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MEEKER I Afghanistan.
It’s a world away. Yet for James Ritchie, no place hits closer to home.
Ritchie, owner of the Meeker Hotel and Meeker Cafe, has had a lifelong interest in this volatile country that dominates the daily newscasts. It’s his concern — a passion, really — for the Afghan people that has compelled him to pour his heart and soul as well as his money into trying to improve their lives.
He was an infant when he first visited Afghanistan with his family. Though he doesn’t remember the first day he set foot in this far-off land — he was only 5 months old at the time — Ritchie’s life has been inextricably intertwined with this rugged country that, since 9-11, has been a focal point of the war on terror.
While Ritchie divides his time between Meeker and his hometown of Chicago, he continues to feel a strong bond with Afghanistan, which keeps him returning there three or four times a year.
He’s had a longtime love for the people of Afghanistan, and through his nonprofit organization, the International Foundation of Hope, he’s made it his life’s work to promote peace in a country that for generations has known nothing but conflict.
Ritchie and his older brother Joe made their money as commodities brokers, but they made their reputations by intervening in the affairs of a country where they lived as children. The Ritchie family lived in Afghanistan for four years, from 1957 to 1961, when the brothers’ father, Dwight, taught civil engineering. Over the years, James has visited the country regularly, though not as often recently, due to the increased violence.
“I was there about a half a dozen times last year,” said Ritchie, who has had a number of death threats made against him. “I don’t spend long periods there like I used to. My family used to spend three or four months at a time there, up until 2005, when things started going really bad. Things have just gotten worse.”
And he doesn’t see the situation in Afghanistan improving, at least not anytime soon. When it comes to finding a sustained, peaceful solution for this war-ravaged country, Ritchie fears time may be running out.
“I honestly feel like we’re close to the point of no return,” said Ritchie, who was in Meeker over the Christmas break, along with his wife, Kimberly, and their three children. “When I sit back and look at the situation today, I saw more hope for Afghanistan at the end of 2001, because all of the bad guys had been brought down … and again in back in ’92, when the Russians had finally been kicked out. It’s very difficult over there now. That’s why I think we’re just digging the hole deeper. We’re digging the hole deeper, certainly, for the Afghans, and I think for ourselves also.”
President Obama’s strategy to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan isn’t the long-term answer, Ritchie said.
“I think it’s going to be a disaster for the U.S.,” Ritchie said. “It’s always painful when you’re going down the wrong way to make a U-turn, and it would be much more painful today than it would’ve been in 2002.”
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the United States missed out on an opportunity to facilitate a positive change in Afghanistan, just as it did in the early ’90s, after the Russian occupation.
“I thought, now it’s going to get straightened out. Nobody had cared about Afghanistan before that,” Ritchie said. “We didn’t need a military intervention after 9-11. They (the Afghan people) were tired of the Taliban. But you go in there with an iron fist and you put the bad people back in place, now we have to stay there. They gave Afghanistan away to these warlords.”
There are no shortcuts here. The situation in Afghanistan is complex, and it’s made even more complicated, Ritchie said, by Afghanistan’s neighbor — Pakistan. The United States has had a tenuous relationship with Pakistan since the two countries were partners in the covert operation to support the Afghan resistance movement against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. But once the Soviets retreated, the United States backed out of Afghanistan and turned the day-to-day operations over to Pakistan.
Ritchie points the finger at Pakistan as the real instigator in Afghanistan.
“The problem is Pakistan,” Ritchie said. “The whole terrorist element is coming from Pakistan. During the 1980s, with U.S. funding, these religious schools — called madrassas — were established. Basically, they would take kids from the refugee camps and they would conscript them. What they were really doing is developing a guerrilla army on steroids, taking children and developing them into weapons. They believe in nothing but dying for Islam. It’s like turning a monster loose. How can you ever control that? Even today, the Pakistanis and the Taliban are one and the same. They (Pakistan) still support the Taliban.”
That’s why U.S. troops are necessary in Afghanistan, Ritchie said, to maintain some semblance of law and order in a country where corruption and greed seem to rule the day.
“The only thing our military can do is keep a lid on it, to keep these guys from an all-out civil war,” Ritchie said. ‘If we left today, believe me, it would be a bloodbath of biblical proportions. It would be absolute disaster.
“I don’t want to sound too negative about the military,” Ritchie continued. “There are military guys there who are honest, straight forward, they really want to do something good. They’re just going about it wrong.”
The old saying, “Those who refuse to learn the lessons from history, are condemned to repeat them,” may be appropriate for the situation in Afghanistan, where, Ritchie said, history is not on the United States’ side.
“We’re making not just the same mistakes the British and Russians made, but we’re making the same mistakes we made two decades ago,” Ritchie said. “For some reason, they (U.S. political and military leaders) believe they can be different (from other outside armies that tried to take control in Afghanistan). They believe they can succeed where others have failed. They think, because we’re Americans. Because we’re the good guys. Because we’re here to help you, that they’ll succeed. I believe they could succeed, but they can’t go and do the same things the others have done and think they will have success, because they won’t.”
Prior to 9-11, Ritchie had been shouting from the rooftops that the U.S. should pay attention to what was going on in Afghanistan, but no one listened.
“I’ve been working on this thing for a lot of years. I made two documentaries saying we should do something about (Afghanistan),” said Ritchie, who had copies of the films distributed to every member of Congress at the time and also presented a copy in 1999 to then President Bill Clinton. “I said we have this terrorist problem, we have this drug problem (Afghanistan is the largest producer of opium poppy in the world), and we’re going to have trouble if we don’t do something about it, and it will cause a problem for the world, believe me. Now it’s the same song and another bad verse.”
Because the United States failed to take advantage of previous opportunities to foster the spread of democracy in Afghanistan, it will be harder now, Ritchie believes.
“We have much bigger hurdles to overcome,” Ritchie said. “Because eight, 10 years ago, even all the bad guys, the warlords, would’ve joined in. These are greedy men with no morals and they want to hold as much power as they can. Now they’ve built large armies and large bank accounts.”
While the presence of the U.S. military is needed in Afghanistan to hold back the Taliban and prevent all-out anarchy, relationship-building at the grassroots level is what will turn the hearts and minds of the people, Ritchie maintains.
“You have to deal with the elders of each community,” he said. “You have to do the work and take the time to sit down with the indigenous leaders and find out what they want. Honestly, that’s democracy. The elders of the community hold the moral authority of that village, of that tribe. To do it in the Western way, someone needs to go through and do a study on the demographics of each tribe, who the legitimate leaders are, and have them cast their vote.”
The votes cast in the August presidential race in Afghanistan were a joke, Ritchie said of the election that returned Hamid Karzai to the country’s highest office, but was discredited by reports of widespread corruption.
“The problem is … when we went in and set up the government of Afghanistan, he was the president, but it didn’t necessarily mean he was the guy in control,” Ritchie said of Karzai, whose brother has visited Meeker and stayed at the historic Meeker Hotel. “You have to be able to allow the people to elect another leader. Once the power becomes so concentrated, it’s difficult to elect another leader. The cheating was so rampant in this election … when you own every governor, every judge, the supreme court, the election commissioner, when you have all of the powers of the government at your disposal and when everyone is beholden to you, how are you going to hold a fair election? You’re not.”
Ritchie said the way to build a democracy in Afghanistan is through a broad-based consensus.
“They develop consensus among their morally, legitimate leaders. A warlord does have some legitimacy, because he has power. But the legitimate leaders are the wise old men who can make prudent decisions for their community,” Ritchie said. “Everything is tribal. They have a tribal council. Then they have a jirga, which is simply a meeting of councils, and then the loya jirga, which is the grand council. You bring them all together to make a national decision. The problem is you have to take the time to find out who the leader of the village is.
“Loya jira, this is not a novel idea,” Ritchie continued. “Afghanistan was never a centralized, controlled country. There were a collection of tribes. In some ways, similar to American Indians. … They are still a tribal culture, and in a tribal culture, the tribe comes first. The idea of individuality that we have in America doesn’t exist there. You’re part of the tribe, part of a family, and that family is part of a bigger family. When they make a decision, it’s done by consensus. This is their democracy.”
The leaders who currently control the government in Afghanistan won’t give up their power without a fight.
“It’s going to require the (U.S.) military to be there for a while,” Ritchie said. “When we start kicking them out, they’re going to do everything they can to stay in power. They will start partnering with the Taliban.”
As powerbrokers in Afghanistan continue to exploit the situation, the Afghan people are the ones who suffer.
“Nobody is paying attention to the Afghan people,” Ritchie said. “They are peace-loving people, the Afghans are. These people have experienced terror for going on the third generation, like we have no concept of. I can’t stand to see what’s happening. If you get into the human suffering … it’s overwhelming. Everybody over there has a heartbreaking story to tell.”
Asked why people in his adopted hometown of Meeker should care about what happens in Afghanistan, Ritchie said, “For me, what the Afghans did for us in the 1980s (driving out the invading Soviet army) … that spearheaded the end of the Cold War. We owe a debt of gratitude. But, as everyone who was involved (in that effort) would say, we abandoned these people. It was a betrayal.”
With conflicting reports about what is really happening in Afghanistan, Ritchie said he can understand why people back home would be indifferent toward U.S. policy.
“I don’t believe they really know what our boys are going to go there and die for,” he said.
There are no quick fixes to the lingering problems in Afghanistan, Ritchie said. The long-term solution, he believes, is the re-establishment of these traditional Afghan councils — or jirgas — which can lead to the all-inclusive, consensus-building loya jirga. It is, as Ritchie puts it, democracy Afghan-style.
“There’s a solution. That’s the sad part,” Ritchie said “By anyone’s standards, we haven’t set up a democracy there. We just don’t have time for it. All we did (after 9-11) was whitewash (what was happening in Afghanistan), so we could go off to Iraq, and that was the big success story.
“But we didn’t fix the problem.”