Debating the Middle East muddle
By STEVEN STYCOS, The Phoenix, June 17, 2009
US military aid to Pakistan and Afghanistan is being wasted and should be redirected to the police and moderate non-violent groups working for education and the rule of law, according to two Middle East experts who spoke Sunday at the Community Church of Providence.
Hassan Abbas, a Pakistani native and a research fellow at Harvard University, and Joseph Gerson, program director for the American Friends Service Committee, told an audience of 65 that violence in Pakistan and Afghanistan cannot be understood without knowing the history of US involvement. The event was sponsored by the Rhode Island Mobilization Committee, a coalition of peace groups.
"As soon as you go into history," Abbas stated, "you have to face your own mistakes." He and Gerson blame President Jimmy Carter's Cold War policies for the current violence. The US, they explain, with financing from Saudi Arabia and training from the Pakistani military, mobilized tens of thousands of Muslim militants to fight the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. They were trained at thousands of religious schools, or madrassas, built on the Pakistani-Afghan border.
When the Soviets were defeated, Abbas said, "We [the US] thought, 'We created this militant force and we could just shut it off.' " The militants were not so easily controlled, Abbas noted: "They had their own agenda, as well, religious bigotry." Also with the Russian threat eliminated, he says, the Pakistani military used the schools to send militants to fight India in the contested Kashmir region.
Today, the same border region, known as the federally administered tribal area, is the site of intense fighting between the Taliban and the Pakistani army. The area has never been integrated into Pakistan, says Abbas, who worked there as a police chief in the 1990s. Since Pakistan's creation in 1948, Abbas said, the government mistakenly failed to strengthen the allegiance of the local population by building schools and hospitals. For 60 years, he noted, in exchange for nominal loyalty to Pakistan, border residents have enjoyed a special status, paid no taxes, and received free electricity.
Billions of dollars in US aid should build schools, strengthen police, and back moderate political groups, Abbas contended, but instead is wasted by the military. Today, Pakistan has "a very tough road. Without international support, they will not make it."
Gerson urged the audience to lobby Congress to oppose President Barack Obama's proposal for supplemental funding for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and to support Worcester Congressman James McGovern's call for an Afghanistan exit strategy. Gerson also called for an end to the use of drones, contending that the unmanned military planes were responsible for killing 900 Afghan and Pakistani civilians, but only 14 or 15 Muslim militants. "You don't win hearts and minds by killing people's families," he argued. Earlier this month, a United Nations report criticized the US for failing to investigate civilian deaths caused by drones or prosecute those responsible,
Gerson also endorsed US participation in peace talks with the Taliban, closure of US bases near the Muslim holy sites in Medina and Mecca, Saudi Arabia, a reduction in the US military budget, and a worldwide ban on nuclear weapons. Finally, his statement, "No more money for Israel until it commits to eliminate its settlements and move to a two-state solution," brought applause from the audience.