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Posts Tagged ‘Afghanistan’

You probably didn’t know Sally Goodrich. She was, among other things, a teacher and school administrator; a cancer survivor; wife of a small-town lawyer from North Adams, Massachusetts;  the mother of a young man killed on 9/11; and eventually, a dedicated advocate for Afghan civilians, particularly for girls and young women.

It was in this last role that Sally attained a modicum of notoriety. Not nearly as much as Greg Mortenson, the internationally acclaimed humanitarian and author of Three Cups of Tea. This week, in a devastating article published online and in a “60 Minutes” interview, author Jon Krakauer accused Mortenson of falsifying his memoir and worse, of ripping off the charitable foundation he established.

We’re going to be hearing a lot about this story; we already are–which is why I’ve been thinking of Sally. The accusations against Mortensen, if true, present a depressing “teacup half empty” view of relief efforts in Afghanistan. Sally’s story, heartbreaking though it is, fills the cup again.

Immediately after 9/11, Sally started, along with her husband Don and a few others, Families of September 11 (FOS11), an organization that worked on behalf of 9/11 relatives around the globe. I got to know Sally when I worked with the organization, first on the board and then as its executive director. She was a gracious and giving, with a sharp New England wit. Like all of us, she was suffering. Worse, on top of the delayed grief and depression, she had to deal with a diagnosis of ovarian cancer which came in 2002. It was a difficult time.

Then, in 2004, Sally heard from a Marine in Afghanistan, a friend of her late son Peter, who asked her to collect supplies for school children. It was then Sally found her calling, a way to lift herself out of depression and create something positive to honor her son’s spirit. In 2005, Sally and Don founded the Peter M Goodrich Memorial Foundation.

The organization has raised over a million dollars which was used to build a 500-student coed school and support others. It also supports an orphanage in the Pashtun region. Sally and Don have helped many students attend college in the United States. It also raises money for, among other projects, disabled landmine victims, a dental clinic, exchange students in the United States, victims of natural disasters and other school projects.

Sally made several trips to Afghanistan beginning in 2005. That year, she was ABC’s “Person of the Week” because she “turned personal loss into hope for hundreds.” She traveled back in 2007 and again in 2009. Then her cancer returned. In December of last year, Sally died at the age of 65.

Sally was an eloquent woman but she never wrote a book, never went on a speaking tour, never took any money from the foundation. The projects gave her back her life, she said, and that was enough. For the hundreds she’s helped, it’s more than enough.

Filmmaker Rick Derby has created a short film—Axis of Good about Sally’s work. I hope this might take some attention away from the Mortensen story. Of course, big scandal and big money make up a bigger story, but sometimes a small tale holds a big heart.

image: Axis of Good

See also:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/25/us/25goodrich.html
http://articles.boston.com/2010-12-23/bostonglobe/29327948_1_maple-syrup-peter-vermont

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The powerful image that appeared on the cover of the recent issue of Time Magazine in one sense represents the terrible problem of global violence against women, sanctioned by a hodgepodge of tribal customs, religious misinterpretation and government-sponsored terror campaigns against citizen populations. But the image is just part of a cover story, accompanied by its own question: “What happens if we leave Afghanistan?” 

Photograph by Jodi Bieber / INSTITUTE for TIME

Anticipating a reaction, managing editor Richard Stengel wrote:  “Our cover image this week is powerful, shocking and disturbing. It is a portrait of Aisha, a shy 18-year-old Afghan woman who was sentenced by a Taliban commander to have her nose and ears cut off for fleeing her abusive in-laws. Aisha posed for the picture and says she wants the world to see the effect a Taliban resurgence would have on the women of Afghanistan, many of whom have flourished in the past few years. Her picture is accompanied by a powerful story by our own Aryn Baker on how Afghan women have embraced the freedoms that have come from the defeat of the Taliban — and how they fear a Taliban revival.” 

Stengel goes on to acknowledge the disturbing effect the image might have on children and to detail the elaborate security measures taken on behalf of Aisha, who also faces the promise of reconstructive surgery in the United States. And then he makes this statement: “I would rather people know that reality as they make up their minds about what the U.S. and its allies should do in Afghanistan.”  

In the final paragraph, he makes reference to the Wikileaks report on the progress (or lack) of the war. Stengel insists the story is not a corrective to those reports; “We do not run this story or show this image either in support of the U.S. war effort or in opposition to it. We do it to illuminate what is actually happening on the ground.”

He concludes, however, by noting that, “What you see in these pictures and our story is something that you cannot find in those 91,000 documents: a combination of emotional truth and insight into the way life is lived in that difficult land and the consequences of the important decisions that lie ahead.”

Emotional truth: the phrase has the same effect on me as “the real story”; it’s often a disingenuous way of skewing the story and pulling the reader/viewer to one side. Maybe that’s what all good storytelling does; certainly it’s what an opinion piece does, but then why the disclaimer?  

Most of us realize that the Taliban represents a local cultural interpretation of a religious way of life that is obscenely oppressive to women. We also know this sort of interpretation allows many cultures to subjugate its women, a fact that compels my involvement with organizations such as Women for Women.  Yes, there could be dire consequences for women and for all citizens if the Taliban were to return to power. 

But the picture, coupled with the question that is really a statement in disguise (“this WILL happen after we leave Afghanistan) is designed to shock and, I think, to manipulate. The implication is that we readers will have allowed these sorts of horrific mutilations to continue should the U.S. withdraw. I appreciate that the author at least addresses the difficulties in getting the government to speak out forcefully against these crimes committed against its own citizens. Afghanistan President Karzai seems to believe that negotiation with the Taliban is his only option, and that he finds himself in an  either/or situation, whereby he must sacrifice the rights of girls to attend school in order to save lives. His government could do both if it had the will to shake off the corruption and commit resources to building a strong army along with a strong infrastructure. But it doesn’t and we’ve left U.S. troops to engage in simultaneous efforts of changing local hearts and minds (and customs) while maintaining a highly visible and active military presence.  

History is supposed to have taught us that trying to counter a persistant homegrown insurgency that combines tribal instincts with modern weaponry is something of a fool’s errand. That doesn’t mean that we don’t remain fully commmitted to human rights around the world, only to recognize the limits of military intervention. 

Maybe the editors of Time were sincerely trying to present another view of the conflict in Afghanistan; maybe they were trying to shock or guilt readers into considering the consequences of a hasty peace; or maybe they were engaged in a bit of sensationalism, not to mention competition with Wikileaks’ domination of the news cycle over the past week.    

So no, there’s nothing wrong with the image, which says everything about the horrific abuses women suffer every day in the name of custom or tradition or religion. But in assessing the cover as a whole, we might remember when presented with claims of emotional truth: there’s never just one.

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“I am not opposed to all wars; I’m opposed to dumb wars.”
then-candidate Barack Obama, March 26, 2008
ObamaAfghanistan is a war which we didn’t start but which we will end. We have twenty months (more or less) to do so. Before we end it, we will provide a surge to counter the insurgency. This will be done in full view of absolutely everybody. This is not done lightly but with the security of the United States in mind. We will secure key areas (not deeply rural areas because we can’t; no one can) against the Taliban as we  train and grow the Afghan Army. Yes, we are forced to count on support from a deeply corrupt government, but we will hold that government accountable. We will not send them money directly but instead will fund local leaders, build up local miltia and convert former insurgents. We cannot send troops uninvited into Pakistan, where we know Al Qaeda is most active and where the nuclear arsenal is less than secure, but we will be close by. We will try to cut off any nascent partnership between the Taliban and Al Qaeda and prevent new alliances from growing. Most importantly, we will convince ordinary Afghans that we are there to help them take their country back and then move it forward. This is at the heart of any lasting success.
Afghanistan_652277a
War is hell. It’s also either strategic, unavoidable, inevitable, unwinnable, manageable, practical, essential — or dumb. What have we here?

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According to the weekly news index from Pew Research, Afghanistan has become the focus of both old and new media – at least until some cute video of a pet or a baby starts circulating or some reality show contestant starts complaining, at which point new media will take a sharp detour. I’ve been hesitant to blog about international affairs recently. So many people do it so much better (see Steve Clemons’ Washington Note) and what can I add? Or perhaps I should say: where’s the challenge? How hard is it to criticize a policy in flux? Like shooting fish in a barrel – one of my least favorite images, by the way, as it manages to encompass both cruelty and an excessive use of firepower to prove a point.

Still, I’m going to toss in my two cents, though I risk pointing out the obvious, over-simplifying the situation, and boring my readers to tears. We all need to be at least superficially up to speed before we can determine, not only what we want our country to do in Afghanistan, but also why we always seem to end up in these positions.

QUICK AND SIMPLE HISTORY UPDATE

Afghanistan is a country with a complex history. Landlocked, the area has been at the crossroads of competing eastern and western, religious and secular empires for centuries. For the last thirty years, it has been in a continuous state of civil war. In the late seventies, the secular government in Afghanistan was also viewed as pro-Soviet. The U.S. Cold War strategy at the time was to covertly support the “other” side in order to counter Soviet influence in the Persian gulf. In the case of Afghanistan, our 80ssupport went to a loose but ideologically conservative coalition of religious leaders and tribal leaders – the mujahideen. The Soviets then countered with an invasion to shore up their friends in the government, the United States began to arm the anti-communist factions (which also received aid from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) and a horrible civil was broke out in which between half a million and two million Afghan citizens were killed. You can check at any one of dozens of sites on Afghan recent history (even Wikipedia is more or less up to date) or you can watch the infinitely enjoyable CW's war copy“Charlie Wilson’s War” starring Tom Hanks, Philip Hoffman Seymour and Julia Roberts. I leave it to you.

Although the United States may have assumed an ideological victory (as Charlie Wilson never did), it became clear, with the fall of the Soviet Union, that we might have backed the wrong horse. The Taliban wreaked havoc on the citizenry in its zeal to bring everyone in line with the supposed dictates of a particular brand of fundamentalism, resulting in not only a mass exodus of intellectuals but also a repressive regime that removed freedoms, violates human rights and reduced women to second-class citizens.

OUR POST 9/11 WAR

The United States’ activities in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks were called “Operation Enduring Freedom” a military campaign to destroy presumed Al Qaeda terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. 301px-US_Army_Afghanistan_2006The U.S. also sought to overthrow the Taliban government because they were presumably harboring Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda members, although documents show that Washington was giving the Northern Alliance information and logistics support as part of concerted action with India, Iran, and Russia – that would be our current adversary and our former one. The Taliban was ousted, the secular leader Hamid Karzai was made the 225px-Hamid_Karzai_in_February_2009transitional chairman of the newly installed government, then became president in 2004.

AND NOW…

In a few words: Taliban resurgence, particularly in the countryside, an spike in illegal drug activity, corruption charges against the present government currently enjoying U.S. largesse, voting fraud and human rights violations still occurring and the Afghan people – and our foreign policy – once again caught between a rock and a hard place. The Afghan government is neither reliable nor trusted by the people. The extent of our ability to force change appears limited. Even Joe Biden is dismayed. What we have is money to withhold and manpower to withdraw. We can just say no, or as Tom Friedman suggested in his NY Times op-ed piece, tell the government to shape up or we ship out. And do it.

We might also consider asking (or demanding or forcing) our own strategic thinkers to get to work redefining their own terminology with respect to our policy in Afghanistan and indeed around the world. What does it mean to choose sides? What does a victory look like? How do we propose to battle an ideology? What do we think will make the United States safe, what with poorly protected facilities, ill-defined immigration policies, poor follow-up for visas and other home protection issues that need attention? Can we say we’ve seriously considered a wholesale revamping of our foreign policy and military approaches to make those approaches at once more robust and more practical?

Or shall we continue as always, with an either/or, add more, subtract more, we won/we lost mentality? Shall we continue to send our troops into harm’s way while our leaders dither about what a sustainable foreign policy in the twenty-first century looks like and the rest of us dither about whatever it’s easiest to absorb?

That seems almost too easy – like shooting fish in a barrel.fish

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I’ve gotten increasingly interested lately in how people are getting their news: where they’re looking, what they’re reading, and who they’re listening to, sharing with, and commenting on.

012309NewMediaMonitorThe Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) tracks weekly the most and least-discussed topics by citizen bloggers as well as by mainstream media. Its “New Media Index” for June 29th to July 5th  revealed a schism between mainstream media and the blogosphere. Few of the online commentators were talking about Michael Jackson’s death Michael-Jackson-9_580189awithin a few days of that event (this was before the service), but instead had focused on the death of ubiquitous pitchman Billy Mays, billy-maysalong with marking the thirtieth birthday of the Sony Walkman. Meanwhile, mainstream press devoted 17% (17 percent!) of its content  to the Jackson story over the course of the week. Events in Iraq and Afghanistan (the pullout in Iraq and the launch of a major new offensive in Afghanistan) accounted for about 5-6% of mainstream content and didn’t show up significantly on the blogosphere, although bloggers were discussing Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor that week.

 

I don’t have PEJ’s figures for the past week yet, but I’ve made some anecdotal observations about stories that dominated and those with staying power. I’d guess the numbers will reflect activity on the pre-Independence resignation by Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, sarah-palin-fishalthough interest waned as it became apparent there are only so many ways to keep speculating as to what she’s going to do next. 

Of course, as anyone within spitting distance of a switched-on television knows, Tuesday, July 7th was all about Michael Jackson’s all-day memorial service, what with anchors installed in LA as if it were a state funeral and reporters (including the Wall Street Journal, for chrissakes!) blogging in real time about what was going on every single minute.

Meanwhile, other underemployed reporters rushed to Nashville in order to figure out how many details they could wring out of the sad story of NFL quarterback Steve McNair’s shooting death by his unhappy McNairgirlfriend, who then killed herself.  I did notice, on several news aggregates  a few scattered stories on the economy, focused on the reluctance of bailed-out banks to lend money, although they have no problem raising bank fees. GM caused a little flurry of blog excitement over its plans to release a plug-in SUV

Comcast, my current Internet provider, redid its home page. Now, in keeping with many other major server home pages, you can catch up on this week’s important stories and assume it’s all about whether Lindsay Lohan’s career is over. Good luck locating anything about President Obama’s African trip. It’s there, but not exactly prominently placed.President_Barack_Ob_588023a

Why do particular stories seem to rate endless coverage? Mainstream media curates the news; the editors and producers presumably try to give readers/viewers what they thinks that audience wants. Are these outlets off-base? On-target? Did we ask for or indicate we wanted so much attention paid to celebrity and so little paid to, say, international news or even the economy? Online, we have access to more information.  And yes, we consumers presumably do the selecting. But is the blogosphere an improvement? If you look at consumer news aggregates – Digitt  and Reddit and Topix and such – you see stories categorized as to what’s controversial and what’s hot, which may involve a story about renewed violence in Iraq or Britney Spears’ supposed disappearance. It’s not really  equivalent – or is it to most news consumers? What makes the front pages of these news aggregates is what the readers say they like and the more they say they like or are interested in a story, the more they’ll see it featured. The favorites become more favorite; the other news may languish. 

A close friend is concerned that access to information falsely gives us the sense of being informed; that is, we’re not making distinctions between what’s important for us to know and what’s just distracting. True enough: The only way we’ll get exposed to a variety of stories if we make the effort to cast our gaze wide and deep.  It’s our responsibility to stay informed; in fact, it’s on us to understand why it’s critical.

20090707_mjmemorial_190x190On the other hand, Michael Jackson’s memorial service was a once-in-a-lifetime event, whereas certain stories, like plans to overhaul the health care system or try to resolve Mid-East problems, seem to be ongoing and without end.

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20ambusha6002 The photo on the front page of Monday’s New York Times of a soldier caught in a firefight in a remote region of Afghanistan came in the midst of a news cycle filled with depressing stories out of the region: Taliban takeovers of towns and villages close to Pakistan’s capitol city, new bombings in Baghdad and the story out of Afghanistan.

The day after the story about the ambush, the paper ran an op-ed piece by two young Afghan women who begged America not to turn its back on give up on the brave women who took to the streets to protest the latest government law caving in to fundamentalist demands. “[Westerners assume] Afghans are a ‘tribal people’ who probably do not want a say in choosing their leaders,” they wrote. “Others claim that because Afghanistan is a traditional Islamic society, any promotion of democracy and women’s rights will be resented as an imposition of Western values… These assumptions are wrong.”15afghan2-600

That’s good to know. There are people in Afghanistan and in Pakistan who fervently support women’s rights, human rights and democracy. Possibly even more of the population simply wants to live in peace under whatever form of government is presented to them. In any event, we should support their efforts to live a life free from terror and intimidation.

And it’s not quite fair to say we’ve turned our backs on Afghan human rights, regardless of which country our politicians may discuss from one day to the next. We’ve got boots on the ground there who will soon be joined by new troops our experts are moving from what we and they hope is a more stabilized Iraq.  Although we have no troops in nuclear neighbor Pakistan, we have planes overhead and an Executive Branch proposal for nearly 3 billion in investments to support a military I worry seems far more focused on India than the Taliban militants. Decisions have to be made about how and where to place finite resources – our resources. Maybe that’s why it seems as if Uncle Sam is playing in  high-stakes chess game all by himself.

It’s no fun to be a superpower soloist.

The authors of the piece about Afghan’s marching women note that “Democracy and progress are not products to be packaged and exported to Afghanistan. Afghans have to fight for them.” Absolutely true, as I think our government is beginning to figure out.  Democracy promotion isn’t something that can be done strictly from the outside in. We should assist, support, speak out in no uncertain terms  concerning anything relating to human rights. But as far as translating words into actions, we can always use a little inside help.

sam-chess11

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