Recent events in Afghanistan have led to a provoked turn in relations between its population and the ISAF forces stationed there. There have been scores of civilian casualties from air strikes, untold terror on neighbourhoods during (necessary) Special Ops night raids, a souvenir video of US troops urinating on dead Taliban fighters earlier this year and the recent accidental burning of Korans. Sarcastic bravo. Now 16 civilians, including children, have been massacred their homes during the early hours of the morning by a US Staff Sgt.; needless to say tensions are on a knife’s edge.
|mourning the victims|
There is undoubtedly a need for justice in this case, but in whose hands to place the responsibility to decide what form it should take? The Afghan Parliament has called for the soldier in question to be handed over to Afghan authorities, so that he might be tried under Afghan law. In a society that has seen little progress beyond medieval customs and attitudes towards punishment, the narrative of asking an eye for an eye is expected. But there is more to the Afghan argument than the desire for blood, as it were.
Regardless of the psychological trauma that likely led this soldier (on his 4th combat tour) to commit such an atrocity (which might lead to a sympathetic outcome in a US military tribunal), there is a prevailing sense in Afghanistan that US and ISAF forces have been able to take innocent life without punishment or justice. This leads to a much bigger issue than that of a ‘rogue’ soldier.
Afghans have been suffering civilian casualties for more than a decade now. Weddings have been bombed with laser-guided munitions, children playing on wreckage have been mistaken for insurgents and were killed, civilians are caught in the cross-fire during complicated Special Ops raids and those are just three out of countless examples. When civilians are killed and ISAF forces are judged to have been in the wrong, ‘sincere’ apologies ring out from the officer staff and diplomatic corps.
In addition to the apologies, which I would imagine in most cases are sincere, the families of the deceased are given approximately $2000 US as compensation for the loss of life. The sad reality is that if anything remotely similar happened in the United States, Canada or most other NATO countries, the government would end up shelling out a considerable fortune in punitive damages while public inquiries would be demanded instantly. Our society, Western society, is committing war crimes in distant lands yet it seems little is actually being done to hold individuals – or institutions for that matter – to account.
Though civilian casualties are at times unavoidable in conflict and even more so in urban warfare, they have been far too high for the type of low-intensity, ‘win the hearts and minds’ counterinsurgency operations exercised in the Afghanistan campaign. For the average Afghan, hearing of civilian deaths almost weekly would surely cause a completely justifiable rage about the nature and intentions of foreign troops (as well as Taliban for that matter). Being unable to see any measure of justice would only magnify that.
So, when there is news of Afghan deaths and little or nothing is done two crucial things happen: the Taliban and friends grow stronger and their often harsh but expeditious form of justice is craved (as fate would have it this latest event happened in the Taliban's traditional region), and the people slowly creep towards a threshold in which they will reject any foreign help. Either outcome is unacceptable, but perhaps there is a third that might present itself in the future. Perhaps this event, as tragedies have so often done throughout history, will unite the people of Afghanistan to a common future. That it might be directed at ISAF and NATO forces for some time is understandable, but maybe that’s what it will take for their country to finally become whole. Afghanistan can emerge from this tragedy with a united national psyche that will have taken a step further towards internal reconciliation and will move from the shadows of clan and tribal loyalties that have for centuries shaped the geopolitcal landscape of the rugged nation. That’s my hope.
In the meantime, the US should not protect those who exist beyond the shores of humanity, yet the precedent of handing their troops over to foreign governments would have domestic repercussions of its own. Politics should not frame the debate over the implementation of justice, the moral right should.