In the debate over the future of US policy in Afghanistan, it is taken as a given by most proponents of prolonging the occupation that our presence is benefiting the Afghan people. According to this view, we are a bulwark against Taliban aggression – a prophylactic for a liberal-minded, yet vulnerable, contingent of Afghan civilians. In fact, through repetition and embellishment, the factions that we are supporting have become stand-ins for the entire Afghan population, at least in the abstract. To leave, it is argued, would be to abandon “Afghanistan” the nation, or the “Afghan people,” writ large.
This formulation ignores the obvious rejoinder that for US forces to stay and battle the “Taliban” (whatever that term is supposed to mean on any given day) means to target large swaths of that same Afghan population. Some of the anti-government groups are remnants of the Pashtun-dominated Mullah Omar-led Taliban that hosted al-Qaeda, some are entirely unrelated tribal entities, some are ordinary Afghans radicalized by the presence of a foreign occupying army, some are narco-warlords defending their turf and revenue stream, some smaller group are foreign fighters, etc.
Regardless of the exact identity and motivations, and aside from the small group of foreign fighters, the people that we are killing also count as the Afghan people. In actuality, we are protecting certain Afghan factions while doing our best to kill others. It is an unstated, reflexive act of dehumanization to associate our favored factions with the “Afghan people” while relegating those groups that oppose the Afghan government to some form of limbo status in terms of their humanity/national identity.
Not to mention the fact that in the crossfire, we are also unintentionally killing Afghans that we readily recognize as Afghans. Here are some stories from some of the people that we are protecting:
At first light last Friday, in the Chardarah district of Kunduz province in northern Afghanistan, the villagers gathered around the twisted wreckage of two fuel tankers that had been hit by a Nato airstrike. They picked their way through a heap of almost a hundred charred bodies and mangled limbs which were mixed with ash, mud and the melted plastic of jerry cans, looking for their brothers, sons and cousins. They called out their names but received no answers. By this time, everyone was dead.
What followed is one of the more macabre scenes of this or any war. The grief-stricken relatives began to argue and fight over the remains of the men and boys who a few hours earlier had greedily sought the tanker’s fuel. Poor people in one of the world’s poorest countries, they had been trying to hoard as much as they could for the coming winter.
“We didn’t recognise any of the dead when we arrived,” said Omar Khan, the turbaned village chief of Eissa Khail. “It was like a chemical bomb had gone off, everything was burned. The bodies were like this,” he brought his two hands together, his fingers curling like claws. “There were like burned tree logs, like charcoal.
“The villagers were fighting over the corpses. People were saying this is my brother, this is my cousin, and no one could identify anyone.”
So the elders stepped in. They collected all the bodies they could and asked the people to tell them how many relatives each family had lost.
A queue formed. One by one the bereaved gave the names of missing brothers, cousins, sons and nephews, and each in turn received their quota of corpses. It didn’t matter who was who, everyone was mangled beyond recognition anyway. All that mattered was that they had a body to bury and perform prayers upon.
“A man comes and says, ‘I lost my brother and cousin’, so we gave him two bodies,” said Omar Khan. “Another says I lost five relatives, so we gave him five bodies to take home and bury. When we had run out of bodies we started giving them limbs, legs, arms, torsos.” In the end only five families went away without anything. “Their sons are still missing.”
While on the homefront, many Americans are convinced that we are protecting the “Afghan people,” the view in Afghanistan can vary greatly with respect to the security benefits of our presence. Obviously, the Afghans in the above-cited piece might not take such a rosy view of our mission – nor would Afghans in the regions targeted by US military action. Further, as Joshua Foust recounts, some villagers in areas where we have taken up defensive positions have struck deals with US forces to stay outside of their population centers because the presence of US forces brings conflict to their doorstep.
In other words, in Nuristan we had begun enacting the McChrystal policy over a year before it got pushed out as an order. Only, as we know from Want, it ended very poorly (rumor has it the villagers near Want asked the U.S. to withdraw from the region because their presence made security nearby substantially worse off). [...]
Moreover, as this Washington Post piece makes clear, in places like Kamu and Kamdesh the U.S. almost never interacts with the local population anyway (a little birdie told me the community of Kamdesh struck an agreement with the military that no one from its Observation Post 300 meters away will ever step foot inside their village). Needless to say, there’s not much “reconstruction” going on there, either—the provincial capital is still a dreary, empty nothing. It’s not like the people will really notice our absence.
Undoubtedly, our presence breeds conflict at least as much – though likely more – than it breeds stability.
The narrative of US forces as peace-bringers, and defenders of the virtuous, is an archetypal story, a common form of wartime propaganda prevalent amongst warring populations intent on buttressing their efforts with some moral undergirding (also, often detached from reality – see, ie, US armed support for the “good guys” in Central and South America, Southeast Asia and elsewhere). It’s a good war, after all, and we are the good guys, defending the foreign born good guys, in pursuit of a common humanitarian good. While there are elements of truth to this characterization, the story begins to break down upon closer scrutiny – as touched on above. In truth, we fight wars to further our interests. Sometimes those align with local groups. If so, we champion their cause - often regardless of how “good” or “bad” that group is.
Not only is it the case that the continuation of our mission involves both intentionally and unintentionally killing thousands of actual Afghan people (that we are ostensibly there to protect), so too are the factions that we are championing far from the virtuous liberal-minded freedom fighters that the good guys vs. bad guys narrative demands. For example, Afghan women’s groups have complained that the warlords cobbled together to form Karzai’s government are every bit as brutal toward women as the Taliban.
The U.S. military may have removed the Taliban, but it installed warlords who are as anti-woman and as criminal as the Taliban. Misogynistic, patriarchal views are now embodied by the Afghan cabinet, they are expressed in the courts, and they are embodied by President Hamid Karzai.
Paper gains for women’s rights mean nothing when, according to the chief justice of the Afghan Supreme Court, the only two rights women are guaranteed by the constitution are the right to obey their husbands and the right to pray, but not in a mosque.
These are the convictions of the government the U.S. has helped to create. The American presence in Afghanistan will do nothing to diminish them.
The staggering level of criminality and corruption rife in the Afghan government, in addition to proving a stubborn impediment to winning the population’s support, serves as a reminder of the moral ambiguity in terms of our allies and adversaries. While it requires extra effort to keep track of these nuances from a distance, the Afghan people are confronted with these realities on a daily basis. The results from a poll of Afghans commissioned by Britain’s Department for International Development are telling of the divergent views of this war and its moral justifications depending on one’s proximity to the violence:
Respondents could not understand why the Coalition forces were in Afghanistan. They reasoned that their objectives were clearly not to bring security to local populations, as their mere presence exacerbated violence and increased the numbers of civilians killed in air strikes. They also rejected the idea that Coalition forces were serious either about democracy or, separately, development. Democracy could not be an aim as the Afghan population had never been consulted about the occupation in the first place. And although western publics had been consulted about the recent surge ordered by President Obama the Afghan parliament and people had not (‘So if this is western style democracy we don’t want it’). The development efforts of international agencies was seen as delivering only very small projects which didn’t have significant impact and employed few people (demand for projects that created local employment was huge). The lack of clarity on US and Coalition motivations led to speculations about ‘real’ motives.
10. All respondents had ideas about what should be done to bring security. The responses were remarkably consistent across all groups and can be summarised as follows:
• The government should formally bring the Taliban and Hizb-i Islami into the democratic process and allow the leaders to stand for election. The leaders must first come off the UN black list (on the basis that some very violent warlords and abusers of human rights were already in government yet some on the black list were not guilty of such crimes). As one respondent said: ‘Even though the Taliban have a restricted idea of Islam and women’s rights they didn’t commit crimes against humanity but the Northern Alliance did, and many who committed such crimes are now in government.’ And: ‘If there are trials then it should be for both parties’.
• The military objectives of foreign forces should be made publically known. Two quotes reflect the general sentiment: ‘They say there are here to root out Al Qa’eda and Osama but we all know that these people are not in Afghanistan’. ‘There should be a legal agreement between the Coalition forces and the government which specifies what they are here for and what they are allowed to do – currently they have no legality from the government or the people of Afghanistan. This ambiguity about their mission and objectives has created a lot of suspicion in the minds of the public – some say they are here for revenge, some say they are after historical relics, some say it is oil or uranium. If their mission is known and people can understand their mission then it would be a lot easier for them as well as the people of Afghanistan’…
Obviously unaddressed in this post are our strategic interests for prolonging our occupation of Afghanistan. Rather, this piece was intended to question some of the moral assumptions that are taken for granted when analyzing our mission in the region, and as a reminder that the situation on the ground looks vastly different to the Afghan people whose cause we are supposedly championing – at least those groups of Afghans that we are not actively trying to destroy (or end up killing mistakenly).
(See, also, conservative foreign policy wonk, Jim Henley)