Early Sunday, US forces opened fire on Afghan civilians inside their homes in the district of Panjwaii in the southern province of Kandahar, killing at least 17 civilians and injuring several others. The Taliban militants said at least 50 people were killed in the massacre. Villagers said the US forces later collected 11 of the bodies, including those of four girls under the age of six, and set them on fire.
Civilian casualties in Afghanistan have been a major source of tension between Kabul and Washington.
By M.A Niaz :
Pakistanis were not very surprised when an American soldier ran amuck in Kandahar and shot up 16 Afghan civilians, which came hot on the heels of another incident of American callousness in Afghanistan, i.e. the burning of copies of Holy Quran at the Bagram Airbase. Just as Pakistan had experienced the Raymond Davis affair, in which a CIA contractor had shot two Pakistanis, with his rescue vehicle running down a third, and had thus learned the hard way that CIA contractors were not benign presences who could be given the free run of the country, so have the Afghans learnt at the cost of massacre in Kandahar and the cost of being occupied by the USA. The common aspect of both incidents is that Washington’s dirty little secret is out!
If Europe sent its ‘remittance men’ out to the colonies, the USA is sending out those murderous offenders who, if kept in the country, would soon spray either the children at a school, or colleagues at a workplace, with bullets. It is an unfortunate truth that in a culture that glorifies violence, the armed forces attract the very kind of persons prone to such sudden outbursts. They are not many, and military discipline normally controls them, but under the sort of pressure that Afghanistan is providing for the US army or Pakistan for CIA contractors, such incidents are bound to happen.
One major source of pressure is that the USA is facing is that of defeat. Obviously, the agencies present in the theatre will have personnel, whose careers will thus be negatively impacted. Now CIA contractors and enlisted army personnel would seem to be out of this pressure, but they would be under the supervision of career-track officers who would exert their own kind of pressures, themselves feeling the pressure that is generated by impending defeat.
The Nato forces would contain similar misfits, liable to go off the rails, as has been shown by the desecration of opponents’ bodies and the subsequent photographing. As the Americans have been successful, and as they share a common origin with the USA, European armies, too, have accepted in their ranks those who are not very stable.
Another factor is that the military is not like civilian life, where murderous tendencies are severely suppressed, even on the penalty of loss of life. The military trains people to kill, and going into combat means killing others. For Muslims, this constitutes a religious duty, but for Europeans, either there must be continuous reinforcement of the lesson (that killing is ‘OK’), or the barriers must already be weak. There is none of the holy war feeling in European armies, which must rely instead on professionalism, and group feeling, to make people kill others. Of course, something may go wrong, and some soldiers, or one or the other, may lose the inhibitions too much, enough to run amuck.
There is an inherent problem with American culture that is avowedly civilian, and that also glorifies the gun culture, which is guaranteed by the constitutionally guaranteed right to bear arms. A recurring American theme is that of the heavily-armed vigilante, who shoots up the ‘bad guys’, suitably dehumanised by being given comic-book names, from the ‘injun’, the native American, brutally massacred during the Indian wars of the 19th century, to the ‘jerry’, ‘jap’, ‘chink’ and ‘gook’ (Germans, Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese, the latter two from the Korean and Vietnam wars) of the 20th century.
This makes sense not just of the My Lai massacres, in which American troops slaughtered Vietnamese villagers, but of the massacres in Iraq that also learnt the cost of being occupied by the USA, as well as of the non-US, Nato massacres in Afghanistan, carried out by forces under American influence, even before the close contact produced by joint operations together. There were two massacres by US forces in Haditha during the occupation. The first was in 2005, in which US marines killed 24 and then Blackwater military contractors killed 17 people in 2007. Almost as if in a rehearsal for Salalah, an Apache helicopter crew killed 12 in Baghdad in the same year. These killings, My Lai, Haditha, Kandahar, all took place under occupation, and indicate the nature of American occupation: It is not just neo-colonial, but it is staffed by violent people.
The first sergeant, who committed the Kandahar massacre, has been identified as providing support for a Green Beret or SEAL unit of the Special Operations Command. Special operations have a tendency to be more attractive for the more physical of those with disturbances, as such units are not only more challenging, but they also provide the best opportunities of violence. The USA, which has the best documented evidence of problems with its elite forces, plans to enhance their role. Thus, Pakistan has a virtual guarantee of further trouble if it continues its alliance. Though not under physical occupation, its closeness to the main theatre of operations, combined with its close alliance with the USA, has meant frequent comparisons have been drawn with Cambodia, but one effect that Pakistan has experienced has been that of undergoing periodic massacres. Because this does not affect the ruling class, there is a desire to cosy up to the USA nonetheless. However, there will be more such massacres, because the American personnel coming here are products of their culture.
There have been protests in Afghanistan against both the Quran burnings and the Kandahar killings, and the killings are just more proof that the American occupation is a burden. There have been three consequences:
First, these incidents are making it more difficult for the USA to get the kind of Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) from Afghanistan that they want. The SOFA is going to govern the role of US forces in Afghanistan beyond 2014, when it is scheduled to leave. Interestingly, the USA would like to use more of the Special Forces that the murderous soldier belongs to, in that SOFA.
Second, the incident has caused voices to be raised in the USA for an earlier withdrawal of troops. Thus, indicating that anti-war sentiment is so high that any bad news, even if it is, as in this case, not a military reverse, will serve as an excuse to pack up and get out.
Third, it is an election year, and such incidents are not going to increase the re-election chances of President Barack Obama.
The main thing for Pakistan is to notice that such incidents have parallels to what the USA has done in the country. While Islamabad is heading to a reset of relations with Washington, which implies that the Nato land route for supplies through Pakistan is to be restored, there is nothing to stop the USA from being its usual, gung-ho, cowboyish self, and incidentally killing Pakistanis. There should be no dealing with the USA. That has cost both Afghanistan and Pakistan dearly.
The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as Executive Editor of TheNation.