Thursday, March 15, 2012

We Don't Know Even More

On Tuesday, I wrote a post regarding the murder of Afghan civilians by an Army Staff Sergeant. The conclusion to which I came was simple enough to understand, I think:
There are just too many questions with no answers here. There just doesn't seem to be enough information to make any judgments regarding the sergeant's mental and emotional state; all this discussion, while on one level refreshing for its candor, just doesn't feel right. Accountability for this crime may well rest not only with the person who committed it; it might just implicate policy makers, military health-care providers, and - dare I say it - we the people who have not worked hard enough to end this conflict, follow through on our commitment to care for our military personnel who have volunteered to sacrifice so much on our behalf. We need to be sure we don't end up covering our own asses even as we try to untangle the many knotted questions that surround this case.
Some of the things "we don't know" include the situation on the ground in Afghanistan as our troops experience it. With a report of an Afghan man on fire as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrived in Kabul raising the subject of so-called "green-on-blue" attacks - attacks on US and coalition forces by members of the Afghan Police or Security forces - I thought it important to make clear the even-deeper gulf of ignorance we at home need to cross before making hasty judgments regarding what, precisely, was the seed-bed of the murder rampage.

On March 9, NPR ran a story profiling Army Capt. Joe Fritze, whose job it is to train Afghan police and security forces. In the midst of situation already volatile for any number of reasons, Capt. Fritze's job is made all the more difficult by the mutual lack of trust between American and coalition forces on the one hand and the Afghans on the other. With the recent revelations that American forces burned copies of the Holy Q'uran (I picture a high ranking officer hanging up the phone when he received the news, putting his face in his hands, and wondering if it isn't too late to try his hand at being a golf pro somewhere soon), the ensuing violence (it was called "rioting" in the press; it was far more like a series of coordinated attacks on US and other military installations that left many on both sides dead and wounded; the battle over the burned Q'uran, as it were), and now these murders, questions need to be asked about the conditions under which our military personnel serve in Afghanistan, the nature of the mission in which many are involved, and the nearly insurmountable obstacles in the way of securing their objectives.

Which is not to mitigate the gravity of the crime itself. It is rather, to wonder about the wisdom of a policy - the pacification and modernization of Afghan law enforcement under the tutelage of American and coalition forces - and ask whether or not it might not be far better for all involved if getting the hell out of there weren't the better option for everyone. In one of the LA Times articles linked above, Defense Secretary Panetta and the Chair of the Joint Chiefs, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, insist that everything is going along just as it should:
"[They] believe we have achieved significant progress in reversing the Taliban's momentum and in developing the Afghan security forces, and they believe that the fundamentals of our strategy remain sound," said Pentagon spokesman George Little.
What else are they going to say? That our strategy is ridiculous, the goals unachievable, and the situation on the ground in Afghanistan is deteriorating rapidly?

Whether or not the Taliban is or is not a viable political force within Afghanistan is, it seems to me, not a matter for US military personnel to handle. Whether or not the Afghan government is capable of sustaining its policing infrastructure is not something with which the US should concern itself. Preventing Afghanistan from becoming "a safe haven for terrorists" is an impossible task for any individual or group.

None of this is to slight the Afghan people, their traditions and history, or their current feelings regarding US and coalition forces. They are who they are, and the US for far too long has sought to impose upon Afghan society a foreign model of self-governance that disregards their own traditions and histories. This isn't the fault of the US military; it is, rather, the fault of US policy-makers who entered Afghanistan without any serious study or consideration of the realities a foreign occupier would face. Our troops have been given a nearly impossible task, and with each passing day, week, month, and year, achieving results recede ever further. Future American-Afghan relations are already questionable; we have outstayed our welcome, and the mutual animosities that threaten both Afghans and American troops will only get worse.

All this, not discussed or even considered relevant in the case of the Army sergeant and his murderous shooting spree, adds necessary depth, light on the darkest corners of the current difficulties our soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen face. While it is important, even necessary, for us to talk seriously about the event in question, it is always important to understand how little we know or understand about the conditions our troops face. While it may well be the case the individual in question was not in full mental health, it seems irresponsible to the point of negligent not to consider the fullness of a context in which our troops do not - and probably cannot if they are to stay alive - trust those with whom they work. The entire situation is a recipe for many disasters. Many have already happened, and the body count on both sides rises.

If we surrendered our illusions regarding nation-building in Afghanistan and brought our troops home, we might yet do right by those who serve us under conditions none of us who haven't served can imagine.

Virtual Tin Cup

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