An accepted part of the occupation

March 26, 2012

Helen Redmond looks at the backdrop to the latest massacre in Afghanistan.

THE SLAUGHTER of 17 Afghan civilians in Panjwai, a rural district near Kandahar, is the latest atrocity in a series of atrocities committed by U.S. forces.

The mainstream media and U.S. officials are "scrambling to understand" why a veteran Army sergeant methodically gunned down civilians in cold blood in the middle of the night earlier this month. I'm not. For years, the night raids conducted by the U.S. military have resulted in deaths and serious injury to Afghan men, women, and children. Like the predator drones that kill civilians, it's just another cost of the war on terror.

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales probably had many motives for the killings, but revenge was a main one. His murderous rampage was in retaliation for Americans killed in the mass demonstrations after the burnings of Korans on a U.S. military base in February--and for five U.S. soldiers killed recently in Panjwai, where he was deployed. No doubt, too, during his three deployments to Iraq, Bales had witnessed the murder of civilians and the deaths of fellow soldiers.

U.S. soldiers rush off a Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan
U.S. soldiers rush off a Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan (Spc. Marshall Emerson)

It's not openly discussed, but when soldiers see their comrades-in-arms killed, bodies blown to bits by roadside improvised explosive devices, they seek revenge. And sometimes they get it. In author Sebastian Junger's best-selling book War, the soldiers he was embedded with in Afghanistan explode with rage and talk openly about payback after suffering casualties. And if troops can't get revenge on the opposing army, civilians become easy targets.

After more than 10 years of war and occupation, the Afghan people have become dehumanized in the eyes of many U.S. soldiers. That is what war does to human beings, and that is what allows torture and massacres to happen with frightening frequency. Much of the violence against civilians will never even be reported.

Thus, what Bales did was no different from the killings carried out in 2010 by U.S. soldiers stationed in the Maywand province. At least three Afghans were killed in cold blood, and their corpses mutilated to provide "trophies" for the killers. Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, who was accused of being the "ringleader" in the atrocities, summed up the mentality of the "kill team" toward Afghans with these words: "These people are savages, look how they live."

IN FEBRUARY, the pent-up outrage of Afghans erupted after it was discovered that U.S. personnel at the Bagram Air Base north of Kabul threw two bags of Korans into a pit for burning trash. The outpouring of anger against the U.S. wasn't only about the desecration of a sacred text--it was against 10 brutal years of war and occupation, and the broken promises about rebuilding the economy.

Why were U.S. forces in possession of bags of Korans in the first place? The holy books had been confiscated from prisoners in the Parwan Detention Facility because they were allegedly being used to communicate and organize protests in prison.

Parwan is a $100 million, high-tech black hole that holds over 2,000 prisoners, according to estimates, many of them housed in small isolation cells. Afghan investigators have accused the U.S. Army of torturing detainees in Parwan. Gul Rahman Qazi, the head of a commission investigating abuse allegations, reported that prisoners had been beaten, subjected to humiliating body cavity searches and exposed to extreme cold.

Prisoners in Parwan are frequently labeled "Taliban facilitators," an ambiguous designation that ensures they have no meaningful rights to challenge their detention. Many Afghans spend years in prison and are never charged with a crime. The inhumane treatment and disappearance of thousands of Afghans into Bagram and Parwan is another source of the anti-American sentiment.

U.S. officials talk about establishing the "rule of law" in Afghanistan. But whose rule and what laws? The phrase "rule of law" speaks to the human need for security and justice, but in Afghanistan, it is an artful dodge, to justify keeping power concentrated in the hands of a small elite that supports the agenda of the U.S. government.

"Good governance" is another popular but meaningless catchphrase promoted by UState Department officials and think-tank authors at the Brookings Institution. The government of President Hamid Karzai, installed in power by the U.S., is fundamentally undemocratic and corrupt. Every election since the occupation began has been marred by fraud, ballot stuffing and vote buying--which starts at the presidential palace and works its way down to the provinces.

This massive corruption is accepted by the U.S. and the United Nations because they prefer undemocratic warlords to be in power over ordinary Afghans, the majority of whom want the U.S. military and NATO to get out.

FOR YEARS, the U.S. has been recruiting and training Afghans for a national police force and army. These indigenous security forces aren't being built up to guarantee the wellbeing of the Afghan people, but rather to partner with the U.S. military. While the U.S. is talking about revamping the occupation of Afghanistan, particularly in the wake of mass opposition from Afghans, it still wants to maintain a presence as part of its broader strategic goals for dominating Central Asia--and in particular, countering the growing regional influence of neighboring Iran.

The Obama administration is planning to draw down more ground troops, but this is likely to go along with increased number of advisers, covert special ops forces, and drug enforcement agents--unless the level of pressure in Afghanistan increases further.

A recent, non-classified report by Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis posted online by Rolling Stone delivered a devastating blow to the fiction that Afghan troops can take over security in the near future.

Davis talked to commanders and soldiers on the frontlines all across Afghanistan, and the overwhelming consensus was that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) were not only unprepared for a transition, but had made "mini-non-aggression deals with the Taliban." One soldier said of the Taliban, "No! We don't go after them. That would be dangerous!" Davis's extensive interviews with American troops also revealed widespread, undisguised contempt and mistrust of Afghan police and soldiers.

For now, the U.S. continues to spend its billions on war and occupation, and on the construction of new jails, prisons, police stations and military installations across Afghanistan. There is never a shortage of money or political will for the creation of institutions of violence and repression, for weapons or the salaries of soldiers and police--all of which contribute to more instability in Afghanistan, not less.

Significant parts of the Afghan economy now exist only to support the presence of international armed forces. So-called "security concerns" have always trumped the need to build an economy that meets the basic needs of the vast majority of Afghans. There is little to show for the $58 billion in international development aid that has flowed into Afghanistan for over 10 years.

Afghans in rural areas live on less than $2 dollars a day. Millions of Afghans are internally displaced because of the war and are struggling to survive in squalid refugee camps. They don't have nutritious food, clean drinking water, plumbing, electricity, health care, education or employment.

The United States has turned Afghanistan into a 21st century hell.

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