Afghanistan: When war turns pathological, get out

The US should withdraw from Afghanistan, for the sake of both the Afghan and the American people.

Afghan protests 2
'It is long past time for the United States' and NATO to withdraw from Afghanistan, writes Falk [Reuters]

Santa Barbara, CA – The latest occupation crime in Afghanistan was a shooting spree on March 11, reportedly committed by a lone American soldier in Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province.

Sixteen Afghan civilians, including women and children, were shot in the middle of the night without any pretence of combat activity in the area. Such an atrocity is one more expression of a pathological reaction, allegedly by one soldier, to an incomprehensible military reality – a reality that seems to be driving US military personnel on the ground crazy. The main criminal here is not the shooter, but the political leader who insists on continuing the mission in face of the evidence.

US soldiers urinating on dead Taliban fighters, the burning of Qurans, and troops convicted of killing Afghan civilians for sport or routinely invading the privacy of Afghan homes in the middle of the night: whatever the military commanders in Kabul might say in regret, and Washington might repeat by way of formal apology, has become essentially irrelevant.

 Fears of growing anger over attack on Afghan civilians

These so-called “incidents” or “aberrations” are nothing of the sort. These happenings are pathological reactions of men and women caught up in a death trap not of their making, an alien environment that collides lethally with their sense of normality and decency. Besides the desecration of foreign lands and their cultural identities, US political leaders have, for more than a decade, unforgivably placed young Americans in intolerable situations of risk and enmity. Equally revealing are recent studies documenting historically high suicide rates in the lower ranks of the US military.

Senseless and morbid wars produce senseless and morbid behaviour. Afghanistan, like Vietnam 40 years earlier, has become an atrocity-generating killing field. In Vietnam, the White House finally accelerated the US exit when it became evident that soldiers were murdering their own officers, a pattern that became so widespread that it gave birth to the word “fragging”.

Whatever the pretext after the 9/11 attacks, the Afghanistan War was misconceived from its inception. Air warfare was relied upon to decimate the leadership ranks of al-Qaeda, but instead its top political and military commanders slipped across the border. Regime change in Kabul, with a leader anointed by Washington to help coordinate the foreign occupation of his country, was a counterinsurgency formula that had failed over and over again.

But with the militarist mindset prevailing in the US government, failure was once again reinterpreted as an opportunity to do it right this time. Despite the efficiency of the radical new tactic of killing targets using drones – the latest form of state terror – the outcome is no different.

What more needs to be said? It is long past time for the United States and its NATO allies to withdraw with all deliberate speed from Afghanistan, rather than to proceed on its present course: negotiating a long-term “memorandum of understanding” that transfers the formalities of the occupation to the Afghans while leaving private US military contractors – 21st century mercenaries – as an outlaw governance structure after most combat forces withdraw by the end of 2014.

As in Iraq, what has been “achieved” in Afghanistan is the very opposite of the goals set by Pentagon planners and State Department diplomacy: the country is decimated rather than reconstructed, the regional balance shifts in the direction of Islamic extremism, and the United States is ever more widely feared and resented, solidifying its geopolitical role as the great malefactor of our era.

The United States seems incapable of grasping the pathologies it has inflicted on its own citizenry. The disgusting 2004 pictures of US soldiers getting their kicks from torturing and humiliating naked Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib should have made clear once and for all to the leaders and the public that it was time to bring troops home, and keep them there if we cared for their welfare. What the pattern exhibits is not only a criminal indifference to the wellbeing of “others”, but a similar disregard of the welfare of our collective selves. The current bellicose Republican presidential candidates calling for attacks on Iran favours taking a giant step along the road – a road that is heading towards an American implosion. And the Obama presidency is only a half step behind: counselling patience, but itself indulging in war-mongering – whether for its own sake, or on behalf of Israel, is unclear.

President Obama was recently quoted as saying of Afghanistan: “Now is the time for us to transition.”

No, it isn’t. “Now is the time to leave.” And not only for the sake of the Afghan people, but for the sake of the American people Obama was elected to serve.

Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has authored and edited numerous publications spanning a period of five decades, most recently editing the volume International Law and the Third World: Reshaping Justice (Routledge, 2008).

He is currently serving his third year of a six year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.

Follow him on Twitter: @rfalk13