“We Don’t Even Have Money For Food”

Poverty is the worst form of violence.”

—Mahatma Gandhi

e have read a lot about violence in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, what with the ongoing war and the drone strikes and the utter senselessness of the killing of Afghan villagers, mostly women and children, in their sleep, or of American soldiers killed by supposedly friendly Afghan security forces.

But there is another kind of violence we don’t often read about. The Washington Post reported some stunning facts:

Around 60 percent of Pakistan’s 170 million people live at the poverty level of less than $2 per day, according to the World Bank.

Public school fees average only around $2 per month, but even this is often too much for poor Pakistanis with large families.

About 30 percent of Pakistanis have less than two years of education, according to a report issued last year by the Pakistani government.

And there is this sad story to go with those facts:

SUBHAN KHWAR, Pakistan, April 1 (UPI) — A 12-year-old Pakistani boy committed suicide by self-immolation because he was upset his family couldn’t afford a new school uniform, his mother said.

Kamran Bibi died of severe burns Friday after he set himself on fire March 25 in Subhan Khwarh village in the Charsadda district, The Express Tribune reported Sunday.

The boy had asked his mother, Shandana Bibi, for a new school uniform because the two pairs of clothes he had were worn out, she said.

“My son demanded money for a new uniform, which I failed to provide,” she told The Express Tribune.

“I refused to buy a new uniform because I didn’t have the money to even buy food. Where would I buy a new uniform from?” she asked.

But the sadness surrounding the facts about Pakistan and of this young boy continued:

“We rushed him to the hospital where he was admitted for five days in a critical condition before he died,” his mother said.

“Doctors demanded [$5,500] for Kamran’s treatment and we didn’t have it,” Kamran’s older brother Saleem said. “We don’t even have money for food.”

I don’t know how people who call themselves “doctors” can watch a 12-year-old kid suffer and die just because his parents are poor. And I don’t know how a country as poor as Pakistan can afford to spend 23% of its budget on the military, while spending only 1.3% on health and 7.8% on education.

And I certainly don’t know why the Pakistani government would spend as much on its Army in one day as it does in one year on education, or would spend much more on its Air Force in one day than all year on public health.

And who knows how much our so-called war on terror has cost the Pakistanis in blood and treasure, despite billions of dollars of American assistance over the last decade or so.

But what I do know is that what happened to Kamran Bibi is wrong on so many levels, and it is hard to accept that such things go on in a civilized world, a world in which the United States plays such a large role.

Perhaps, given the regional dynamics, there is nothing we can ultimately do to help those Kamran Bibis still struggling with day-to-day life in Pakistan. I just don’t know.

But there is something we can do here at home, as we contemplate how to reorder our own priorities, in the context of how much we spend on our military:

Bin Laden, War Casualty

For those who have questions as to the legality of the bin Laden killing, here is an excerpt from an informative piece by Raffi Khatchadourian at The New Yorker:

It is hard to regard Osama bin Laden’s killing as a “political assassination” in the conventional sense. The White House has been insisting that the raid was a military operation, conducted against a military target, and it makes a credible case in doing so. Bin Laden is not a politician, even if his ideology has political aspects to it. He is a declared enemy of the United States, the financier of numerous attacks against American infrastructure and civilians, and the chief signatory of a manifesto that states: “The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it.” By his rhetoric and by his actions he has unquestionably proven himself to be a combatant.
It appears to me—and I have no problem with a closer examination—that the killing was legally justifiable, unless it can be proven that bin Laden was holding two white flags in his upraised hands before the fatal shots were fired.
He begged for a war with the United States, not a day in court.

The Death Of American Pessimism?

As I sit and watch the large crowd of Americans—mostly young folks—gather outside the White House this Sunday night, waving our flag and chanting,”USA! USA!,” I am thinking how sweetly ironic it is that the final order to kill the arch enemy of not only the United States, but of all Western civilization, Osama bin Laden, came from an embattled American president named Barack Hussein Obama.

Mr. Obama, who has been accused by his most vulgar political adversaries of harboring sympathy for the cause of the terrorists, said on Sunday night:

On September 11th, 2001 in our time of grief, the American people came together. We offered our neighbors a hand, and we offered the wounded our blood. We reaffirmed our ties to each other, and our love of community and country.

On that day, no matter where we came from, what God we prayed to, or what race or ethnicity we were, we were united as one American family…

And tonight, let us think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11. I know that it has, at times, frayed. Yet today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people…

The cause of securing our country is not complete.  But tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to.  That is the story of our history, whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place.

Let us remember that we can do these things, not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are: One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Those gathered outside the White House, their numbers swelling even as I write, aren’t celebrating an Obama victory or a Bush victory or even a stunning, if long-awaited, military victory.  In these days of waning confidence in the primacy of our nation, they are celebrating a victory of the American character.

Perhaps it is believing too much that with the death of Osama bin Laden we will have the death of what has become a troubling American pessimism.  Polls show that Americans have lost confidence in their country, many thinking the nation is in decline.  Not only do most people believe we are on the wrong economic track, despite evidence to the contrary, many mistakenly think China is the world’s number one economy, even though it isn’t even close. 

Many on both the left and right believe the American Dream is dead.

My sixteen-year-old son—who was in the first grade when we began hunting Osama bin Laden—came into my office on Sunday night, before I even knew what was going on, and ask me if something had happened to bin Laden.  He had heard some reference to him while watching his television and he seemed uncharacteristically interested in the news that was about to break.  “Let me know when the President comes on,” he demanded.

It would soon occur to me that along with all those young faces celebrating outside the White House and elsewhere, my son had grown up with the fact that Osama bin Laden had eluded the mighty—perhaps the once-mighty—United States. That no matter how hard we had tried to get him, he remained at large, outside our grasp, free to continue terrorizing the civilized world.  My son hadn’t really known an America that could claim a triumph, either at home or abroad.

And, thankfully, tonight he would know that America. Tonight there was reason to celebrate not so much the death of Osama bin Laden but, irony of ironies, the possible resurrection of the American spirit.

Murderous American Soldiers: Reason To Quit?

WARNING: The following post contains a disturbing photograph.

Syndicated columnist Dan Thomasson wrote in Sunday’s Joplin Globe that it is time to get out of Afghanistan. 

He makes the point that historically speaking the mission is hopeless. He touches on the cost. He mentions that, until the unwise Iraq invasion, early in the Afghanistan war there was a narrow window to get bin Laden and accomplish a “limited engagement there.”  But the time has long passed.

Notwithstanding those legitimate points, Thomasson’s biggest reason to get out seems to be the indisputable fact that the war is not popular with the American people.  He cited that fact twice.

Now, if the war in Afghanistan-Pakistan is strategically important and crucial to our national defense, then it follows that it shouldn’t matter much what the American people think, nor should cost play a major role in deciding to continue.  A leader leads on such matters. 

So, I don’t think the fact that the war has grown unpopular or that our finances are hurting should have an effect on our leaders’ decision to continue the war policy, if it can be demonstrated that the war is vital to our interests.

The question, as always, is how strategically necessary is the war and can we accomplish our goals there?

I submit that a Rolling Stone article published yesterday tells us more about why we may need to get out of Afghanistan than any poll or balance sheet.  The article, “The Kill Team,” featured this subtitle:

How U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan murdered innocent civilians and mutilated their corpses – and how their officers failed to stop them.

You can read the horrific details for yourself and look at the disgusting pictures, but the article begins with introducing us to the unbelievable story of American infantrymen in Kandahar Province discussing among themselves “the notion of killing an Afghan civilian,” essentially for the hell of it:

The poppy plants were still low to the ground at that time of year. The two soldiers, Cpl. Jeremy Morlock and Pfc. Andrew Holmes, saw a young farmer who was working by himself among the spiky shoots. Off in the distance, a few other soldiers stood sentry. But the farmer was the only Afghan in sight. With no one around to witness, the timing was right. And just like that, they picked him for execution.

That young farmer was a 15-year-old kid.  Cpl. Morlock admitted the boy was “not a threat.” The boy, Gul Mudin, followed the soldiers’ instructions. Then,

The soldiers knelt down behind a mud-brick wall. Then Morlock tossed a grenade toward Mudin, using the wall as cover. As the grenade exploded, he and Holmes opened fire, shooting the boy repeatedly at close range with an M4 carbine and a machine gun.

Mudin buckled, went down face first onto the ground. His cap toppled off. A pool of blood congealed by his head.

The top officer present, Capt. Patrick Mitchell, didn’t buy the soldiers’ story that the boy was about to attack them with a grenade, but instead of offering to help the kid, “whom he believed might still be alive,” he instead ordered another soldier to make sure he was dead.  He fired two more shots into his body.

A “local elder,” working in the poppy field, witnessed the murder and immediately accused Morlock and Holmes. They ignored him.  It turned out the elder was the father of the murdered boy.

After every battlefield death, the story continues, there is a routine Army procedure involving stripping the corpse and checking for tatoos that might identify him.  They “scanned his iris and fingerprints.”  The horror continues:

Then, in a break with protocol, the soldiers began taking photographs of themselves celebrating their kill. Holding a cigarette rakishly in one hand, Holmes posed for the camera with Mudin’s bloody and half-naked corpse, grabbing the boy’s head by the hair as if it were a trophy deer. Morlock made sure to get a similar memento.

No one seemed more pleased by the kill than Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, the platoon’s popular and hard-charging squad leader. “It was like another day at the office for him,” one soldier recalls. Gibbs started “messing around with the kid,” moving his arms and mouth and “acting like the kid was talking.” Then, using a pair of razor-sharp medic’s shears, he reportedly sliced off the dead boy’s pinky finger and gave it to Holmes, as a trophy for killing his first Afghan.

According to his fellow soldiers, Holmes took to carrying the finger with him in a zip-lock bag. “He wanted to keep the finger forever and wanted to dry it out,” one of his friends would later report. “He was proud of his finger.”

Failing to be punished for that killing, “the platoon went on a shooting spree over the next four months that claimed the lives of at least three more innocent civilians.”

The story doesn’t end there, including the sad fact that it appears “senior Army leadership” was aware of “the questionable nature of the killings,” but you get the idea.

I recommend you read the rest of the article on an empty stomach.

Something is wrong people.  Something is very wrong.  Is it any wonder that we seem to be making more enemies than friends in Afghanistan-Pakistan? 

Given that, how can we continue?

What To Do About Afghanistan? Beats Me

I have previously confessed that I don’t know what is the proper course to follow regarding Afghanistan and the war we launched there in October of 2001. 

Essentially, I have said that at some point—and only to some point—we have to trust that our leaders, civilian and military, have the competence to not only prosecute the war but the wisdom and will to pull back, if or when it becomes a futile exercise.  Surely our leaders have learned something from our Vietnam experience.

I know my position is not popular with many liberals, but having read and heard and thought a lot about the issue, the fact that I dither from day to day—”we should get out” or “we can’t afford to get out“—is an indication that the philosophical counterfactuals of ending the war seem to be impossible to anticipate, not to mention the repercussions of staying and fighting for God knows how long.

And an AP story in today’s Joplin Globe doesn’t make it any easier.

The story was headlined, “Moderate Pakistanis lament radicalization,” and was sub-headed, “Once tolerant, relaxed nation is now embracing fundamentalism.” 

In the story we find quotes from Pakistanis bemoaning the lack of freedom of speech in their country and the fact that the religious fanatics are “out to snatch this country from us.”  Also disturbing was this commentary on the state of Pakistani society:

“The silent majority does not want to take out a gun and shoot anyone, but at the same time they’re not appalled by it when somebody else does,” complained Fasi Zaka, 34, a radio host. “The majority are enablers.”

The story mentions the assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, who was murdered by a member of his security detail for speaking out against blasphemy laws in Pakistan.  Taseer’s “bodyguards” stood by as the assassin kept firing.

Here was Taseer’s offense against radicalism, as reported by the The Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Taseer had become a leading opponent in recent weeks of a court decision in November to sentence a 45-year-old Christian farm laborer, Asia Bibi, to death for blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad.

If these kinds of assassinations become commonplace in Pakistan, our war in Afghanistan—which has already crept into Pakistan—will necessarily have to end or expand, as a nuclear-armed Pakistan grows more unstable.

Indeed, recognizing that fact, the Obama administration has moved to help the Pakistanis “combat” the rise of Islamic fundamentalist terrorists.  In an expanded story of the AP story above, MSNBC.com added this:

The White House will combat Pakistan’s terrorist groups by offering more military, intelligence and economic support to Pakistan and intensifying efforts to forge a regional peace, The Washington Post reported Friday.

Pakistani officials have complained that the United States has failed to understand their security priorities or provide adequate support, the Post said.

The new efforts will be communicated by Vice President Joe Biden, who plans to travel to Pakistan next week for meetings with military chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani and top government leaders, the Post said. Biden will challenge the Pakistanis to articulate their long-term strategy for the region and indicate exactly what assistance is needed for them to move against Taliban sanctuaries in areas bordering Afghanistan, the paper reported.

The effort was developed in last month’s White House Afghanistan war review to overcome widespread suspicion and anti-American sentiment in Pakistan and build trust and stability.

The anti-American sentiment is growing in Pakistan.  And the U.S. is looking for ways to provide economic aid to the government so it can “fill the gap” in public services to the poor and counter the  aid given to Pakistanis by the extremists, who, according to the AP,

…provide for people’s needs, such as in education and health care…through their welfare organizations, clinics, mosques, religious seminaries and other networks.  The impoverished masses then support their philosophies and political activities.

All of this just goes to show how difficult it is to determine whether our strategy in the region is the right one, or whether it is just more wind-chasing futility.  There are a lot of variables in play, and we often don’t know what we don’t know.

But something we do know is that after a long war in Iraq—remember that one?—we are left with an unstable nation that has troubling ties to Shiite Iran, which itself has grown stronger because of the ouster of Saddam Hussein and the Sunnis.  

As U.S. troops prepare to leave (note: “prepare”) Iraq at the end of this year, we find that the American-hating “cleric” Muqtada al-Sadr, who has been cooling his jets in Iran for nearly four years, is back in Iraq and he is as fanatical as ever:

Let the whole world hear that we reject America.

He called the U.S., Israel, and Britain, “our common enemies.”  Al-Sadr’s political movement won 40 seats in parliamentary elections held last year and now holds eight leadership positions in the new Iraqi government, which is a coalition of disparate groups, many of whom don’t much like each other.  And they don’t like each other  in ways that make the fights between Democrats and Republicans look like quarrels at church camp.

No one knows how the Iraq situation will turn out—it is often prematurely characterized as a “success”—and the situation in Afghanistan, with its long history of interventionist failure—is exponentially more uncertain.

But I remain unable to figure out whether our present policy regarding Afghanistan-Pakistan is the right one or whether it is a Middle East Vietnam.

I wish I could.

No Christmas Cheer Here

In Barbra Streisand’s Yentl, a film based on Isaac Singer’s short story about a defiant Jewish girl who undertook the study of Jewish law and theology by disguising herself as a boy, there is a scene in which a bookseller with his wagon full of books offered, “Picture books for women, story books for men.”

Before his death, Yentl’s father, a Rabbi, had secretly taught her Talmudic law, despite the fact that women were not allowed at the time to receive an education equal to that of men.

Fundamentalists have always, it seemed, been enemies of equal education for women.  

The Apostle Paul, himself a highly educated man, wrote almost two centuries ago in 1 Timothy 2:11:

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.

Today, out of Peshawar, Pakistan, we read:

The Taliban blew up a girls’ school in Pakistan’s Khyber district, where troops are fighting against militants in the tribal region bordering Afghanistan, an official said Wednesday.

The AFP story also reports:

Islamist militants opposed to co-education and subscribers to sharia law have destroyed hundreds of schools, mostly for girls, in northwest Pakistan in recent years.

Fortunately, for the most part, 21st century fundamentalist Christianity has been tamed by modernity, at least when it comes to blowing up houses of education for women, but modernity has not touched millions of Islamic extremists world-wide, who are hell-bent on inflicting centuries-old ideas on the rest of us. 

I have grave and insurmountable doubts that our continued prosecution of the “War on Terror” will succeed in eliminating such thinking from the face of the earth.  Perhaps the only way to do so is for “sensible” Muslims to begin a widespread campaign to condemn the Taliban and other Islamic extremists for such evil acts like the one committed in Pakistan today.

But nothing resembling such a movement appears to be on the horizon, and our century proceeds with a large number of medieval minds menacing civilization, and the only recourse seems to be killing them, one by one.

Pakistani Paranoia

Thursday on MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Reports, Pervez Hoodbhoy, a prominent Pakistani professor in Islamabad, said a couple of things that Americans should pay attention to, particularly those whose foreign policy philosophy amounts to, “We are Americans, and nothing else matters.”

Travelling with Secretary of State Clinton in Pakistan, Ms. Mitchell was questioning the professor about Clinton’s three-day “charm offensive,” the purpose of which is to improve relations between the U.S. and Pakistan, and to gain some degree of trust among the Pakistani people.  Professor Hoodbhoy, who has previously written, “Pakistan is probably the most anti-American country in the world,” replied to Mitchell’s question:

The purpose of the charm offensive is to reduce the level of anti-Americanism in Pakistan, which is at a very high level.  And one sees all kinds of conspiracy theories.  In fact even the suicide bombings that are carried on—people say, “Ah, it’s really the Americans who are trying to destabilize Pakistan,” and so forth.

On the one hand, it is somewhat comforting to know that the Beck-Hannity-Limbaugh phenomenon isn’t just a distinctly American affliction, and that paranoid conspiracists are not limited to jobs as Fox “News” commentators or bombastic blowhards on American radio. 

On the other hand, it is rather dispiriting that a country—so vital to our success in rooting out and destroying al Qaeda—largely doesn’t trust American intentions.  We must ask ourselves, just what kind of opinion do average Pakistanis hold of Americans, if they can entertain the notion that we are behind the suicide bombings in Pakistan?

Professor Hoodbhoy laments the state of his society:

What we see today in Pakistan is paranoia, and I think that we’ve got to the point where it’s become ridiculous where all of our ills are being blamed on America.

I’m sure the professor would find little solace in the fact that here in America, the right-wing is blaming all of our ills on Barack Hussein Obama, and is steadfastly resisting our president’s efforts to improve our country’s image around the world.

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