Questioning War as the Way to Peace

Paul Barker ’71, MAT ’81 has worked with CARE International for 22 years, leading humanitarian relief and development efforts in Iran, Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Palestine, and Afghanistan.

Paul Barker ’71, MAT ’81 has worked with CARE International for 22 years, leading humanitarian relief and development efforts in Iran, Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Palestine, and Afghanistan.

As the country director for CARE International in Afghanistan for 8 of the last 10 years, Paul Barker has been an eyewitness to the rise of the Taliban regime, to the brutality of its fundamentalist extremism, and to its collapse under a massive U.S. bombing campaign. While the vast majority of United States citizens fully supported the war on Afghanistan after September 11, 2001, Barker–a man who opposes war and follows the peaceful teachings of the Quakers–remains conflicted to this day. 

Making sense of what he has seen through a Quaker lens, he says, has not been easy. Writing in the Quaker publication Friends Journal on the second anniversary of 9/11, Barker questioned: “Being philosophically and morally opposed to war as a tool to solve the world’s problems is the easy part. What practical alternative do we then have to offer?” Barker has spent most of his life exploring this and other challenging questions in his work with humanitarian relief organizations around the world.

As a child growing up in Newport, Barker pored over geography books and dreamed about seeing the places in the pictures. While he was in high school, his mother came across an advertisement for a group tour of the Middle East and Europe. It didn’t take much effort to talk her son into going. Barker reveled in the pretrip classes taught by John Anderson, professor of religious studies (now retired) at Lewis & Clark College, and over the course of the tour, he became “absolutely fascinated” by the Middle East.

Looking forward to more opportunities to learn from Anderson and to study overseas, Barker applied for admission to Lewis & Clark College. As a first-year student, he participated in the College’s first overseas study trip to Iran. That trip, he says, “led to everything that followed.” In fact, it wasn’t until he received the College’s distinguished Alumnus Award last fall, he says, that he began to reflect on just how deeply his time at the College had influenced the course of his life.

“My strong questions about the role of America in the world certainly grew a lot during my Lewis & Clark years,” he says. A history student in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Barker was outraged at the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. “Our campus, like so many others across the country, experienced the turmoil of the Vietnam years,” Barker recalls. Vigils, sit-ins, and demonstrations were a part of his education. “The cumulative experience transformed the way I understood my home country and the world,” he says.

Barker sought conscientious objector status and eventually found “a spiritual home” in the Religious Society of Friends. Quakers believe that since “God is in everyone,” people should not take up arms against one another. Barker agrees. And so, he questions. 

“We, perhaps, did not find all of the answers at Lewis & Clark in those years,” he says, “but we were exposed to profound questions, and we were nurtured and empowered with the curiosity to pursue them, wherever the road led.” 

For Barker, the road led back to Iran, beginning the day after graduation in 1971. As a volunteer for the Peace Corps, he spent the next two years teaching English in Bidokht, a tiny desert village. “It was like living in a scene from National Geographic,” he says. “Mud villages rose seamlessly from the surrounding desert. Hand-dug underground canals brought water to high-walled Persian gardens below the villages. As the center for Neimatullah Sufism, Bidokht’s shrine attracted pilgrims from across Iran and from as far away as India and France. Followers of the Neimatullah order sported large handlebar mustaches and lived out the peaceful teachings of the Sufi master. At a time when America’s president was ordering the Christmas bombing of Cambodia, the architecture, ecology, and values I found in Bidokht were living hope for a more just and sustainable future.”

Too content to leave, Barker stayed in Iran for five years, moving on to Shiraz and then to Tehran. On a trip to Bahrain to train new volunteers, he met his wife, Nora, an American nurse who was working in the local school of nursing. She claims that Barker would still be in Iran if the Peace Corps hadn’t left the country in 1976; Barker was among the last volunteers to go. 

The next stop on Barker’s road brought him back to the United States, where he earned a master’s degree in Islamic studies at UCLA before returning to Lewis & Clark, where he earned a master’s degree in teaching in 1981. By then, he and Nora had married and started a family. Although they stayed put briefly, the urge to travel was strong, and soon the young family was on the road again. Barker spent two years working with the Lalmba Association, a small volunteer-based relief organization in Sudan, before joining CARE international in 1984.

As his family grew to three children, CARE took them from Egypt to Ethiopia, to Palestine, and in 1995, to Pakistan, where they lived during Barker’s first assignment as CARE country director for Afghanistan.

When Barker arrived in Afghanistan, the country was embroiled in a civil war that had erupted after Russia ended a 10-year occupation of the country. Kabul and the areas to the north were held by the mujahedin, Afghan guerrilla factions that had fought to end the occupation. But the influence of the Taliban, a group that promised an end to the civil war, was spreading toward Kabul from the south. With CARE programs in areas that were held in part by the mujahedin, and in part by the Taliban, Barker faced an enormous challenge: How were they going to get relief assistance into Kabul?

“We decided the best thing to do was to try to come to an understanding with the Taliban authority,” says Barker. “We both had things we wanted to do there; better that they understand who we are and we understand who they are.”

Although the Taliban were known to be as extreme as the mujahedin, they were not a monolithic group, says Barker. Among the leadership were educated, more progressive men “who looked for ways to temper the organization’s worst excesses,” Barker says, and who had “a genuine concern for the welfare of the Afghan people.” Seeking out these individuals and working in a spirit of “constructive, principled engagement,” Barker was able to achieve surprising successes on many fronts. 

In March 1996, six months before the Taliban seized Kabul, Barker and a contingent of senior staff members traveled to Qandahar to negotiate an agreement with Taliban officials. After two days of meetings, in which the CARE team and Taliban leaders sat together on the floor, drinking tea and talking, Barker’s group came away with a signed agreement giving them free access to serve anywhere in Afghanistan. No other agency had attempted such a direct approach before, for fear of giving legitimacy to the Taliban. “But they were there, nevertheless,” says Barker. “Our theory was, it’s easier to work with them and hope they evolve over time than to base our whole relationship on conflict.”

One of the projects Barker is most proud of was an education program that offered assistance to communities to establish schools. CARE would train the teachers and provide the educational materials if the community would provide the teachers and the space. In addition, CARE required that at least 30 percent of the students in each school be girls. “This was an ambitious target, even in pre-Taliban Afghanistan,” says Barker. But the schools were needed, and the communities supported them enthusiastically. When the Taliban later took control in these areas and demanded that the programs be stopped, the communities refused, noting that it was they, not the Taliban, who were paying the teachers and providing the schools. The schools were allowed to continue. By the end of the Taliban regime, there were several hundred of them, and 46 percent of the 46,000 students were girls.

In addition to circumventing the Taliban edict against educating girls, CARE was able to work around the ban on employment for women by hiring Afghan women to manage its emergency food distribution program for widows. When the regime tried to force CARE to abandon its female staff, CARE appealed to the deputy minister of foreign affairs, paying lip service to his view that it would be shameful for men to manage a women’s relief program. The minister concurred and arranged for the women to continue their work.

By the time CARE transferred Barker to Ethiopia in 1999, several programs were in place in Afghanistan that were effecting positive social change throughout the country. As these and other programs proved, Barker observed, “it was possible through patience, respect, and tact to work with Taliban leaders to address some of the most egregious aspects of their policies and practices. Principled engagement was not fast, but it did work.”

Barker and his family were living in Ethiopia in September 2001 when they heard the reports that commercial airliners had hit the World Trade Center buildings in New York. “Like so much of the world,” recalls Barker, “we spent the rest of the day in stunned silence, watching on a neighbor’s TV as the drama unfolded. It was clearly a terrorist attack, and I knew that it would have massive repercussions for Afghanistan.”

The following month, as American bombs rained down on the country, CARE asked Barker to return to Afghanistan.

The Taliban fell quickly under the military assault, and although its demise brought relief to parts of Afghanistan, the “victory” came at a high cost: 3,000 to 8,000 civilians were killed, and the stability and commerce that the Taliban had brought after years of civil war were replaced with a return to warlordism, a rising Taliban guerrilla movement, and a resurgence of opium poppy production. In 2003 and 2004, more aid workers were killed in Afghanistan than in any other country in the world. One of Barker’s staff members was kidnapped and held for three weeks in 2004 before being released safely. “War,” as Barker wrote in the Friends Journal, “has yet to bring Peace to Afghanistan.”

Today, with the country under its first democratically elected president, Barker is cautiously hopeful for the future of Afghanistan. Yet, he has to ask: Could there have been a different way to get here? Can’t we find a more constructive way to engage with the world?

After 9/11, says Barker, annual humanitarian and development assistance to Afghanistan increased tenfold, to one-tenth of the $10-billion cost of the “American War.” What might have happened, he wonders, if this level of assistance–or, better yet, the amount spent on the war–had, instead, been invested in developing economic and educational opportunities for the Afghan people prior to 9/11? If programs such as CARE’s had been able to expand nationwide, empowering more individuals and communities, could they have eroded the influence of the Taliban over time? Could the strategy of principled engagement have sparked a critical mass of new ideas and behaviors that might have changed everything. 

Looking back, such questions have no neat answers. But looking forward, if we are to work toward sustainable peace and a just society, Barker believes, they need to be asked. “Just as we were encouraged to ask critical questions at Lewis & Clark,” he says, “we need to keep asking them, not only of ourselves, but of our leaders, and to keep pressing for adequate answers.” 

Today, Barker continues to work in Kabul, designing microfinance programs for widows, shelter projects for returning refugees, and a program for reintegrating demobilized soldiers into civilian life. Nora does infection-prevention training in Afghanistan hospitals. Barker’s assignment in Afghanistan ends later this year, and the road, for the moment, is pointing toward Sudan as their next home.

Back in their native home, the Barkers’ son, Joseph, is working as a computer programmer in Eugene, and Leila is a college senior in Atlanta. Eve, the youngest, is now a first-year student at Lewis & Clark. 

One day not long ago, Eve asked a classmate what her father did for a living. “He works for an organization you’ve never heard of,” said the student, soon to become Eve’s best friend. “It’s called CARE.”

Small world. It’s comforting to know there are good people looking after it.

Ellisa Valo writes for Clarity Communications in Oregon City.