Time for a surge in peace

October 19, 2009

The eighth anniversary of the war in Afghanistan has come and gone. As Prime Minister Kevin Rudd considers yet another troop surge, for most Australians this milestone represents just another statistic, another number to skip over in the morning papers.

For others, it represents a national disgrace, and high time for a surge in active opposition to the war.

Even as we collectively reeled in shock at the events of September 11, 2001, there was a sense that this act of horrendous violence would see more acts of horrendous violence perpetuated in response.

What none of us could have realised, despite George W. Bush's declaration of this as a "war without end", is that we would still be mired in Afghanistan eight years later, with no end in sight.

Let's face it; the war has not gone well. The Taliban is regaining control of parts of the country.

The US-backed parliament is mired in corruption. Life expectancy in Afghanistan sits at just 44 years and more than half of children under five are malnourished.

UNICEF says only 22% of the population has access to clean drinking water. Civilian deaths are an everyday occurrence. Recent UN reports said about 400 civilians died in Afghanistan from January to August of this year due to US/NATO air strikes.

There have been 1425 coalition deaths. Even the US's commanding officer in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, acknowledges the war is being lost.

So it's not surprising that despite its branding as "the good war" (compared with Iraq), support among Australians is dwindling. Yet, political disengagement is at a record high, even — or perhaps especially — among those who want the war ended.

When governments continue to wage wars despite huge public opposition, as happened with the recent Iraq war, there are two options for the opposition: go harder or go home. Unfortunately, most people went home instead of going harder.

What is needed is an active, disciplined and determined effort by ordinary Australians to end the war.

As long-time antiwar activist Ciaron O'Reilly often said, if just 1% of those who marched against the Iraq war in 2003 had gone into non-violent civil disobedience and the other 99% had supported them, we would have formed a dynamic and formidable opposition to it. Instead, we washed our hands of the whole mess and went back to watching reality TV.

"If this task of building a peaceful world is the most important task of our time, it is also the most difficult", wrote Trappist monk Thomas Merton. "It will, in fact, require far more discipline, more sacrifice, more planning, more thought, more cooperation and more heroism than war ever demanded."

Of course, hawks would dismiss such talk with simplistic rhetoric: "if you're against the war, you're against the troops" or "opposing the war is unpatriotic".

Yet as war veterans groups like Iraq Veterans Against the War, Courage to Resist, and Australia's own Stand Fast are demonstrating, supporting the troops and being patriotic usually means ending the war.

I'm not suggesting simply abandoning Afghanistan to a mess of our own making. We must commit ourselves to rebuild the country, but with civilian reconstruction teams, not our military.

We cannot afford to leave this up to our politicians, who believe that changing course means admitting failure. Nor can we abdicate responsibility to them for what happens in Afghanistan.

Our silence gives consent, and that consent must be actively withdrawn. So now, on the eighth anniversary of the war in Afghanistan, I'm calling for a surge to end this war — but a surge in the peace movement, not in troop numbers. Ordinary people, military and civilian, must act now.

Get out on the streets. Organise or sign a petition. Write to your MP. Hold stalls, vigils, marches. Take non-violent civil disobedience.

It takes courage to wage wars. Sometimes it takes more courage to be part of ending them.

[Simon Moyle is a Baptist minister, non-violence educator and activist.]

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