Now That President Obama Has Decided on Afghanistan … What Will YOU Do?

by Heidi Unruh

Predictably, criticism of President Obama's new Afghanistan policy has ranged from those who felt it did not go far enough (why not commit to staying as long as it takes to get the job done?) to those who felt it went too far (why commit more troops to a failing strategy?), with all points in between.

"Obama was trying to identify middle ground by offering a Goldilocks strategy: neither too hawkish nor too dovish, but just right," observes political commentator E.J. Dionne. "There is not a large market for owls claiming the wisdom of the middle way."

Only two points of agreement seem to unite opinion about this war: the stakes of failure, and the dreadful ambiguity of both the situation and our response. Even from a just war perspective, says seasoned conservative Chuck Colson, "What the President must examine is this: whether our cause and goals are just. And the answer no longer seems crystal clear."

This situation thus offers another urgent reminder of the need for Christians on all political fronts to exercise political humility. Even for those who believe that war is never the answer—and my own ideological position hovers in the vicinity of this camp—merely speaking our convictions or our fears will not bring us closer to a genuine solution. In fact, we should not pretend that there is a solution.

In the face of our nation's uncertain, unsettling and (seemingly) unavoidable war in Afghanistan, what constructive steps can any of us take? What steps will you take?

1. Pray. "It is a mistake to think that we cannot defeat violence," says Valerie Elverton Dixon. "We can begin by exercising the power of prayer." Join a group of peace activists in fasting weekly for an end to violence. "For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds" (2 Cor. 10:3-4).

2. Continue to educate and advocate for global alternatives to violence. If you agree with Jim Wallis that "We needed a new approach to the very difficult and complicated situation in Afghanistan, and this isn't it," then sign the letter to President Obama that urges us to "Lead with economic development" and to seek effective political and diplomatic solutions over reliance on military strategies to resist terrorism.

And if you are among the many who believe that the president's new war path, though imperfect, is the best route we can find for now, then be a watchdog to ensure that it is carried out with a minimum of civilian deaths, corruption (both American and Afghani), and slide toward long-term entanglement.

3. Be the change. In the 2007 Christianity Today article "Courageous Nonviolence," Ron Sider notes, "One wonders what might happen if the Christian world became serious about exploring the full possibilities of applying nonviolent methods of seeking peace to unjust, violent situations around the world." This challenge has been taken up by Christian Peacemaker Teams and other groups committed to laying down their lives for the sake of shalom. Military force, I believe, is often detrimental to long-term national security; on the other hand, making peace comes usually at great risk of personal security.

Of course, simply showing up at the Kabul airport is not a realistic option for would-be peacemakers. But with preparation and research (such as that of peace studies centers around the world), Christians can put themselves on the front lines as a force for positive change.

[As a fascinating side note, Sider writes, "One of the most amazing components of Gandhi's campaign was a huge nonviolent "army" (eventually over 50,000) of Muslim Pathans in the northwestern section of India. These are the same people we now know as the Taliban in Afghanistan and along the Pakistan border! Even when the British humiliated them and slaughtered hundreds of them, they remained faithful to Gandhi's nonviolent vision." That's another reminder to know the whole history of a conflict, to view one's enemies from more than one dimension, and to dare to consider alternatives to war.]

4. Consider withholding or redirecting taxes that pay for war. Even if you can't send yourself to Afghanistan, you can take steps to prevent the government from sending your money to support the war effort there. On the one hand, I believe that if our nation's official policy is that its survival depends on military action, then it makes sense to impose a universal war tax—if for no other reason than to silence those who call for war without willingness to pay any of its costs. On the other hand, Christians need be willing to "count the cost" of refusing to render to Caesar the money needed by Caesar to pay for wars they consider unjust. The National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee and the Mennonite Central Committee, among other groups, offer resources for taking this action. (See also the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund.)

Regardless of your position on Afghanistan, you can choose to match the estimated portion of your taxes that pay for war toward organizations leading peaceful development in the region (see below).

5. Support relief and development efforts in Afghanistan. Our church, for example, is joining others in the Advent Conspiracy movement to expand justice and compassion by sticking with simple, relational Christmas gifts and donating the difference. Our fundraising is dedicated to the Mennonite Economic Development Associates for the Afghanistan Challenge, which matches donations to support Afghan women entrepreneurs. While the physical and political environment poses many obstacles to effective development, creative options abound for seeking the well-being of our Afghan neighbors.

When I think of our money going to provide microloans to Afghan women, I wonder if one of these women might be Sharbat Gula. Her photo appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1985, a haunting portrait of a girl in a refugee camp whose piercing green eyes had witnessed the death of her parents in a Soviet bombing raid. She and her siblings joined 3.5 million Afghans fleeing from their homes. "There is not one family that has not eaten the bitterness of war," said a young Afghan merchant in the story that appeared with Sharbat's photograph. Seventeen years later, the photographer tracked down this former child of war. Now back in her village, a married mother of three, Sharbat reported that she still does not feel safe.

Will this latest round of invasion and insurgency add to her diet of bitterness and suffering? Or will she and others like her find hope in a growing capacity to feed their families, educate their daughters and sons, and build up the infrastructure of a stable society? In some small measure, the answer to that question is not up to the president and his war cabinet. It's up to us.

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