The United States needs to invest more in development and diplomacy to address root causes of insecurity worldwide. And in Iraq, Afghanistan and other global hot spots, local residents must be empowered to build peace and security from the grass roots.
That’s according to Dr. Lisa Schirch, an Eastern Mennonite University professor who has spent considerable time with Iraqis and Afghans—both in America and their countries—and with U.S. military leaders, whom she says are now telling Congress that it must rethink what security looks like.
Schirch returned to her hometown Jan. 25 to deliver Bluffton (Ohio) University‘s annual Keeney Peace Lecture on “Building Security from the Ground Up: How a Mennonite works with the U.S. military and Iraqi and Afghan community leaders to rethink U.S. strategy.”
The professor of peacebuilding at EMU is also executive director of the 3D (Development, Diplomacy, Defense) Security Initiative at its graduate Center for Justice & Peacebuilding. For the last several years, she has been inviting military officials to campus to meet with Iraqi and Afghan students—who have also traveled to Washington, D.C., with her to suggest to lawmakers how the U.S. could better relate to their respective nations.
Suggesting that a map of the world’s worst violence corresponds with a map of its greatest poverty and inequality, Schirch cited a 2002 Bush Administration National Security Strategy: “Including all of the world’s poor in an expanding circle of development—and opportunity—is a moral imperative and one of the top priorities of U.S. international policy.”
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have expressed support for more diplomacy and attention to causes of global instability, she said, noting that more people currently play in Army bands than serve as diplomats in the U.S. Foreign Service.
But funding is an ongoing issue, added Schirch, a former Fulbright Fellow in Africa who has worked in more than 20 nations and written several books on conflict prevention and peacebuilding. While 60 cents of every American tax dollar are allocated to the military, only half a penny goes toward development projects, such as, for example, schools that could give children a non-extremist education, she said. And the development budget, she pointed out, is in danger of being cut.
“Security doesn’t land in a helicopter,” Schirch said, quoting an Iraqi saying, “it grows from the ground up.” It requires the efforts of both government and civil society, she maintained, reminding her listeners that U.S. government policy in Iraq and Afghanistan has focused almost exclusively on building a state that, in each case, has been corrupt and disliked by its citizens.
In Afghanistan, where civil society is caught in the middle of two unpopular alternatives—the government and the Taliban—thousands of community leaders are working for peace, largely unbeknownst to Americans, according to Schirch. Many Afghans came to the U.S. about 20 years ago to study peacebuilding and, after earning their degrees, returned home to practice their skills at the community level. There, they continue talking to insurgents and Taliban supporters about entering into a peace process, she explained.
One leading Afghan activist, Suraya Sadeed, is pursuing a master’s degree at EMU, noted Schirch, who holds her master’s and Ph.D. in conflict analysis and resolution from George Mason University. She said Sadeed has been building girls’ schools in her native land for 30 years and, after the Taliban rose to power in the 1990s, she did so with their consent after negotiating with their leaders.
A Mennonite who said she considers herself a pacifist, Schirch started attending military conferences in 2007, about the same time she began inviting its representatives to meet Iraqi and Afghan students at EMU. How a pacifist can spend so much time with military officials is a recurring question, she acknowledged. But finding common ground with those you don’t agree with is a key principle of active Mennonite peacebuilding, or “practical pacifism,” she asserted, and that is why she can stand with the military and argue for a changed security strategy.
The Keeney Peace Lectureship was established in 1978 by the family of William Sr. and Kathryn Keeney to express appreciation for Bluffton’s influence and to strengthen the continuing peace witness among the community.