and such stories are widely believed.  The most common reason cited by Afghans for the presence of American forces is to give the U.S. a geo-strategic location from which to control the region, including Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and China. Whether or not one believes in the absolute truth of any particular rumor, the construction of these huge bases, combined with the clear intention of the U.S. to keep troops in them for many years to come, suggests that the Afghan analysis may well be accurate.

“Allahu akbar, you are a bitch!”

“We are depressed all the time and we have to keep pushing each other,” a young woman tells me, explaining how she and her sister manage to continue their art and cultural work in the face of both war and oppression.  Sheda, age 20, and Palvash, age 23 (not their real names), are glad that they have minimally more freedom now than under the rule of the Taliban. For example, they can go out of the house, work, and go to school, but such freedoms for women are limited to those who live in Kabul. The situation of women in the provinces—the huge majority of women in this country–has not improved, they tell me. And the freedoms Sheda and Palvash have, while very important to them, are not “rights” and can be retracted at any time.

They are concerned about U.S. negotiations with the Taliban, fearing that these negotiations will lead to more restrictions on women.

Sheda, petite and pretty, has spent a year in France studying film, and in fact, her short movie will soon be featured in a major international film show.  Palvash, too, is cute and exuberant, talking constantly and switching from English to Dari whenever she can’t remember an English word.  The two of them help each other out with English, often finishing each other’s sentences. Their eyes light up and their speech quickens as they describe their art projects.

I ask about being a woman in Afghanistan. Palvash replies that it is very hard. She tells me that family sexual abuse is endemic here, that unmarried daughters, sisters and other women living in a family compound are at great risk of rape by the men of the family; if a girl becomes pregnant as a result of such sexual abuse, she is killed.

In fact, they tell me, violence against women in all forms is common throughout Afghanistan. For example, Sheda says, last month in Herat, two women were beheaded by their husbands; nothing happened to the killers. Palvash explains that men want women to stay in the house, to do whatever they are told, and not to have any ideas, work or thoughts of their own. If a woman objects to living like this, she will be killed by her husband.

Some three years ago, a law was passed that codified the status of Shia women. Among other things, Sheda says, this law allows marriage of girls at age 9; requires written permission of a woman’s husband for her to work, and if she does work, requires her to hand over all the money she earns to her husband; and allows men to have up to seven wives. There was sufficient outrage among women in Kabul at the time this law was being considered in Parliament that a women’s demonstration was held, with Sunni as well as Shia women participating—even some women in burqas demonstrated.  Palvash shows me a video of the demonstration, pointing out the mob of angry men shouting and yelling at the women. Palvash translates their words:  “Allahu akbar [God is great], you are a bitch!” and “Die, women, die!” and “Death to women!”

The bill was signed into law by Karzai and enshrines the status of Shia women as living at the mercy of men.

Palvash and Sheda are so worried about the possible return of the Taliban, which they say would consign them to house prison, that they cannot bring themselves to advocate for the removal of foreign troops. On the other hand, they see little good and much bad that the NATO and U.S. presence has brought to Afghanistan. “We do not want to be a battleground of other countries, but we are,” Palvash says.

Bus in Kabul: LoveNoWar

Culture and Art as the Way to Peace

Palvash and Sheda have given up on the Afghan government as a force to bring stability, freedom or development to Afghanistan. Like others I have met, they describe the government as a mafia, one that is corrupt from top to bottom. Every law that is passed, they say, is an expression of corruption because all the people involved in the process are corrupt.

They believe the government intentionally keeps people poor as a way to manage them. Afghanistan has a proverb, Palvash says: “If you want power, keep the people hungry.” Those who must struggle for the basics of life have no time or energy for rebellion.

Palvash and Sheda have also turned against Islam, which they say has been used by politicians to drag the nation down. “We do not believe in Islam any longer, we believe in humanity,” Sheda says. I ask how this is received here, and they reply that they have a small cadre of friends who all agree with them and who provide support to each other. They don’t express such sentiments outside their small group of friends, though, as it would be far too dangerous. They tell me that probably there are others in Afghanistan who share their point of view, but no one would dare express such beliefs publicly as to do so would be to court death.

Desperate for change in Afghanistan, these two young women see no hope of achieving it through the political process. Instead, they aim to affect the mentality of the Afghan people through art—film, photography and music.

“We really want to do something for Afghanistan,” Palvash says. “But we are afraid that we may get tired. The way is long. Still, we are lucky to live in Afghanistan. Maybe if I lived in the U.S., I would not be the same person.  The situation makes your character. Living here makes you grow up quickly.”

The Shura in the Porno Cafe

Afghanistan ranks 176th out of 178 countries on Transparency International’s corruption index, only slightly better than Somalia and tied with Myanmar. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that no matter who I speak with, the conversation quickly turns to corruption. In Afghanistan, corruption doesn’t mean just a little skimming off the top by a few people. Rather, it means a corrosive destruction of society based on a complete lack of justice. It means that the government’s sole function is to accept bribes. It means that a small group of families controls all the wealth in the country while the huge majority of Afghans barely survive. And it means that no one can feel safe because power is concentrated in the hands of a few, who are beyond any law.

“The Americans promised that they would bring justice to Afghanistan, but there is no justice,” Salim, executive director of an NGO, tells me. Because of the lack of justice, he claims, the suffering of ordinary people is now “over the limit,” but anyone who dares to speak up is dealt with quickly. It is too dangerous for local leaders, unaffiliated with the Mafia government, to arise now, he claims. “Ordinary people feel like they are in prison. The only thing we are permitted to say is ‘Yes, sir.’ This is a return to slavery,” he declares.

Salim contends that the actions of the U.S. have fostered corruption, and in the process dramatically increased the power of a few families to such a scale that even the U.S. cannot control them now.  Billions of dollars have been poured into the country, and continue to be, but still average people cannot feed their families. Where is all this money disappearing, Salim asks? He points out that during the Soviet occupation, at least people could eat, there was a basic level of subsistence for everyone. But now, immense amounts of money simply enrich the war lords who control the government, further solidifying their power. And the people go hungry.

The U.S. Army Tries Community Development

Fahima and I go to a village outside Kabul in the afternoon where we are supposed to meet with some village elders in a “shura,” or council, set up by an army captain. The captain wants to win hearts and minds with a few local projects, and to that end, he hopes Fahima will organize education classes for women.

Fahima and the Captain

He had spoken with people in three villages near the large military base on which he is stationed and found some interest on their part, at least to the point of agreeing to speak with Fahima. However, when we arrive, the captain tells us that he is extremely disappointed: due to an “incident” the night before, one of the villages is “mad” and is unlikely to participate now. We ask what happened, but he says he can’t tell us. However, later we find out from one of the villagers.

The story began about eight months ago. A young man in the village got married, going into debt to put on a large, Afghan-style wedding. Right after his wedding, he was arrested by the Americans and sent to a prison where he languished for four months—in fact, his is a case of mistaken identity, his name being similar to that of someone else wanted by the military. By the time the man got out of prison, his debts had grown quite large, since he couldn’t make payments on loans during the time he was incarcerated. He decided to go to Iran, where he could make more money in a shorter period of time, as a way to begin to pay down his debts. He returned to the village yesterday, glad to be home and happy to see his bride again. In the middle of the night, his first night home, the U.S. military broke into his home and arrested him again—the exact same case of mistaken identity. The villagers are furious.

Hard to win hearts and minds this way.

Our shura is held in a simple café on base, in a building made of plywood, with orange fabric covering the windows. Orange-flowered plastic table cloths adorn the tables, along with bottles of hot sauce, and we sit around the tables in cheap red plastic chairs. A young Afghan man stands behind a small counter with a large “tips” jar next to a television. When Fahima and I arrived, the Afghan and a couple of American soldiers were watching a porn movie on the TV but quickly turned it off when they saw us. The heat in the little plywood café causes us to sweat profusely. After a couple of hours, someone finally brings three electric fans into the room and turns them on; but the fans blow a fuse and the electricity goes off. The soldiers finally get that fixed and after a half hour, they are able to get one fan going, for which we are grateful.

Fahima negotiates with the captain, trying to get funds for the projects he says he wants. She is willing to help establish a school for women and a training program for midwives if she can get a minimal commitment from the captain. She wants the army to buy a few $50 sewing machines to enable her to establish dressmaking classes, and she wants school supplies. The captain says that he will try to obtain these, but he isn’t sure if that will be possible. In any event, funding for the projects would be restricted to a maximum of $5,000.

We actually have two separate shuras, with just two Afghans participating in each, representing two of the three neighboring villages. Fahima explains the projects to them and seeks information on what it is they want and the extent to which they are willing to allow women to take courses.  Even without knowing the language, I could tell that she was very persuasive!

The Shura at the Military Base

The result: Fahima gets the village elders to agree that women can take classes, and she is invited back in a couple of days to finalize the plans. The captain will see what he can do.

After we leave the base, Fahima tells me that one of the village elders explained  that they are tired of dealing with the Army about development projects because it is all talk and no action. The Army organizes lots of shuras, but no results ever seem to come from them. The Afghans consider this a waste of time.

A Few Observations

It is clear that the Afghans from these two villages do not trust the Americans, although they may ultimately accept some small projects from them, such as the education classes Fahima would like to bring to the women and the widening of a path in the village. And it is clear that the Americans are hoping to buy the friendship of the Afghans with these small projects. Fahima is essentially begging for school supplies, when we know that the U.S. is paying over one million dollars per year to support every soldier in Afghanistan.

The captain, a charming and intelligent man, had told us when we first met him, “My job now is to make friends and this project is part of that.” Perhaps he genuinely believes that trying to buy friends in the day with cheap projects, while arresting innocent people at night, will lead to stability and development.

Afghans understand that these projects are peanuts compared to what we are handing over to the war lords who now run the government. And what every Afghan I have spoken with really wants is justice and an end to corruption. Having to beg for school supplies from a wealthy occupying force is, in my opinion, unlikely to do much towards winning hearts and minds and it is unlikely to foster justice or counter corruption—what is really needed in Afghanistan. But perhaps Fahima can pull a hat out of a rabbit.


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