12/10/2010 11:59 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

What's to Win in Afghanistan?

I already know my New Year's resolution. Come January 1, 2011, I will no longer read the "Names of the Dead" in the New York Times, as I have done every day for, it seems, as long as I can remember. It starts out, The Department of Defense has identified 1,404 service members who have died in Afghanistan and finishes for me, thanks to a column written many years ago by Art Buchwald, with the images of the bodies of young men and women being packed into body bags like groceries and shipped home to their families. Young men and women whose greatest concern in life should have been picking out a prom dress or hitting a curve ball in an American Legion baseball game. Instead, as Mr. Buchwald described it, they die, or are grievously wounded; limbs and genitals blown off, faces scorched by flames, melting cheeks, brains spilled and minds dimmed. I can't shake those images.

After 9 years, what are we now fighting for in Afghanistan? We entered Afghanistan because al-Qaeda leaders, sheltered by the Taliban, planned the September 11th attack from there. Washington's goal is to keep terrorists from planning new attacks from Afghanistan. There is, however, no single al-Qaeda headquarters. It is a worldwide enemy with autonomous cells in some 100 countries. Al-Qaeda's members prowl the rim of hell and can materialize anywhere: Bali, Madrid, London or New York. We are spending more than $320 million a day on the war in Afghanistan. Is that the best use of these resources? Can they be better utilized for national security? Can we really fortify the pervasively corrupt government of Hamid Karzai through the reintegration of Taliban soldiers into Afghan society, the strategy recently proposed but not yet implemented? Reintegrating Taliban soldiers will be paid money to lay down their arms. How big a "cut" Karzai government officials will carve out for themselves is yet unknown. The Taliban who do receive payments will be required to honor the new Afghan constitution, which encompasses the respect of human rights.

What do the Taliban care about human rights? They are wandering corpses; ragged men with vacant eyes -- eyes that have witnessed the horrors of war their entire lives. The Taliban developed from orphans and refugees who knew nothing of life but the Soviet bombings that destroyed their homes, killed their parents and drove them into Pakistan where they studied in madrassas religious schools to become militant Islamists. Of course, they will lay down the weapons they have held for as long as they can remember in exchange for "cash money" from foreign infidels. Then they will go out and buy bigger, more powerful weapons. The Taliban will do whatever is in their best momentary, monetary interest. Have we forgotten that America supported the Taliban before warring with them? A mere 5 years before we invaded Afghanistan, the State Department expressed hope that the Taliban would "move quickly to restore order and security... and begin the process of reconciliation in Afghanistan." Now we want to reconcile with the Taliban.

If we are going to ask young American women and men to stare death in the eye, to barter their lives or their futures to reintegrate Taliban soldiers, shouldn't we know what that means; what they are really fighting for? How much reintegration will be sufficient for our soldiers' lives? Do you believe that at the moment of death these kids will be thinking I contributed to the great Afghan reintegration? Hell no. They will die with a solitary thought -- of life -- of wanting to live. They will die longing to be with loved ones; to hear the comforting voices of a husband or a wife, the laughter of a child, the scent of a lover. Are we unmoved by the mutilation and death of young Americans, by the devastation of their families? Why do we not cry for them? If more of us cried for our soldiers in Afghanistan -- really cried -- our soldiers would be on their way home now. Instead, day after day our soldiers' names appear in cold black ink in The New York Times.

Our soldiers are decent, noble and honorable. With quiet terror in their hearts, they brave the most exacting test of human spirit, to look death in the eye yet perform their duty with skill, devotion and courage. There is nothing decent, noble or honorable about negotiating with a Taliban imposter while our soldiers face death. How can we not know who the enemy is? If we don't, can we really accept the veracity of reports that we have broken the Viet Cong's Taliban's momentum? True, Afghanistan is not Viet Nam. The Viet Cong did not plan, or protect any group planning, an attack on American soil. Also true, is that in America's first nine years in Viet Nam, 2,264 American soldiers died. By the end of the Viet Nam war, another 56,003 American soldiers died. In 9 years in Afghanistan, more than 1,400 American soldiers have died. "Darkhorse" 3rd Battalion 5th Marines lost 9 marines in 4 days this week. Over the summer, the number of American soldiers killed in 2010 surpassed the number killed in all of 2009. Clearly 2010 has been the bloodiest of the Afghan war. It also has been the costliest. In 2010, U.S. military spending will amount to nearly half of the total spent on the war in Afghanistan since 2001. The additional 30,000 troops deployed to Afghanistan last year cost $82 million a day, $3.4 million an hour, $57,000 per minute.

We can now cruise the Mekong Delta in sleek luxury ships. Can't we find a way to bypass further deaths in Afghanistan and utilize the $320 million a day to implement offensive measures, not of retribution and war, but of peace and hope in a land where peace has been long forgotten and there is no hope? Afghanistan, according to an internal Pentagon memo, has mineral deposits worth an estimated $1 trillion. It is a land of archeological riches and raw natural beauty, marveled at by visitors like Alexander the Great, Genghis Kahn and Marco Polo. It was the home of the 13th century poet Rumi. One day tourists will again marvel at its beauty. In Afghan folklore it is said that "everything comes to Kabul." It's time for peace to come to Kabul.

The Old Testament teaches us that peace is the goal, but that there is a time to war. The New Testament sets forth the goal of peace but recognizes the need for war. When is the time right, the need just? Shouldn't the prospects of success be so great that they outweigh the costs? In Afghanistan they do not. In the words of Van Morrison, "sometimes we know, sometimes we don't." We know, and we must not falter; troop withdrawals must begin in July, 2011. The deaths and injuries incurred to support a morally corrupt government are not justified and will not protect us from al-Qaeda, the justification for the Afghanistan invasion.

The way to vanquish al-Qaeda is not by waging war in Afghanistan. It is by America working with the global community to define a strategy for investing in troubled areas of the world; areas where streets are filled with people who have no jobs, no prospects for jobs, no voice in their futures -- lives of misery, sorrow and despair -- lives that engender a silent rage. People who are only too willing to join al-Qaeda, and too ready to blow themselves and others to pieces out of desperation. How can we afford it you ask? America's debt is $14 trillion, Europe is in financial crisis; even the investment entities of Dubai are restructuring massive debt. How can we afford not to? The world's terrorists have emerged from ideological breeding grounds where poverty, economic stagnation, desperation and chaos have existed for generations. They have weakened our world and stolen blessings from our nation. The gravest threat to the peace and security of the world is the desperation of people who see no real possibility of improving their lot by peaceful means. It will take the world's resolve to develop a plan of measured strength and common humanity to lift the dark clouds of sorrow and uncertainty from our world.

I personally resolve that in 2011, I will track down Nicholas Kristof and thank him for writing his final Congo Column. I could have happily lived my entire life without knowing about autocannibalism and re-rape. If you have not read the Congo Columns, autocannibalism occurs when flesh is cut from living victims and they are forced to eat it. The phrase re-rape was forged by doctors who saw girls and women who had been raped, re-raped and re-raped again. Perhaps the Congo Columns will give perspective to the 27 percent of travelers who complain about being scanned or the 1% undergoing the dreaded "pat-down." Have you forgotten about the shoe and underwear bombers? Is the day the Towers crumbled too distant a memory for you? Are we too narcissistic a society to undergo a slight inconvenience for travel security? How does a TSA grope compare to autocannibalism or being re-raped? Does anyone really believe an occasional pat down calls for a scan revolution?

The "blogs" critical of the Kristof columns say charity begins at home; we don't have money to save the world. What does it say about us as human beings; what does it say about us as a society if we stand idle while children and grandmothers are raped, gang-raped and re-raped anywhere in the world. By ignoring sexual violence, we once again demean its victims. We cannot allow inhumanity, death and destruction to be reinforced anywhere in the world. We cannot allow our children to be desensitized to unfettered violence. How can our children believe and trust in a world that doesn't mean what it says. The world said never again after Auschwitz; never again after Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia. Each time the world didn't mean what it said. Now the Sudan and the Congo suffer the world's indifference. Ellie Weisel, who knows something about genocide, has said that indifference to the sorrow of any people is to exile them from humanity, and when we do so, we betray our own humanity. We cannot allow the sacredness of life to be diminished, we cannot betray our humanity, we must not lose touch with our moral and religious teachings.

To those of you who say charity begins at home, if you were really doing your part, people would not be sleeping in our cities' streets. Thirty-six million Americans, enough to fill our twenty-five largest cities, would not be living in poverty. The one-fifth of all American children who live in poverty would not go to bed tortured by hunger. Clearly you are not doing your part, and this is not the world of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. A baby poops in Parsippany, and there is an impact in Mumbai. O.K., I overstate, but our future is interconnected to the future of people in faraway lands. Computers, e-mail, cell phones, satellite television and jet planes have brought the world's people together. Our clothes, electronic goods and many of our cars are manufactured in distant lands. Legal, accounting and information services are outsourced to foreign countries. Economics, politics and cultures are conjoined. We have 36 million foreign-born citizens and a vast number of non-citizen immigrants who are in constant contact with their former homelands. Whether we like it or not, Americans are global citizens. We have increased global responsibilities that we are not fulfilling. We as a nation spend a trivial amount on the world's poor compared to what is spent by other western nations.

The global battle against AIDS is falling apart for lack of funds. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria has failed to hit the lowest level of funding needed to keep existing AIDS patients on treatment at current costs. An estimated 33 million people are infected worldwide, a number that grows by a million people a year after adding and subtracting deaths. Celebrities who agreed to cease using social media until they raised $1 million for a charity that helps fund HIV/AIDS relief in Africa and India had to be bailed out with a $500,000 donation from Stewart Rahr. In six days they could only raise $450,000, and the silence was killing them. It is morally unacceptable that we will not have the funds to treat newly infected AIDS victims. It is also morally unacceptable that nearly one-fifth of the world's population lacks access to safe drinking water; that 30 thousand children perish each day worldwide due to hunger and disease. What does it say about humanity if we can let children die and mothers anguish merely because they live in the poorest areas of the world? The ability to save these children exists, it is the moral will that is lacking.

We deceived ourselves into believing that our prosperity and our blessings would continue in the face of moral apathy. Now our prosperity is waning and our blessings are in jeopardy. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of Bible passages that address the imperative to aid the poor and the homeless. A number of verses in the Koran emphasize the virtue of infaq, the voluntary spending for the welfare of the poor. Buddhism teaches to support the poor. Does anyone really need a $375,000 543hp Maybach? If you do, can you please forego the built-in play station option so a few kids in the Congo can have a shot at life? Have we really become such an egomaniacal, emotionally bereft society that we can twitter our souls away while children die needlessly? Do you think our indifference to the sorrow of others will not come back upon our grandchildren? The World Bank estimates that 1.1 billion people, one-sixth of humanity, live in extreme poverty, defined as existing on an income of $1 a day; no healthcare, no shelter, no food, no safe drinking water. A poverty that dooms children to lives of immeasurable sorrow and despair; and which ferments a shrouded seething at those who are blessed.

What we Americans do in the world today will determine how our children live tomorrow. In a world in which the sacredness of life has been diminished by indifference; a world wracked by AIDS, poverty and hunger, a world of drought and disease; a world with a new generation of terrorists; or a stable world, a secure world, a world of choice and opportunity for our children and our children's children; a world of hope for people who now despair. Isn't it better that we share a part of our future with people who believe they have none. If we do not, there will be those who will forever try to take our future from us.

I feel better now; bloggers -- go ahead and beat me up. I can take it. It's not as if Congo Rebels will be having their way with me. I won't have to say, as an 80 year old Congo woman recently did while being gang-raped, "get off me grandson!" My remains won't need to be packed into a body bag like groceries and shipped home to my family. Perhaps, you can better utilize your time to say a prayer that we find the grace to end the war in Afghanistan. Say another for the end of terrorism and the future of humanity. Look for guidance in the Bible, the Torah, the Koran or the teachings of Buddha. If you follow no religion, look into your heart. Search wherever you must to find the benevolence needed to raise the level of human dignity throughout the world. Reflect upon the plight of human existence, the daily misery of life faced by a good part of the world's population -- and count your blessings.