In Singapore, Afghanistan and the arena of ideas

Dr Hakim / Dr Teck Young, Wee

9th November 2014

“You didn’t know about the decision of the Singapore government to join the fight against ISIS?” she asked.

I was catching up with another Singaporean, Lynette ( a pseudonym to respect her privacy ), who had previously worked in Kabul and who was back in Afghanistan to do a month-long community-based survey with a U.S. university, looking at the impact of disability on Afghan communities.

“Military force is necessary to blunt IS on the ground but missiles and rockets alone cannot and will not bring peace,” said Singapore Foreign Affairs Minister Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam at a recent Singapore Parliamentary session. “…the true fight has to be in the arena of ideas.” At the same Parliamentary meeting, Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen, to explain why Singapore had decided to join in the U.S.-led coalition fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, said that Singapore Armed Forces participation in Afghanistan “was found to be effective.”

Writing from Kabul where the U.S./NATO coalition has fought a war over the past 13 years, a coalition which at one point included Singapore in its rank and file of 50 countries, I wish Mr Shanmugam and Dr Ng would re-examine the ‘idea’ of the military strategy in Afghanistan being ‘effective’, especially in the light of the United Nations reporting an increasing number of Afghan civilian casualties in the past year, the majority of whom are Afghan children

Imal, whose father was a civilian casualty of a U.S./NATO drone attack in 2008,

wearing the blue scarf at the Borderfree Nonviolence Community Centre in Kabul

I wish Dr Ng and Shanmugan could live with me and ordinary Afghans in Kabul for a while, to hear the occasional bomb blasts greeting us in the mornings, to see the worry etched on the faces of Afghan mothers looking out for the return of their children from school, to know that while the U.S./NATO/Afghan coalition conducts attacks, night raids, drone bombings, and targeted killings, the Taliban have taken control of quite a few places in the provinces neighbouring Kabul.

An online report, dated 5th November, stated that ‘The SAF’s deployment ( to join the U.S. led coalition fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq ) will include liaison and planning officers, a KC-135R air-to-air refuelling aircraft, and an imagery analysis team.’

If Dr Ng and Shanmugan  could sense the anger, hatred, hunger and discontent on the faces of the ‘Taliban’ or other fighters in Afghanistan, they would know that we cannot ‘fight an ideology’ with KC-135R air-to-air refuelling aircraft or imagery analysis teams.

They would understand why the war against ‘terrorism’ has increased ‘terrorism’.  The more Singaporean and other coalition forces support military operations to identify and kill fighters in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the angrier these fighters will become.  Bombing the IS ideology from skies far away from Singapore makes its followers more intensely vengeful. Everyone becomes more endangered.

If an ideology is inhumane, like the one ISIS is promoting, we can trust Iraqis, Syrians, Afghans and Singaporeans to reject it, or we could present the huge variety of happier alternative ideas that will crowd it out. We should shift our focus to non-military ideas in the arena.

Underlying this lack of alternative ideas is another crisis: education systems all over the world are test-based, elitist and militarized. Our human ideas, imagination, thinking and empathy are increasingly limited by the narrow narratives of profit and force.

I was really happy to receive some Thai curry spices from kind Lynette, and to hear her updates from Singapore.

As we talked about the impact of disability on Afghan communities, I mentioned to Lynette that, second to Israel, Singapore is the most militarized nation in the world.  Lynette acknowledged having recently learned that  Singapore hasn’t signed the UN Mine Ban Treaty. “In fact,” she told me, “Singapore is probably still manufacturing land mines!

Afghanistan has about 10 million land mines and Kabul is the most heavily land-mined capital in the world. Between 1999 and 2008 Afghanistan had the highest number of landmine casualties (12,069) in the world, according to the Landmine Monitor Report 2009. Though official statistics on disability in Afghanistan are non-existent, there are an estimated 400,000 to 655,930 disabled people, according to World Bank and Handicap International reports, many with wounds sustained during three decades of conflict.

We were sitting in the Borderfree Nonviolence Community Centre. The room has comfortable cushions and blue décor, matching the blue scarves which the Afghan Peace Volunteers at the Centre use to symbolize their working belief that ‘all human beings live under the same blue sky.’

A team of four Afghan girls and four Afghan boys had gathered in the next room to discuss plans to abolish war which they have realized is an outmoded human method of resolving conflict. They have experienced this method of war in Afghanistan over the past four decades, resulting in the loss of at least 2 million Afghan loved ones. They are tired of war and know how ineffective it is.

I thought, “We need more of such pacifist-leaning, nonviolent ideas. These eight Afghan Muslim youth are engaging in the arena of ideas and have a lot to share with us who live in sheltered comfort away from the arena of war.”

Three weeks ago, Siavash and Christoffer from the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society held a three-day Disarmament Workshop at the Centre.

Another idea: Christoffer asked, “Can you tell me, as people who have grown up experiencing the daily effects of war, whether you would feel more secure if I walked into this room with a weapon or without?”

My mind drifted back to the disability survey Lynette had helped to conduct.

Sometimes, ideas are one-track, and they are delivered with the closed-end, unscientific finality of officialdom. I told Lynette about a time when I was helping some Singaporean tetraplegic patients to set up a support group, many years ago.  The Head of Land Transport Authority, at the time, was a former Chief of Army named Han Eng Juan. He had said that ‘providing public transport facilities for the disabled was not a black and white issue — to make it accessible or not accessible. It is a question of how far to go — it can be limitless and we can make it so elaborate but unaffordable’”

My tetraplegic friends and I felt devalued by Han’s calculations.

I was reminded that some ideas may at one point seem to be the only idea, or the best idea. But….

We should be willing to converse about and embrace diverse ideas, to learn, to educate one another from life’s school, and to wonder, for example, why Afghanistan is in worse straits after the most powerful militaries in the world have kept up the same coalition strategy of killing.

Faced with a serious crisis of state and non-state ‘terrorism’, we can address the root causes of ‘terrorism’, like power-grabbing, profiteering, inequality, poverty, corruption, extreme ideologies etc.  We can lessen the anger and despair that fuels terrorism by seeking ways to share resources fairly, by upholding egalitarian livelihoods and pedagogies, by promoting use of non-fossil fuels.  We can strengthen abilities to use dialogue, mediation, reconciliation, restorative justice, compassion and critical pedagogies in resolving conflicts.  Theater, music, arts and culture can bring us together. The potential non-military solutions in the arena of ideas are limitless, and kinder. 

Also, the unsustainable politics of concentrated wealth and power in the hands of a few can be replaced by genuinely democratic, non-corporatized governance where the people,  and not the ‘central governments’ of today, decide how they can resolve all human conflicts without war.

As an advocate of nonviolence, I disagree with the use of force.  I don’t believe in killing.  But even Lee Kuan Yew recognized the limitations of military force when he said in a Newsweek interview in 2003 that “In killing terrorists, you will only kill the worker bees ……Americans, however, make the mistake of seeking a largely military solution.”

Singapore, in joining the U.S. led coalition against ISIS, is making the same mistake.

Dr Hakim is a medical doctor from Singapore who has done humanitarian and social enterprise work in Afghanistan for the past 10 years, including being a friend and mentor to the Afghan Peace Volunteers, an inter-ethnic group of young Afghans dedicated to building non-violent alternatives to war. He is the 2012 recipient of the International Pfeffer Peace Prize.

 

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