Till It’s Over Over There

U.S. Sergeant Is Said to Kill 16 Civilians in Afghanistan

PANJWAI, Afghanistan — Stalking from home to home, a United States Army sergeant methodically killed at least 16 civilians, 9 of them children, in a rural stretch of southern Afghanistan early on Sunday. …

You can be angry about this, or heartsick, or both. Most of us—and I emphatically include myself in that “us”—don’t give a thought to what’s happening over in Afghanistan, either to the Afghans or to the people we’ve sent to carry out a mission we no longer understand (and without understanding, it’s beyond me how there can be any real support). It’s true that a report of violence will interrupt the general silence over this war and momentarily attract some attention (“Burn any Korans lately? And how did that go for you?”).

We’ve had a copy of a literary magazine–The Sun– sitting amid the pile of papers on our dining room table the last couple of weeks. A friend gave it to us because she has a poem in the issue. By coincidence, I picked up The Sun after reading the story above. Leafing through it from back to front, I came across a page that featured portraits of two Marines in Afghanistan. There were two pictures of each Marine: on the left, a frame showing them in full combat gear; on the right, a frame of them with no gear.

There were six pages of portraits, twelve Marines, members of a platoon in the middle of a seven-month tour of duty in Helmand Province last year. A short essay by the journalist who took the pictures, Elliott D. Woods, summarized what had happened to the platoon during its first few months in the country:

“Four months into their seven-month tour, the mostly nineteen- and twenty-year-old marines at Patrol Base Fires in Sangin, Afghanistan, had seen enough violence to permanently line their boyish faces. Two of their platoon’s men had been killed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), one of them blown literally in two. A half dozen had gone home without their legs, and others had suffered severe concussions or taken fragments of flying metal on their exposed faces and through the gaps n their Kevlar armor. By the time I arrived to photograph them in July 2011, First Platoon’s casualty rate was more than 50 percent.”

(You can find the photo essay, in three parts, on Woods’s site, Assignment Afghanistan, or at the Virginia Quarterly Review.)

Woods also has this to say about the setting of the Marines’ mission: “The district is so remote, so cut off from the Afghan government, that none of the farmers with whom I spoke knew the name of their country’s president. They could not name Helmand’s provincial governor either, or even their district council leader. They did not know what country the marines in their fields had come from, let alone why they were there. They did know that they were tired of living in a war zone. They were afraid of everyone, and that fear had driven hundreds of Sangin families to Kabul, where they were waiting out the war in filthy encampments on the city’s western outskirts.”

One other thing about Sangin: This is one of the places the British fought during their part of the Post-9/11 War. See the video below.

Afghanistan Reader: Lamentably Deficient, But Splendid Shots

The following comes from a 1905 essay by Colonel Sir Thomas Holdridge, a British soldier and geographer, in a book titled, “The Empire and the Century: A series of essays on imperial problems and possibilities by various writers. With an introducton by Charles Sydney Goldman, author of ‘With General French and the Cavalry in South African,’ and a poem by Rudyard Kipling, entitled ‘The Heritage.’ With seven maps.”

Holdrich’s subject: What would happen if the Russians threatened the northwestern frontier of British India (in modern terms, the northwestern border of Pakistan) by way of an attack through Afghanistan. I haven’t found details of his earlier career, but he writes as if he’d served in Afghanistan during earlier British adventures. Here’s a little of what he has to say about the Afghans of his age:

“… It is a matter of history that patriotism, unity of sentiment, and devotion to duty, have hitherto been lamentably deficient in Afghan armies; but if the morale is bad, the material is excellent; and nothing but the utter ineptitude of Afghan leaders prevents the Amir from possessing as efficient a fighting force as any in the East. We do not know, indeed, at the present time what the result of twenty-five years of careful nursing may be. The impulse of religious belief and inborn love of independence may have easily developed something akin to real patriotism. I worked with Afghan troops on the borders of Kafristan in 1895, and I could mark a distinct change, both in sentiment and discipline, which had been effected by fifteen years of peace amongst men of the same clan as those who had formed my escort in Herat in 1856, or who had acted as friendly guides in 1879. The metier of the Afghan is that of the irregular marksman. He is often a splendid shot, and no European troops could ever hope to compete with Ghilzai or Hazara mountaineers amongst their own hills in a defensive campaign. Ten thousand Afridis [Pashtuns], it may be remembered (I had special opportunities for estimating their numbers), kept 40,000 British and Indian troops well employed in Tirah, and there is little to choose between the Afridi and his Afghan neighbour. The Amir of Afghanistan could certainly put 200,000 irregular riflemen (armed with modern weapons) into the field if he chose to do so, and he has at his command a very efficient force of mounted artillery to support them. In short, it would be a serious mistake for us to imagine that we could make our way to Kabul now with the same comparative ease that we did in 1878. …”

“… At present Afghan troops, however excellent the raw material may be, want discipline, drill, and leading; and that they can only obtain by the importation of instructors from outside Afghanistan. These they will probably get, either in the form of British or Japanese officers, but time will be required for such outsiders to get on good terms with their men, and for the men to understand their instructors. The young British officer is unmatched in the world for his capacity to turn raw material into good fighting stuff; and here probably is foreshadowed the chief difficulty in the solution of the frontier problem. Where are officers to come from ? The supply which a few years ago seemed to be inexhaustible already shows signs of failing. The spirit of unrest and discontent which now pervades the service in India is such as has never before been known, and it is ominous of future difficulty in filling up vacancies which will rapidly occur. Indeed, there are notwanting symptoms on all sides that it is the ranks of the officers, rather than those of the men, that are likely to fail in numbers.”

My Afghanistan Reader: ‘Taliban in Total Rout’

President G.W. Bush in Aurora, Missouri, January 14, 2002:

“…I’m proud of the efforts of many all around our country who are working endless hours to make America safe. But the best way to make America safe is to hunt the enemy down where he tries to hide and bring them to justice, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.

“I gave our military a mighty task, and they have responded. I want to thank those of you who have got relatives in the military, a brother or a sister, or a son or a daughter, or a mom or a dad. They have made me proud, and I hope they made you proud, as well.

“We sent the military on a clear mission, and that is to bring the evil ones to justice. It’s a mission, however, that I expanded to include this: that if you hide a terrorist, if you feed a terrorist, if you provide aid and comfort for a terrorist, you’re just as guilty as the terrorist. That’s why the Taliban is no longer ruling Afghanistan.

“I think that one of the most joyous things for me is to see the faces of the Afghan women as they have been liberated from the oppression of the Taliban rule. Not only is our military destroying those who would harbor evil, destroying whatever military they had, destroying their defenses, but we’re liberators. We’re freeing women and children from incredible oppression.

“… The Taliban is in total rout. But we haven’t completed our mission yet. And we’re now at a very dangerous phase of the war in the first theater, and that is sending our boys and troops into the caves. You see, we’re fighting an enemy that’s willing to send others to death, suicide missions in the name of religion, and they, themselves, want to hide in caves.

“But you know something? We’re not going to tire. We’re not going to be impatient. We’re going to do whatever it takes to find them and bring them to justice. They think they can hide, but they’re not going to hide from the mighty reach of the United States and the coalition we have put together. …”

Speech delivered in the warehouse of the MFA Food Mill. Full text here.


Somewhere over there, beyond the horizon, beyond the four-buck-a-gallon gasoline and the foreclosure crisis and the campaign sniping over what it means to be rich and who owns how many houses, there’s a war on. To date this month:

18 U.S. troops killed in Iraq. Ten of those deaths are listed as “non-hostile.”

191 Iraqis killed, including 158 civilians.

18 U.S. and 24 other coalition troops killed in Afghanistan. Scores of civilians, too, judging from the latest reports.

Down the Path to Democracy

By way of Volokh and the Chicago Tribune:

KABUL, Afghanistan — Abdul Rahman told his family he was a Christian. He told the neighbors, bringing shame upon his home. But then he told the police, and he could no longer be ignored.

Now, in a major test of Afghanistan’s fledgling court system, Rahman, 42, faces the death penalty for abandoning Islam for Christianity. Prosecutors say he should die. So do his family, his jailers, even the judge. Rahman has no lawyer. Jail officials refused to let anyone see Rahman on Monday, despite permission granted by the country’s justice minister.

The issue came up in the State Department’s daily briefing yesterday — a great opportunity for the administration that has decided to make its mark by spreading the light of freedom around the world to make a statement on the extreme intolerance and anti-democratic nature of our Afghan allies’ behavior. Here’s what spokesperson Sean McCormack had to say, in part:

“… We are watching this case closely and we urge the Afghani Government to conduct any legal proceedings in a transparent and a fair manner. Certainly we underscored — we have underscored many times and we underscored also to Foreign Minister Abdullah that we believe that tolerance and freedom of worship are important elements of any democracy. And certainly as Afghanistan continues down the pathway to democracy these are issues that they are going to have to deal with. These are not things that they have had to deal with in the past. Previously under the Taliban, anybody considered an apostate was subject to torture and death. Right now you have a legal proceeding that’s underway in Afghanistan and we urge that that legal proceeding take place in a transparent matter and we’re going to watch the case closely. ”

Down the path to democracy? At least he has the direction right. That summary reminds me of the old National Lampoon take on a high school U.S. history book (“The American Spectacle: 1492 to the Present”), with chapters titled (something like), “World War I: Pothole in the Road to World Peace.”

Reporters pressed McCormack to say why the administration isn’t simply calling for an end to the trial instead of merely insisting on judicial transparency; they even asked asked whether he would term the trial troubling. McCormack parried all questions with the response that this is a matter for the Afghans to work out under their constitution and that the administration has made its feelings known — in private — to the government. It’s just not the kind of restraint we’ve come to expect from a group that has dedicated itself to putting all the world’s ne’er-do-wells on notice.

[The update: Bush today says he is “deeply troubled” by the trial. And the Afghan government is having second thoughts about prosecuting Rahman. Not because its law is an expression of religious extremism, but because Rahman may be crazy. From the AP: “… Prosecutor Sarinwal Zamari said questions have been raised about [Rahman’s] mental fitness. ‘We think he could be mad. He is not a normal person. He doesn’t talk like a normal person.’ Moayuddin Baluch, a religious adviser to President Hamid Karzai, said Rahman would undergo a psychological examination. ‘Doctors must examine him,’ he said. ‘If he is mentally unfit, definitely Islam has no claim to punish him. He must be forgiven. The case must be dropped.’ “]

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