New Jersey Peace Action Director Madelyn Hoffman in OpEdNews

September 30, 2009

New Jersey Peace Action Executive Director Madelyn Hoffman just wrote a piece for OpEdNews on the war in Afghanistan. She starts:

After eight long years, the so-called “good war” in Afghanistan has become the “unpopular and high cost war”—and it isbecoming a quagmire.

General Stanley McChrystal recently requested an additional 45,000 troops for Afghanistan , on top of the 21,000 additional troops sent earlier this year. If honored, this request would bring the total number of troops stationed in Afghanistan to approximately 100,000. Even that large number would be less than what the non-public portion of the McChrystal report states as necessary to “win” the war – 500,000 troops.

Check out the rest of “The So-Called “Good War” in Afghanistan is Now “The High Cost War” by Madelyn Hoffman here.


Why am I in Afghanistan?

September 29, 2009

Why am I in Afghanistan?

When many people were concerned about the Bush administration bombing another country unjustly, namely Iran, I decided I needed to go to the country to find out about this so-called “axis of evil.”

While there was much to criticize about the Iranian government, I found the people to be the most hospitable I have encountered.  I also found a lot of the demonizing of the country to be unfounded.

I’ve been spending much more time working on a change in Afghanistan policy since the beginning of the year.  As with Iran, I thought that traveling to Afghanistan would help deepen my understanding of the country and discuss, with more authority, policy recommendations.

Like Iran, I wanted to go on a peace delegation to act as a citizen-to-citizen diplomat.  Because of the security situation, only one NGO that I could find was doing delegations:  Global Exchange.  Unfortunately, the timing was so close to the beginning of the year that it didn’t work.  I was hoping that I could put together a delegation with NGO colleagues, but the financial crisis meant that many could not afford the cost or the time.

The delegation with director Mirwais Wardak of Cooperation for Peace and Unity.

The delegation with director Mirwais Wardak of Cooperation for Peace and Unity.

Then I found out that Jodie Evans, a name I had heard over ten years ago when I worked with Greenpeace and Rainforest Action Network and who is one of the founders of CodePink, was organizing a delegation.  She graciously let me join.

It’s been about a year since I put money in Peace Action’s budget to go to Afghanistan and until three days before my trip, I never felt scared to go.  That’s when everyone started to forward me every horrible story of suicide bombings, kidnappings, assassinations, etc.  Then a senior, trusted government official told me that there have been several kidnappings of Americans that have not been publicized.  I felt scared.

On my flight to Dubai, I flew over the border of Iran and Iraq.  I thought about all the wonderful Iranians I met a few years ago and how they would be negatively affected by the gasoline sanctions being proposed by the U.S. Congress.  I thought about the hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis who have been, killed, wounded, displaced or forever traumatized by the war, based on lies pushed by the Bush Administration.  I thought about how U.S. foreign policy is continuously based on military might or economic force rather than diplomacy and true humanitarian aid and development.  I knew that this trip to Afghanistan came at a key moment and I would do my utmost to change U.S. policy.

I spent a few days in Dubai before flying to Afghanistan, which is worthy of its own blog post at a later time.  The city felt like mixing Las Vegas and Disneyland pumped with steroids and very rich Arabs.  I had fun, of course, despite the whole environmental and social disaster of an overbuilt city in the desert with fake islands shaped like the world and palm trees, the largest mall in the world and an indoor ski resort.

At the Dubai airport, I met all my fellow delegates.  I am the youngest and the only male in a delegation of nine.  It’s an amazing group of activists and peace leaders, some with deep Afghanistan expertise.  I think we all felt better after sharing our fears, hopes and goals for the trip.

We flew Pamir airlines from Dubai to Kabul, which reminded me of Cubana Airlines: older second hand planes that ran on their own (late) schedule.  It was a decent sized plane, a 737, with only 35 passengers.

I sat next to a Pakistani who lived in Kabul and worked for a bank doing micro-finance.  The average size of the loans he said was $1,400.  The American sitting behind me had been living in Kabul for four years working for a Christian NGO that worked on irrigation projects and poverty issues.  He was so kind to talk with me for most of the two-plus hour flight.  Recently, he found out that the Taliban planned to kidnap him and his wife.  Yet, he continues his deep commitment to the poor.  He has had to make changes, but his security is still without guns.  He doesn’t proselytize and most of his staff are Afghanis of various faiths.  I think that this is a person Jesus would be proud of.

It didn’t surprise me to hear that he wouldn’t take any Commanders Emergency Response Program (CERP) funds.  This is, basically, an outrageously large U.S. military slush fund — there was about a half a billion dollars in the last supplemental.  Some military commanders try to do the right thing and some don’t.   As he told me, they are not trained in community development well enough and most commanders are on the ground for six months, when it takes years to understand the country and develop proper relationships.  His main concerns about taking CERP funds and working with Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) was “it’s a great way to get killed” and they expect you to inform on Afghans.

Surprisingly, he thought that there needed to be foreign security forces present, otherwise he thought Afghanistan would collapse.  He admitted he was no military expert nor knew how long forces needed to be on the ground or how many Afghan forces needed to be trained.

Before landing, the flight attendants did the weirdest business practice that I still don’t quite understand.  I guess everyone was over charged for their ticket.  To get your refund you had two choices:  Take $35 or enter a lottery with two winners of $180.  I took the $35 and was bit suspicious when the winners were in first class.  I was too jet-lagged to calculate the odds, but you gamblers can tell me if I made the right choice.

Kabul airport only has one runway.  The 747 approached the valley surrounded by mountains, split by a river with more bumps, turns and movement than I am used to.  There are no gates.  You walk down the steps into a newly constructed building to deal with immigration and customs.

Medea and Nooria in Afghanistan -- click on the image to see more pictures from the delegation

Medea and Nooria in Afghanistan -- click on the image to see more pictures from the delegation

While waiting to change money, I chatted with a scared Kiwi — a guy from New Zealand.  He flew in by himself, didn’t have the phone number of the person who was going to pick him up and was clearly nervous about the situation.  He asked all kinds of questions about security and got extra freaked when we explained that the Kandahar Province where he planned to give a presentation was the most dangerous part of the country.

After some confusion of where we should meet our fixer — journalist lingo for guide and logistics person — we loaded up in a white bus.  Several people, very experienced with security matters in Afghanistan, told me the best thing for me to do is look as inconspicuous as possible: wear drab colors, wear more traditional attire, grow a beard, etc.  So, I felt nervous as we approached this huge bus that we would all use to travel in Kabul.  I thought it was the most conspicuous vehicle and many warned me that the road from the airport was one of the most dangerous in Kabul.  We were going to be driving through a traffic circle where several civilians died from a bomb within the last several days.

On the walk to the bus, I noticed that I thought it didn’t look very militarized.  There were several armed guards and checkpoints, but not what I imagined.  It wasn’t until the bus drove for a quarter mile that I realized we were just approaching the major checkpoint to get into the Airport, which had turrets, humvees and plenty of troops.

The delegation passes through a schoolhouse

The delegation passes through a schoolhouse

My initial feelings driving on the main road was that Kabul reminded me of when I spent two weeks in Mumbai, India while working on the Greenpeace ship the Rainbow Warrior.  It was hot, dusty, smelly to my western nose and I felt air pollution in my sensitive lungs.

After we settled in our sleeping quarters, we met a former Deputy Minister of Finance, and his wife, at a restaurant.  I enjoyed the food, especially the chickpea dish that reminded me of Indian food.  He told us a plethora of interesting tidbits.  For example, 30% of Afghanistan’s GDP is from poppies that make opium and heroin and is connected to the Russian mafia.  Additionally, the country contains some amazing natural resources including marble and wood.  Both of which, if harvested sustainably and finished projects made in Afghanistan, could provide significant income for a country that gets minimal income from mostly customs taxes and is dependant on international aid.

I will be writing more as time permits on this extremely busy and exhausting trip.  Please note that for security reasons, I will not discuss where we are staying, our itinerary and may leave out or change the names of people that we meet.

To take action on this issue, please visit our Peace for Afghanistan website.  If you would like more updates in real time, please add me as a friend on Facebook or follow me on Twitter.


Viva Mexico! Viva la Revolucion!

September 16, 2009

Yesterday and today, Mexico celebrates its 1810 and 1910 revolutions (so next year will be una fiesta muy grande!). While this is a big generalization to make, my sense from being in Mexico City last week is the people of Mexico take the spirit of revolution and independence much more seriously than we do here in the US, where my sense is we mostly pay lip service to those ideals.

Sure, Mexico has its share of problems, which I won’t attempt to go into here. But last Saturday night, I had the distinct pleasure and blessing of being in the Zocalo, the national square in Mexico City, among a throng of celebrating Mexicans (the Zocalo was decked out in independence regalia starting last Friday). My (US) friends and I found the experience to be very different than July 4th celebrations here. It seemed a very genuine and non-militaristic expression of patriotism for Mexico and its culture. The square was filled mostly with families, there was no drinking going on (though I surely would have appreciated sipping some tequila!), it was a very wholesome display of pride in the country and its rich cultural history. Again, I felt blessed to be there and experience a different kind of Independence Day fiesta.

Mexico City is a phenomenal place (all the hype about pollution and crime is way overblown), with beautiful people, food, music, street life, architecture and historic/cultural institutions. It was a terrific host city for the 62nd annual United Nations Non-Governmental Organizations Conference, with the theme “For Peace and Development, Disarm Now!” The conference was co-chaired by Peace Action, but I and the other staff of the national office can take no credit for that. It was the indefatigable work of the volunteers of the Peace Action International Committee, led by Judy Lerner, Joanne Robinson and others, and especially Chuck Hitchcock, the conference chair, that helped make the gathering of over 1600 participants such a rich experience. We will post more information on the conference, its outcomes and next steps soon.

Paz, Justicia y amor,

Kevin

Peace Action Organizing and Policy Director Paul Kawika Martin points to weapons confiscated by the Mexican goverment (this display was in the Foreign Ministry right next to our conference!)

Peace Action Organizing and Policy Director Paul Kawika Martin points to weapons confiscated by the Mexican government (this display was in the Foreign Ministry right next to our conference!)


Peace Action Members Meet UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon at Conference in Mexico City

September 9, 2009

The UN NGO Conference on Disarmament is currently being held in Mexico City. Peace Action is chairing the conference. Staff members Kevin Martin, Paul Kawika Martin and Lisa Putkey have traveled from DC to the conference. They have met up with other Peace Action members such as Judy Lerner and Chuck Hitchcock.

Don’t forget to help us with the work we are doing at the conference by signing our petition to President Obama here and check back soon for more exciting updates from the NGO Conference in Mexico City.

Here are three pictures taken from the conference today:

Peace Action's Judy Lerner and Chuck Hitchcock chair the UN NGO Conference

Peace Action's Judy Lerner and Chuck Hitchcock chair the UN NGO Conference

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon welcomes Peace Action's Judy Lerner

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon welcomes Peace Action's Judy Lerner

Paul Kawika Martin snaps picture of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in front of Diego Rivera mural

Paul Kawika Martin snaps picture of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in front of Diego Rivera mural


“Team Obama Divided, Public Strongly Opposed, to More Troops in Afghanistan”

September 4, 2009

The public and media are souring fast on Obama’s Afghanistan policies, and the higher-ups in the Administration are naturally reacting to this pressure. Let’s take advantage and push our Afghanistan work, hard! Check out this article in the Huffington Post from Just Foreign Policy’s Robert Naiman.

Top officials of the Obama Administration are divided on the expected request of the Pentagon for more troops in Afghanistan, the New York Times reports today. Leading the opposition is Vice-President Biden. Biden has the wind of public opinion at his back. McClatchy News reports that 56% of Americans oppose sending any more combat troops to Afghanistan, with 35% in favor. Women oppose sending more troops by the lopsided margin of 60-30. The first step to ending this war is stopping its escalation.

Continue reading…


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