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One man’s war: Former Marine Jake Diliberto urges veterans and others to ‘rethink’ Afghanistan

Jake Diliberto, who served with the Marines in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan a month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and then in Iraq, doesn’t like talking about his own battlefield experiences in either theater of the War on Terror. Perhaps that explains why the 27-year-old Diliberto is today leading a charge among veterans of the ongoing conflicts to stop the deployment of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, which President Barack Obama called for last week.

“I’m concerned about our men and women in uniform who are being deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan with no end in sight,” said Diliberto, who joined the Marines right after his high school graduation in 2000. After leaving the service, he returned to college at Illinois State University to earn a bachelor’s degree in political science. Now he is studying for a master’s degree in theology and ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, working on a thesis titled “Just War Doctrine in a Time of Global Jihad Insurgency.”

Handsome and charming, but informed and down-to-earth, Diliberto founded Veterans for Rethinking Afghanistan (VRTA), a group of activists and veterans pushing to reduce troop counts in Afghanistan and lobby for the use of alternative peacemaking strategies.

“I’m doing this effort so that I can urge our lawmakers to bring the open-ended War on Terror to an end and that they make the right efforts to keep America safe from violent Islamic radicalism — and you don’t have to do that by occupying and invading countries,” says Diliberto, who appeared with retired Gens. Wesley Clark and Barry McCaffrey, along with Pete Hegseth of Veterans for Peace, on CNN’s “Larry King Live” last week — the night after Obama announced plans to send more troops to Afghanistan.

“Violent Islamic militarism cannot be defeated by [the] military. It’s like saying, ‘I’m going to kill Christianity.’ It’s not possible,” he states passionately. “It’s bigger than what a government or state can do. The war today is not a war of state-on-state actors, but a war of cultural misunderstanding, religious fanaticism and a giant divide between the rich and the poor.”

Diliberto has a long family history of military service — his grandfathers served in World Wars I and II, one of them winning a Bronze Star, and his uncles served in Vietnam and the Gulf War. However, his father did not serve and his parents were extremely nervous about him joining. Even so, he enlisted in the Marines upon graduation.

“I wanted to do something more than my high school classmates,” he recalled. “They were going to Yale or Stanford on full scholarship and I wanted to do something greater than just follow the footsteps of the white, upper-class tradition that surrounded me.”

As a veteran, Diliberto believes sending more troops to Afghanistan will only result in more men and women being killed, maimed or left suffering the damages of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He is certainly not alone in his criticism. There is broad opposition to Obama’s desires to deploy more troops to Afghanistan.

And it is slowly becoming less of a partisan issue. The California Democratic Party has declared it is against American forces staying in Afghanistan. Then there is Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach, who has stated that escalating the number of troops in Afghanistan is the biggest mistake the United States can make.

Other veterans’ organizations are also against escalating the war.

A CNN poll in mid-November showed that 52 percent of Americans oppose the war, with 45 percent in favor. Similarly, a USA Today poll showed a 21 percent increase since July in the number of people opposed to the war in Afghanistan.

While at Fuller, Diliberto was challenged by his Christian Ethics professor to become more active in his peacemaking efforts. Around this time, after reading a paper on ethics and military recruiting for a conference at USC, he met director Robert Greenwald, who was making “Rethink Afghanistan,” a documentary on the situation in that drawn-out war. Clips from the film inspired Diliberto and catalyzed his growing resolve to pursue an end to US involvement, alongside his brothers-in-arms working under the banner of the VTRA, which shares part of its name with the Greenwald film.

Greenwald agrees with Diliberto’s assertion that the best way to get out of Afghanistan is not to go further into Afghanistan.

“If you want to end the war, the way to end the war is not to send more troops. It’s going to make the country less safe and it’s going to decimate domestic programs economically. It’s going to result in the deaths of many Afghans and Americans, and it’s going to be devastating morally,” the filmmaker said in an interview two weeks ago.

The documentary is not the first film on activism that Greenwald and his Brave New Films have produced. Some of his better-known documentaries included “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism,” “Wal-Mart: the High Cost of Low Price,” and “Uncovered: The War on Iraq.” Greenwald is perhaps best known for directing the made-for-television movie, “The Burning Bed,” starring the late Farrah Fawcett.

VRTA became more closely tied in with Greenwald’s documentary after one of its original members, Rick Reyes, testified in opposition to the war before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. It was around this time that Diliberto founded VRTA with Reyes, and the pair made numerous visits to Washington DC, talking to senior advisers to the president and, at one point, lobbying 63 congressmen within four days in hopes of soliciting their support to pull troops out of Afghanistan.

“Blue Dogs [conservative Democrats] and liberals are coming across the line to say we’ve got to get out — this is a mess that we don’t have the means or wisdom to figure out,” said Diliberto.

More troops only means firing up the fervent fanaticism of the insurgency, according to Diliberto. Aid, cultural reconciliation and religious sensitivity are unfortunately not included in the military plan. And for this type of war — one now described as a civil war involving a growing number of violent radical militia groups and foreign military personnel — cultural sensitivity is paramount to success, he said.

With President Hamid Karzai, Afghans are stuck choosing between the Taliban and what they see as a corrupt and illegitimate government, plus occupation by foreign troops. And with the foreign presence, it’s easier for the insurgency to scapegoat the US as the cause of the bloodshed.

“The Taliban has found a resurgence in recruiting efforts, [which is] compounding the civil war … and our men and women in uniform are recognizing that what the people need is aid, not military force,” Diliberto said.

So what is the solution in Afghanistan? Soliciting help from Afghanistan’s neighbors, Diliberto said.

“The Pakistani people have a vested interest in not destabilizing their own country, so they’ll help out,” he explained. “Iran is being plagued with the heroin trade, [so] they have a vested interest in securing their borders and destroying the poppy fields. Saudi Arabia … there’s not a country that loves their Islamic brothers more than them.”

American troops simply should not be fighting an unwinnable civil war, Diliberto said. Members of America’s armed services are “suffering from severe mental, emotional and family issues because of this open-ended global War on Terror,” he added. “We’ve got to figure out how we can end this thing, or at least fight it the right way, and not send our people to invade and occupy countries.”