A tragedy in Afghanistan
Rare abuses undermine a decade of progress on the ground
Reports of a lone solider allegedly massacring 16 Afghan civilians was a body blow to the image of U.S. troops fighting the difficult, decade-long war there. Sunday’s deadly rampage southwest of Kandahar came shortly after days of rioting following revelations that NATO forces had improperly disposed of religious writings, including Korans. It’s been a difficult few weeks in the battle for Afghan hearts and minds.
Critics of the war have rushed to declare that this dreadful action by a lone, reportedly troubled soldier delegitimizes the entire effort. The troubling event, however, says more about the nature of war than the particulars of American policy or the need to meet our objectives in Afghanistan.
Thucydides wrote 2,400 years ago that in war, one sees both the best and the worst of humanity. That hasn’t changed. For every act of heroism or kindness, there is an example of barbarity and hatred. Good news never gets the most attention. Western troops making sure Afghan girls can walk to school every morning without having acid thrown in their faces don’t generate headlines. U.S. military medics giving emergency treatment to Afghan villagers, or dentists giving people the only dental care of their lives won’t capture the attention of editors and commentators. But these are typical examples of the day- to- day impact our troops have in Afghanistan.
Promoting the war has been a hard sell lately. An ABC News/washington Post poll conducted last week shows that by 2-1 Americans think the war in Afghanistan isn’t worth fighting, and 54 percent think America should withdraw its military forces even if the Afghan army isn’t adequately trained. The same poll showed the public evenly split on President Obama’s conduct of the war; the approval bump he received in May from the death of Osama bin Laden has vanished.
The current drama is an unfortunate propaganda victory for the Taliban. Insurgents denounced the “sick-minded American savages” and called for retribution. Of course, Taliban umbrage must be kept in context. Killing noncombatants is a matter of policy for them. When civilians die because of actions taken by NATO forces, it prompts sincere apologies, official investigations and possible disciplinary actions. In this case, what the United States undoubtedly will prosecute as a crime the Taliban under other circumstances would consider a good day at the office.
More will be revealed about the killings and why they took place, but the damage to trust and confidence has been done. Mr. Obama said this act “does not represent the exceptional character of our military and the respect that the United States has for the people of Afghanistan.” Instead, this senseless incident is a reminder of the terrible costs of even the most just war — to the innocent people who can be its victims, to the men sent to fight it, and to the people on the home front who seem only to hear about it when the news is too dreadful to bear.