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Friday, August 7, 2009

U.S. Squandering Opportunities in Afghanistan

Why the Defense and State Department’s Recent Decision to Turn a Blind Eye Toward Opium Production is a Bad Move.
Last month after members of the Associated Press asked Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. Special envoy to Afghanistan, about his thoughts regarding the Bush-era policies of destroying opium fields, he responded bluntly, “Eradication is a waste of money.” It is hard to find a more courageously candid diplomat than our current man in Afghanistan, and although I agree with Holbrooke’s eye-opening assessment, I believe we can do better than his current policy of ignoring the opium problem and channeling all of our energy toward fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces. Instead of simply looking the other way, the U.S. should pursue a bold counter-drug strategy directly; one which would isolate the insurgency and reap a whirlwind of additional benefit back here at home.
Under the Bush-era regime, the U.S. Defense Department spent an estimated $45 million dollars annually destroying the Afghan opium crop. That strategy proved largely ineffective at reducing the overall revenue the Taliban garnered from converting the raw opium paste into fine powdered heroin, whereupon they sold the refined product to other criminal organizations who then moved it through central Asia and onto destinations in Russia, Europe and the Americas. In fact, according to the 2009 World Drug Report, issued by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, Afghan opium production has actually increased by approximately one thousand metric tons each year since the U.S. invasion in 2001, from roughly 3,000 MT in 2002 to almost 8,000 MT last year.
Further compounding the problem of our futile effort to stanch the flow of the illegal drug, the process of destroying the opium fields has driven a wedge between the local Afghan population and their own nascent government because much of the land belongs to impoverished farmers who earn four times as much money cultivating opium than wheat. The resulting distrust and dislike that the Afghans feel towards their elected officials reduces the ability of those leaders to govern effectively after we eventually pull our troops out of the country. In addition to upsetting the farmers, the crop eradication program also alienated many other small businesses such as truck drivers, and merchants who rely on the subsidiary industry which supports the opium trade. Ironically, during the early days of the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces, the U.S. military courted many of those same people as our potential allies; people who knew the terrain well and helped us to identify key enemy targets. Unfortunately, during the crop-eradication program of the last administration we turned our back on those people in our zeal to destroy their opium crop. That shortsighted policy only served to fuel more anti-American sentiment throughout the four main opium producing provinces of Southeast Afghanistan —the same contested areas where the majority of U.S. and NATO personnel have been killed.
Today, the U.S. has a rare opportunity to reverse all of those previous blunders and simultaneously drive a stake through the heart of the heroin trade; a pernicious and destructive social force which has devastated our inner cities and proven impossible to eliminate. According to the UNODC, Afghanistan is the world’s leading source if opium, cultivating 93 percent of the world’s entire supply of the heroin producing crop. It is hard to imagine a commodity that has fewer sources, even rare minerals such as gold or diamonds can be found in various regions throughout the world. The limited area of production of opium should make it easy for the U.S. to corner the market in opium. Yes, that’s right; I’m suggesting that the United States get into the business of buying drugs. As radical as that sounds initially, there are actually some very sound reasons for this audacious plan. 1) The cost of buying the opium at its source (and subsequently destroying it in situ) is still much less expensive than attempting to interdict it coming into the U.S. once it has left Afghanistan. We could purchase the entire 2009 Opium crop, predicted to be over 8,000 MT, for about $90 million dollars, or roughly less than one third the cost of an F-22 fighter aircraft. 2) Once we recover the 2009 crop, we could then convert portions of the raw opium into pharmaceutical grade pain killers, which are often some of the most expensive medicines available, and distribute those products free of costs to patients at U.S. hospitals. 3) By purchasing the entire 2009 opium crop the U.S. would therefore deprive the Taliban of their main source of revenue, an estimated $50- $70 million dollars annually. That is money that would not be available for them to finance the killing of our warfighters in Afghanistan, or used to fund other acts of terrorism around the world. 4) The opium straw, all portions of the plant except the poppy, could also be converted into bio-fuel diesel, potentially creating other jobs and further reducing the cost of our military operations throughout the region. 5) Despite the tremendous benefits of all of these ideas, perhaps the best reason to pursue this course of action is because it would reduce the amount of U.S. citizens addicted to one of the most dangerous narcotics known to man.
The road ahead for American foreign policy in Afghanistan is not an easy one; it is fraught with unforeseen perils and other hidden expenses. As long as we retain a fighting force in that country the U.S. is certain to lose more blood and treasure in the process of establishing a better government for the people of Afghanistan. Now is the time to minimize those loses by implementing a grand strategy to reduce opium, isolate our enemy, and bring some of the benefits of our noble sacrifices back home.

The author, Joel Z. Williams writes frequently about topics related to counter-insurgency and warfare. Mr. Williams is a 2006 graduate of Missouri State University and currently works for the Springfield-Greene County Library District.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Book Review of Jesus Interrupted

Book Highlights and Notes

Book’s Full Title: Jesus Interrupted: Revealing Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know about Them).

Author: Bart D. Ehrman, Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. PhD from Princeton, MA from Moody Bible College.

Publisher/ Location/ Date: Harper One—New York, NY.—2009.

Date of Review: July 26, 2009

Number of Pages: 292

Overall Letter Grade of Book: B+; the best thing about this book is that it is easy to read and written in a very conversational tone. The author is extremely knowledgeable about the subject matter, yet he manages to convey the central ideas without being didactic. However, the book lacked precision and organization; for example, many of the same ideas were repeated several times, (especially the idea about when the Gospels were actually written).

1. P.9 “The creation account in Genesis 1 is very different from the account in Genesis 2. Not only is the wording and writing style different, as is very obvious when you read the text in Hebrew, but they use two different names to refer to God.” Other differences are: “Are plants created before humans or afterwards? Are animals created before humans, as in chapter 1, or after, as in chapter 2? Is man the first living thing to be created or the last? Is woman created at the same time as man or separately?” “When Noah takes the animals on the ark, does he take seven pairs of all the “clean” animals as Genesis 7:2 states, or just two pairs, as Genesis 7:9-10 indicates?”

2. RE: the barbarity of the Old Testament. “There are places where the text seems to embrace a view that seems unworthy of God or his people. Are we really to think of God as someone who orders the wholesale massacre of an entire city? In Joshua 6, God orders the soldiers of Israel to attack the city of Jericho and to slaughter every man, woman and child in the city. I suppose that it makes sense that God would not want bad influences in his people—but does he really think murdering all if the toddlers and infants is necessary to that end? What do they have to do with wickedness?” “Or what is one to make of Psalm 137, one of the most beautiful Psalms, which starts out with the memorable lines ‘By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept, when we remembered Zion.’ “Here is a powerful reflection by a faithful Israelite who longs to return to Jerusalem, which had been destroyed by the Babylonians. But his praise of God, and his holy city takes a vicious turn at the end, when he plots his revenge on God’s enemies: ‘Happy shall they be who take your [Babylonian] little ones, and dash them against the rock.’ Knocking the brains out of the Babylonian babies in retaliation for what their father-soldiers did? Is this in the Bible?”

3. P. 20 “Whereas the New Testament, consisting of twenty-seven books, was written by maybe sixteen or seventeen authors over a period of seventy years, the Old Testament, the Jewish Scriptures, consists of thirty-nine books written by dozens of authors over at least six hundred years.”

4. P.20 “Why is it that casual, and even avid readers of the Bible, never detect these discrepancies, some of which may seem obvious once they are pointed out?… because they are reading the Bible “vertically” from the beginning of one chapter to the end of it, as opposed to reading “horizontally” that is to say, they are not comparing the similarities and disparities between the books side-by side.”

5. P. 22 RE: the differences in the story of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. “In Mark 11 it happens a week before Jesus dies,[whereas] in John 2 it is the first public event of his three year ministry.”

6. P. 25 “Mark was probably the first Gospel to be written. Scholars have long thought that it was produced about thirty-five or forty years after Jesus’ death, possibly around 65 or 70 CE.”

7. P. 26 RE: irreconcilable differences in the Passover stories of the Gospels. “Noon? On the Day of Preparation for the Passover? How can that be? In Mark’s Gospel Jesus lived through that day, had his disciples prepare the Passover meal, and ate it with them before being arrested, taken to jail for the night, tried the next morning, and executed at nine-o’clock A.M. on the Passover day. But not in John, Jesus dies a day earlier, on the Day of Preparation for the Passover, sometime after noon.”

8. P. 35 RE: Why the Gospel authors “made” Jesus be born in Bethlehem as opposed to Nazareth. “What historical critics have long said about these Gospel accounts is that they both are trying to the same two points: that Jesus’ mother was a virgin and that he was born in Bethlehem. And why did he have to be born in Bethlehem? Matthew hits the nail on the head: there is a prophecy in the Old Testament book of Micah that a savior would come from Bethlehem…home of King David, royal ancestor of the Messiah.”

9. P. 36 If Jesus’ mother is a virgin, Joseph is not Jesus’ father. But that creates an obvious problem. If Jesus is not a blood-relation to Joseph, why is it that Matthew and Luke trace Jesus’ bloodline precisely through Joseph, and not Mary, as she is obviously more related to him by blood?

10. P. 48 “In one aspect of the resurrection narratives there is little debate: it appears that the final twelve verses of Mark’s Gospel are not original to Mark’s Gospel but were added by a scribe in a later generation. Mark ended his Gospel at what is now 16:8, with the women fleeing the tomb and not telling anyone what they had seen. In my discussion, I accept the scholarly consensus that verses 16:9-21 were a later addition to the Gospel. Most modern Bible translations put them in brackets with the footnote that they are not the original ending. [They are not found in the oldest and best manuscripts. The writing style and vocabulary are unlike anything found elsewhere, and the transition from verse 8-9 does not make sense when read in the Greek.]”

11. P. 136 “ A large number of books written in the early church were written by authors who falsely claimed to be apostles in order to deceive their readers into accepting their books and the views they represented. This view that the New Testament contains books written under false names is taught at virtually all the major institutions of higher learning except strongly evangelical schools throughout the Western world…why is it that the person in the pew-not to mention the person on the street-knows nothing about this? Your guess is as good as mine.”

12. P. 145 Re: when was the Bible written? “It appears that the Gospel writers know about certain historical events, such as the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE (possibly Mark, in 13:1; almost certainly Luke, on 21:20-22). That implies that these Gospels were probably written after the year 70.” (Or at least 40 years after Jesus’ death if he died when he was 30)

13. P 148 “What do Greek and Roman sources have to say about Jesus?...the answer is breathtaking. They have absolutely nothing to say about him. He is never discussed, challenged, attacked, maligned, or talked about in any way in any surviving pagan source of the period…and we have a lot of Greek and Roman sources from this period: religious scholars, historians, philosophers, poets, natural scientists; we have thousands of private letters; we have inscriptions placed on buildings in public places. In no first-century Greek or Roman (pagan) source is Jesus mentioned.”

14. P. 172 Re: the likelihood of syncretism of other contemporary stories into the myth of Jesus. “In Jesus’ day there were lots of people who allegedly performed miracles. There were Jewish holy men such as Hanina ben Dosa and Honi the circle drawer. There were pagan holy men such as Apollonius of Tyana, a philosopher who could allegedly heal the sick, cast out demons, and raise the dead. He was allegedly supernaturally born and at the end of his life, he allegedly ascended to heaven. Sound familiar?”

15. Re: The Letter of Barnabas, often attributed to a close apostle of Paul but actually is a virulently and unashamedly anti-Jewish treatise written by an anonymous author about seventy years after both Paul and Barnabas died…It is found in our earliest complete manuscript of the New Testament, known as the Codex Sinaiticus, dating from the middle of the fourth century…Its overarching theme is that Jews are not the people of God because they rejected the covenant that God made with Moses on mount Sinai, for down below they were making and worshipping the golden calf, As a result, God rejected them. The laws he gave Moses were misinterpreted by the Jewish people, who were not the covenantal people at all. And they are still misinterpreted by them since they think the laws given to Moses were meant to be taken literally. They were actually symbolic laws meant to direct people how to live. For example, the prohibition on eating pork did not mean that one could not eat pork; it really meant not to live like pigs. Moreover, according to Barnabas these laws look forward to Jesus, whose followers are the true people of God.”

16. P. 215 Re: Walter Bauer’s landmark 1934 book, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity. “But Bauer’s basic portrayal of Christianity’s earliest centuries appears to be correct. There were lots of early Christian groups. They all claimed to be right. They all had books to back up their claims, books allegedly written by the apostles and therefore representing the views of Jesus and his first disciples. The group that [ultimately] won out did not represent the teachings of Jesus or his apostles. For example, none of the apostles claimed that God was ‘fully God and fully man’, or that he was ‘begotten and not made, of one substance with the Father’ as the fourth century Nicene Creed maintained. The victorious group called itself orthodox. (from Greek ortho-right and doxa-method) But it was not the original form of Christianity, and it its victory only after many hard-fought battles.”

17. P. 281 “I have a young friend whose evangelical parents were upset because she wanted to get a tattoo, since the Bible, after all, condemns tattoos. In the same book, Leviticus, the bible also condemns wearing clothing of two different kinds of fabric and eating pork. And it indicates that children that disobey their parents are to be stoned to death. Why insist on the biblical teaching about tattoos but not about dress shirts, pork chops, and stoning?”