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EMU Professor Urges Shift in Iraqi, Afghan Strategy

Lisa Schrich

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.

3 Responses to "EMU Professor Urges Shift in Iraqi, Afghan Strategy"

  1. Ethan says:

    This is a great article! I’m so glad to hear that Prof. Schirch is engaged with the military community. Pacifism is not just some article of faith with no implications or practical foundation – it is based on common sense and mature experience (although it goes against our cultural assumptions) and has plenty of historical validation. We need people like Prof. Schirch to be working with others with different world views and showing in an integrated way how valuable a non-violent approach can be in foreign policy.

    That said, is the US military suddenly going to become a nonviolent army of peace? Of course not. But if the military can learn from Prof. Schirch, if it can find ways to respect and encourage the humanity of people in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to encourage/support the work of individuals and groups to improve their own situation, then that is amazing. Any little bit that the military focuses more on empowering the local people, addressing poverty and the need for jobs, ethnic and religious conflict, and so on is a good and important step. Prof. Schirch’s meetings with the military and Afghani and Iraqi students may help some people within the military to think more about their approach and assumptions.

    I am, however, very critical and skeptical about the national security strategy mentioned in the article: “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.” Those are great words, but I fear they are just that. Words, and not actual priorities.

    An example is USAID (US Agency for International Development), and also its work in Haiti. All following quotes and references are from the MCC Guide to Haiti Advocacy.
    http://washingtonmemo.files.wordpress.com/2010/06/mcc_guide_to-haiti_advocacy.pdf

    “USAID’s fundamental aim is to increase U.S. access to foreign markets. Its goal around the world is to ‘further America’s foreign policy interests in expanding democracy and free markets while improving the lives of the citizens of the developing world.’ This is primarily accomplished through making aid available under conditions favorable to U.S. companies, lobbying for tariffs favorable to the U.S., and supporting governments willing to endorse U.S. ideologies.” (pg. 13, paragraph 2)

    Between 85-94% of US aid to Haiti supports US businesses and contractors. (pg 13-14) USAID proudly states that the vast majority of USAID aid goes back to US citizens in one way or another. Why go to such lengths to help other people while serving your own interests? If more of this money actually bolstered the Haitian economy (local agriculture, local construction, supporting the government instead of foreign NGOs, etc.) it would have a much more profound effect!

    In fact, food aid to Haiti also undermines the local agricultural market, forcing prices down and making it harder for Haitian farmers to make a living. In the 1980s Haiti was largely self-sufficient in terms of food. Now it imports 70% of its food. (pg 13-14) This is not a consequence of natural disasters in Haiti, but of policy imposed on Haiti in return for aid – US subsidies that make imported food cheaper than locally bought food (and remember, labor in Haiti is cheap, so these are significant subsidies!)

    There are lots of other sites and sources with this info (see my blog), but since this is a Mennonite site I figured MCC-based info might be appreciated.

  2. Lisa Schirch says:

    Thanks for your comments on the article.

    I agree with you and share your concern about USAID’s development practices. This too is a focus of the 3D Security Initiative – to make sure that development assistance is given directly to local organizations and ultimately about supporting their efforts rather than about further enriching Americans or aiming to support US political goals. That means less USAID funding for development contractors who major goal is not development, but winning costly contracts from USAID to “deliver” services to local people.

    Much development assistance, even by NGOs, is not done in a way that truly fosters development and addresses poverty. Instead, it is carried out in a way that often undermines the efforts that local people make to improve their lives.

    So thanks for noting your concerns here and taking time to ask for clarification.

    • Ethan says:

      Well I am certainly a fan of your 3D Security Initiative, then!

      I have only more recently become aware of (some of) the complexities of these and related issues, as well as our country’s consistent but very poor and selfish role in them. I’m excited that people such as yourself are finding ways to do something about it! It is so easy to feel helpless to change things that seem so huge and beyond our reach.

      I truly wish the very best to you and to all the related endeavors of the your 3D group.

      P.S. You should come out with some 3D Security Initiative glasses. That would be funny.