After the killing of 16 Afghan civilians by a US soldier in Kandahar province, Western military and political officials have – duly – apologised again but also called the incident ‘rogue’, a ‘first time’ or a ‘completely out-of-the-ordinary’ event. Thomas Ruttig, a Senior Analyst at AAN, wonders whether this is the case or whether it might be the freak, but somehow unavoidable outcome in a context of escalated violence, thinking in ‘friend-or-foe’ categories, traumatisation – and a result of a misguided policy.
An experienced soldier – 38 years old, married with two children and three tours in Iraq in his career (according to one report that has not been officially confirmed yet), but probably also with previous mental problems, as some sources say* – leaves his post and shoots sleeping, defenceless civilians, mainly children and women. He murdered 16 Afghans in two villages, Najiban and Alekozai, just outside his base** in the Zangabad area of Panjwai district, apparently an installation jointly used by NATO/ISAF and Afghan forces, where he had been deployed ‘to ensure the safety of the Afghan population’ as ISAF commander General John Allen explained after the incident.
Almost immediately the cycle of protest and fear, of accusations and apologies, revenge and politicking set off. People in Panjwai protested yesterday. Today protests in Nangrahar followed and more may be to come. The White House, in its first statement, of which only one sentence was reported yesterday, spoke of ‘concern’ – but about what or whom – not of sympathy for the victims’ families (this was done by ISAF in Kabul today, and a more sympathetic Obama statement followed). The British ambassador to Kabul stated that this shooting spree had nothing to do with any NATO operation. Media talked about a ‘rogue US attack’. The Taleban vowed revenge, and the Afghan parliament cancelled its session in protest today, with some MPs demanding that the killer be brought before an Afghan court and others demanding that the president and vice-presidents step down because they had ‘failed to maintain proper security for their countrymen’. The US forces are warned against possible reprisal attacks and many foreigners working in Afghanistan were in lockdown or keeping a low profile.
Yes, for sure, the soldier did not act on the order of his superiors. It is not NATO strategy to kill civilians. But is this a ‘completely out-of-the-ordinary event’, as the British ambassador put it, or ‘the first time Afghan civilians have been targeted by foreign soldiers in this way’, as the BBC’s Quentin Sommerville commented from Kabul?
I, at least can’t see any big difference between this incident and the operations of the ‘kill team’ which also deliberately shot civilians, at random, in Kandahar province, in 2010, manipulated their bodies so that they looked like ‘legitimate targets’ and even took body parts as war trophies. Those US soldiers were convicted of murder.
There was also the incident in an outskirt of Gardez (Paktia) in which US forces conducted a night raid in February 2010 and claimed that, that, after ‘intelligence confirmed militant activity’ they entered a compound, engaged in a fire-fight and then found ‘the bound and gagged bodies of three women’. After investigations, a British journalist revealed that all victims were civilians and the two pregnant women and teenage girl’s bodies had been manipulated after their deaths in an attempted cover up (Jerome Starkey, ‘Nato ‘Covered Up’ Botched Night Raid in Afghanistan that Killed Five’, The Times of London, 13 March 2010; the ISAF press release, ‘News: Joint force operating in Gardez makes gruesome discovery’ Dvids, 12 February 2010, see here).
We do not know how many other incidents of civilian casualties caused by Western military forces in Afghanistan resembled these cases and may have been successfully covered up. (There are reports now that in the current case the soldier tried to burn the dead bodies which can be read as an attempt to conceal his crime.) In the Afghan boondocks, there may be plenty of opportunity to cover up, with no independent observers, and few journalists or Afghan human rights activists around.
The 16 killings in Kandahar might be an ‘isolated’ case but neither a first nor a singular one. And it is only a philosophical problem at what point exactly a number of isolated cases turn into a series or a trend. It also will not win any Afghan hearts and minds anymore to point out that the Western and ANSF quota in killing civilians has decreased ‘by nearly 17%’ over the past years, as a result of changed operational procedures. (In all modesty, some AAN reporting like here and here might even have contributed to this.) In this context, however, philosophy or statistics do not really matter.
More importantly, does the fact that the soldier acted alone mean this is not partly NATO or ISAF or the US government’s responsibility? Absolutely not. First, he was deployed to Kandahar as part of a ISAF/NATO or related operation. Secondly, there are people who allowed him to leave his base on his own with a gun, in the middle of the night and alone – or at the very least did not prevent him from doing so. This would be even more significant if the reports about prior mental health problems turn out to be true.
Incidentally, there was a report about the problem of soldiers with the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder by Bloomberg on Saturday. It said that:
About 20 percent of the 2.4 million U.S. troops who served in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001 may meet criteria for PTSD from the chaos of wars marked by intense combat with no clear enemy lines, according to congressional researchers and the Rand Corp.
It also said, quoting Senator Patty Murray, chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, that ‘the Pentagon still has “no consistent diagnosis, no consistent tools and different levels of professionals” working on solutions [for PTSD]’. I am sure there are specialists out there who would be able to tell us how great the likelihood is of PTSD, and of ‘freaking out, after three tours in Iraq.
On the face of it, calling the Panjwai killings a ‘rogue’ incident sounds like a way to wash someone’s hands of responsibility. This incident should simply not have happened at all.
This killing spree is also a symptom of a failed policy. The soldier’s superiors in the political sphere have sent soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan on impossible missions. Armies simply are not the right instruments for fulfilling tasks they have been called on to do in situations like in Afghanistan, with its mix of conflict and post-conflict elements: from killing the enemy to physical reconstruction (what Germans call the ‘aid workers in uniform’ approach), from protecting infrastructure to institution-building. Afghanistan is in such a parlous situation, partly because of unrealistic and even arrogant political decision-making in Western capitals in the immediate post-2001 years. As Ambassador Patey (already quoted above) put it: both the White House and Downing Street wrongly assumed that the war was “won and the Taliban had run away”, in 2001 and that lead to ‘years of missed opportunity’, only exacerbated by the re-focusing of the international powers on Iraq immediately after Kabul fell in 2001.
Will the Panjwai killings make negotiations about the US-Afghan strategic agreement more complicated? Certainly. But again that’s not the main point – because both sides want it, Karzai because he knows that he will have difficulties in surviving on his own, the US to keep an eye on Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan from close by.
The killings make life for ordinary Afghans even more unbearable. After all, in 2001, they set their hopes on the international intervention changing their lives for the better – an end to the war (not an escalation) and the building up of their country. Now they see the narcotecture palaces of the warlords and the hummers of the warlords’ sons on one side, and rising prices and no political alternative to the Taleban and the Karzai/warlords alliance on the other one. Whether the Western forces are friend or foe in this power-game, is getting increasingly unclear for them.
And, if I may add this on behalf of our own organisation, the killings in Panjwai also make life more difficult for all of us expats working in Afghanistan. Foreign civilians become much more vulnerable in an atmosphere where many Afghans no longer have the patience to differentiate between the foreigners. If General Allen wants to show that he understands all facets of the problem his soldier in (amended: Panjwai) has highlighted, he should, after his due apologies and assurances to Afghans, also find a word of apology for the foreign civilians working here.
This will not change much, too: Those of us who have been working in Afghanistan for a while and talked to western soldiers in Afghanistan know (as their superiors will) that many of them say very openly that they simply want to ‘kick ass’ here because they are ‘trained to kill people’. In the stress of an environment of escalated violence – by both sides, but particularly after Obama’s troop surge in early 2009 – it looks as if most soldiers simply see Afghanistan as a whole as ‘enemy territory’ and every Afghan as a potential terrorist. Such an atmosphere generates the context in which incidents like the one in Kandahar become possible. This can no longer be called ‘rogue’.
Also read The Independent‘s Robert Fisk on this issue: ‘Madness is not the reason for this massacre’.
* CNN reports that ‘[t]he attacker’s mental stability and medical history are among “the things the investigators are looking at,” said Capt. John Kirby, a spokesman for the NATO-led force.’
** (amended): I deleted the name Joint Base Lewis-McChord which – I just have been told – is in the US. The base in Panjwai apparently was a small Special Forces post.
This is what the Wall Street Journal reports
about the location: ‘The detained suspect belongs to a conventional military unit, the 3rd Stryker Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division, out of Fort Lewis, Wash., which had deployed to Afghanistan in December, a military official said. In Panjway, he was assigned to help augment security at a small Special Forces outpost that focuses on building up village self-defense forces against the Taliban, according to officials. It isn’t clear whether he was under the operational command of the Special Forces detachment commander there. The suspecet shooter didn’t receive any Special Operations training, military officials said.’
This article was last updated on 31 Mar 2020