The mission is the atrocity
Iraq war veteranquestions the U.S. military's line that Sgt. Robert Bales' killing spree in Afghanistan can be reduced to a soldier who "snapped."
THE LAST few weeks have been catastrophic for the U.S./NATO occupation of Afghanistan.
Days of violent protests against the U.S. military followed the burning of Korans at a military base in late February, leaving scores dead and injured. Then, 38-year-old Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales left his outpost before dawn on March 11 and murdered 17 Afghan civilians.
The news of this tragedy evoked memories of incidents such as the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and raised new questions for Americans about whether the war in Afghanistan can really still be called "the good war."
The atrocities committed by Bales in Kandahar province, the historic home of the Afghan Taliban, cost the lives of four men, four women, two boys and seven girls in two villages.
Since the massacre, the U.S. military has struggled to contain what it considers a "public relations" nightmare by focusing the blame on this individual soldier who suddenly "snapped"--as if the problem of overstressed soldiers is limited to a "few bad apples." This is the military's common refrain in previous instances in which soldiers have committed atrocities as part of the "war on terror."
But this is merely a smokescreen used to avoid addressing the fundamental questions that such atrocities raise about the role of the U.S. around the world, as well as the pattern of utter disregard for people touched by these conflicts--whether Afghan or American--that U.S. officials have repeatedly demonstrated.
In order for the occupation to be carried out, dehumanizing Afghans is a necessity of U.S. military strategy. Islamophobia and disregard for the Koran are mainstays of military life. This is exacerbated by the fact that occupation inevitably breeds resistance, which explains why the U.S. easily toppled the Afghanistan's Taliban government more than 10 years ago, but now faces the prospect of humiliation in the longest war in U.S. history.
IN THE first chapter of The Forging of the American Empire, author Sidney Lens explains that the idea that the U.S. is a benevolent superpower is based on the "myth of morality":
America the benevolent, however, does not exist and never has existed. The United States has pilfered large territories from helpless or near-helpless peoples; it has forced its will on scores of nations, against their wishes and against their interests; it has violated hundreds of treaties and understandings; it has committed war crimes as shocking as most; it has wielded a military stick and a dollar carrot to forge an imperialist empire such as man has never known before.
This has never been clearer than now. The war in Afghanistan has cost thousands of lives and destabilized Central Asia. Yet U.S. officials trumpet the military occupation of a country half a world away as a mission in the service of human rights, democracy, the liberation of Afghan women and the protection of Americans from terrorism--all while creating conditions that lead to tragedies like the recent massacre.
U.S. officials celebrate their "close collaboration" with "our allies in Afghanistan"--while subjecting Afghans to drone attacks, violent night raids, increased poverty and dehumanizing interactions with NATO occupation forces. It's the white man's burden all over again--bringing civilization through barbarism, destroying the village in order to save it.
This is bound to generate a growing fury, and yet the U.S. military can't seem to understand why Afghan soldiers and police might vent their resentments on their "benevolent masters."
It is this clash--between the official rhetoric about Afghan allies on the one hand and the reality of despair and anger among actual Afghans on the other--that creates the strain on U.S. soldiers, a constant anxiety that any Afghan man, woman or child might be the enemy. And if anyone and everyone is a potential enemy, then anyone and everyone is also a potential target.
As the call for war intensified in the days after September 11, the U.S. looked to Afghanistan as the first step in a grand military campaign to reshape the Middle East and Central Asia.
The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was motivated by far more than just revenge. It was meant to secure one of the world's key oil pipeline corridors and demonstrate U.S. power in a region close to China and Russia, the two most powerful competitors to U.S. imperialism.
In order to maintain the occupation, the U.S. has relied on President Hamid Karzai, who is now known as the "Mayor of Kabul" because of the inability of the central government to exercise any significant control over Afghan territory beyond the nation's capital.
Karzai, who was one of the mujahedeen's chief fundraisers during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and a CIA contact, has done nothing to increase social and economic mobility for Afghans. Instead, he has absorbed warlords with a long list of human rights abuses into his government and overseen one of the most corrupt countries in the world--all with U.S. backing.
THE SITUATION is bleak for most Afghans--particularly women--caught in the vise of a decade-long war with no clear end in sight. According to a 2010 UN study on poverty in Afghanistan, 36 percent of the population lives in absolute poverty, while another 37 percent lives just above the poverty line. This is despite an estimated $35 billion in aid that flooded the country between 2002 and 2009.
According to a Thomson Reuters poll in 2010, Afghanistan is ranked as the most dangerous country in the world for women. This is despite the justification that the U.S. is occupying Afghanistan in order to liberate women. According to an Afghan government report, 2,300 women attempt to kill themselves each year, mainly due to factors such as poverty and domestic violence.
Indiscriminate air strikes are another characteristic of the increasingly dangerous situation in Afghanistan. The use of drone aircraft and airstrikes has increased dramatically under the Obama administration and routinely affects women and children, such as the bombing of civilians in May 2009, which killed up to 120 people in the province of Farah.
The last decade of warfare has not only produced a horrific situation for the people of Afghanistan, but also for U.S. service members who are facing a mental health epidemic.
According to a Pentagon study, the number of service members hospitalized for suicidal thoughts increased by 7,000 percent between 2006 and 2011. The number of soldiers diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) rose six-fold between 2003 and 2008.
Despite the statistics, many soldiers are repeatedly deployed with mental health issues, increasing the likelihood of tragedies such as the massacre in Kandahar province. The blame for the mental health epidemic in the military also cannot be attributed to a "few bad apples"--unless, of course, those bad apples are sitting in the Pentagon.
The Army systematically ignored the health of Sgt. Bales, who was on his fourth deployment. Bales clearly needed care for PTSD as well as a traumatic brain injury reportedly suffered during an earlier deployment.
The idea that this is an isolated incident only deflects blame from the military leaders and the Obama administration, who have ignored this epidemic for years.
The Koran burning, pictures of Marines urinating on Taliban corpses, the bombing of wedding parties and the massacre carried out by Bales are related. The dehumanization of Afghans, along with the mental health epidemic in the U.S. military, has created the conditions for these atrocities to occur.
The only way to end the ongoing commission of atrocities in Afghanistan is a complete withdrawal of all NATO forces from the region. The decade-long war has been a nightmare for Afghans and U.S. soldiers alike, costing thousands of lives and creating fundamental instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Every day the U.S. remains only exacerbates this already bad situation.