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Vol. LXIII, No. 13
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
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Speakers at CFPA Forum Strongly Oppose Escalation of American Presence in Afghanistan

Ellen Gilbert

Over 100 people turned out on Sunday afternoon for the Princeton Coalition for Peace Action (CFPA) forum, “Intro to Afghanistan,” held at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton. The two-hour program included six speakers offering perspectives on the history, regional politics, geography, and culture of Afghanistan as a backdrop to President Obama’s proposed troop escalation in the area. Last Friday’s announcement by the president, indicating that would he send some 4,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, while leaving the door open to send more as the situation warrants, lent particular urgency to Sunday’s event.

“As we begin to escalate U.S. troops in Afghanistan, it is an important time for citizens to become fully informed so they can determine if this is justified or not,” CFPA Executive Director Robert Moore observed. “In a democracy, the best defense against unwarranted or excessive use of military power is an informed and active citizenry.”

The cultural side of Afghanistan’s history, presented in slides, anecdotes, and reminiscences by Peace Corps veterans Marc Tolo and John Bing, and by scholar Elizabeth Ettinghausen, were in stark contrast to the anguished accounts of political disaffection and violence presented by human rights experts Michael Barry and Peter Lems, and Pakistani physicist Zia Mian. Mr. Bing hinted at the discordant effects of an American presence in Afghanistan with his description of a peace-loving Afghani’s typical “ten-minute” way of saying “hello; how are you? your crops? your house,” noting the disconnect that occurs when an American walks in and says “Hi — now about that project.”

Mr. Barry, who is consultative chairman of the Department of Islamic Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and lectures in Princeton’s Near Eastern Studies Department, pointed to another irony in his description of how Afghanistan’s historic insularity was shattered by its introduction to 20th-century strife, replete with fighter planes and concentration camps. Mr. Barry pointed to the adverse effects of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’s refusal to meet the Afghan foreign minister when he visited the U.S. in 1953, after which Afghanistan went on to accept Soviet offers to train its army. He also mourned the “loss of a great people” as a consequence of the Taliban’s destruction of the nation’s archeology.

A two-week stint in Afghanistan last fall gave Mr. Lems, who is the American Friends Service Committee Program Director for Education and Advocacy on Iraq and Afghanistan, a “small snapshot of what different segments of Afghanistan’s civil society are calling for.” Noting that over 41 countries currently have a military presence in Afghanistan, Mr. Lems pointed out that solutions go way beyond the U.S. acting alone. Describing the conflicting voices resulting from outside invasions, proxy wars, differing factions taking up arms, influence of foreign military aid, and a series of failed peace processes that have all “sown the seeds for future conflict,” Mr. Lems said that Mr. Obama needs to “listen to Afghan voices — and there are a wide variety of voices — none of whom say that their vision for Afghanistan’s future includes a foreign presence.”

Offering some sobering statistics, Mr. Lem cited a recent U.N. report showing that in 2002 there were zero car bombs in Afghanistan, while in 2008 there were 195, or three a week. Not surprisingly, 2008 also saw the highest number of civilians killed as a result of U.S. aerial bombardment and drone attacks. “The clearest thing in my mind that the U.S. government shouldn’t be doing is sending over more troops,” Mr. Lem said, adding that it was a mistake to use the apparent success of the Iraqi surge as a rationale for sending troops to Afghanistan. What appears to be a quieting down in Iraq as a result of increased troops, he said, is actually a function of greater participation in the political process by Iraqi religious and community leaders.

Mr. Mian, who directs the Project on Peace and Security in South Asia at Princeton’s Program on Science and Global Security, spoke about the regrettable perception of “Afpak” as a theater of operations for the U.S. military. The notion, he said, was reinforced by the appointment of Richard Holbrook as “special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan,” and has the potential for “catastrophic conclusions.” Tracing the unfortunate confluence of religion and nationalism in developments in the region, Mr. Mien said that Mr. Obama’s current strategy “completely fails to recognize the problem” by introducing more soldiers into Afghanistan. Comparing the situation to Vietnam, he observed that “all of us from the region are deeply distressed by this refusal to make a clean break from Bush administration policies.”

The CFPA will mark the day in 1967 that Martin Luther King spoke out at Riverside Church against the Vietnam War, with a “United for Peace and Justice Protest in New York City” this coming Saturday, April 4, with a mile-and-one-half walk on Wall Street. A pre-boarding rally with supporters from Pennsylvania and New Jersey will be held at the Trenton Train Station at 9:30 a.m., followed by departure for New York City on the N.J. Transit 10:02 a.m. train. Carpooling to Trenton will be available from the Princeton Shopping Center at 8:45 a.m., leaving from the Rite Aide area of the parking lot. Those who are planning to carpool are asked to contact the CFPA by email at or by phone at (609) 924-5022.

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