A tragedy in Afghanistan

Rare abuses un­der­mine a decade of progress on the ground

The Washington Times Daily - - Opinion -

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.

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