ABC News, March 20, 2012

Inevitable injustices in unjust war

By Michael Brull

 The bodies of an elderly Afghan man and a child killed in the Alkozai village of Panjwayi district are shown wrapped in blankets
Horrific: The bodies of an elderly Afghan man and a child killed in the Alkozai village of Panjwayi district are shown wrapped in blankets. 16 innocent civilians, 9 of them children, were killed by US soldiers on March 11, 2012. A probe found out it was a group of 20 soldiers and they assaulted women before killing them. (Photo: AFP / Getty Images)

Lately, we have been asked to believe that quite a few events in Afghanistan are anomalies, and should not be taken as more broadly representative of anything.

Accidents happen, and sometimes really bad things happen, but they don't reflect anything deeper about our war that should trouble us.

There was the burning of the Korans. Much of the Western media's coverage of this story has been farcical. For example, at the Huffington Post, we learn that they were "tossed in a pile of garbage" before being set on fire. We are not told how many Korans, but it was an "accident". They were accidentally thrown into the trash, then accidentally set on fire. That sounds plausible.

Anonymous officials also claimed that "they contained extremist messages or inscriptions". So they were accidentally put in the trash, and accidentally burned on purpose because they had extremist messages in them. However, we can rest assured that coalition forces will receive training, which will "include the identification of religious materials, their significance, correct handling and storage".

We are supposed to believe that soldiers were previously unaware it may be insensitive to throw holy books in the trash and set them on fire. One can only imagine what might happen if a bunch of Torahs were thrown in the trash and set on fire. Two thousand Afghans protested in the streets, apparently unaware of the "respect the US military has for the religious practices of the Afghan people". After three days of protests, seven Afghans had been killed. And yet, Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai obediently declared that "we have found that American soldiers mistakenly insulted the Koran and we will accept their apology". Something like: whoops, accidentally threw your Korans in the trash and set them on fire!

Then there was the allegedly rogue American soldier who went on a shooting spree, killing 16 civilians. The AP story notes that Karzai "has repeatedly demanded the US stop killing Afghan civilians". It just hasn't really mattered much.

Karzai declared:

"This has been going on for too long. You have heard me before. It is by all means the end of the rope here."

Obviously, the occupying coalition is not bound by trivialities like listening to the president of the country. The Reuters story reports:

"I don't want any compensation. I don't want money, I don't want a trip to Mecca, I don't want a house. I want nothing. But what I absolutely want is the punishment of the Americans. This is my demand, my demand, my demand and my demand," said one villager, whose brother was killed in the nighttime slaughter.

Furious Afghans and lawmakers have demanded that the soldier responsible be tried in Afghanistan, but despite those calls, the U.S. staff sergeant was flown out on Wednesday.

Well, we can get a sense of how concerned the US is about Afghanistan's sovereignty, and about ensuring that the soldier is brought to justice. Indeed, Karzai and others doubt only one man was responsible. However, it appears Afghanistan will not be permitted to investigate further.

Then there was the story of the three American soldiers, "appearing to urinate on three apparently lifeless men" in Afghanistan: "Have a great day, buddy". Tariq Ali notes that Guantanamo prisoners "alleged that their guards pissed on them from above and that some of the drops fell not just on them, but the Korans they were reading. At the time nobody thought fit to say that such acts 'were not consistent with core values'."

Thankfully, however, "the commanders of US forces in Afghanistan on Friday ordered American troops to treat the bodies of killed enemies and civilians with 'appropriate dignity and respect'." Now that they've received this order, they will treat dead bodies with "dignity and respect". The implications of what happened before this order, and the order's apparent necessity, don't require much comment.

Except: perhaps this order could have come earlier. Like, before an army staff sergeant admitted that he "cut fingers off the corpses of three Afghan civilians". This was part of the trial for a group of five soldiers who allegedly killed Afghan civilians "for sport", and seven more who covered up the killings. This group "cut 'trophies' from the bodies of the people they killed", and posed "with the dead bodies of defenceless Afghan civilians they killed" as "trophy" photos. Perhaps this would have been prevented, if only the commander had previously ordered them to treat bodies with appropriate respect and dignity.

It may be said that these are all anomalies, but plainly if these things keep happening, and they always seem to happen in wars, they are not. Part of the answer is that soldiers in an occupying army are trained to be what would in other contexts be recognised as sociopaths. They are supposed to be willing, at a moment's notice, to kill another human being. And then continue on with their duties. An ordinary person would not be able to manage this. If you can persuade them that the enemy they are fighting is evil, and that the people they kill don't matter like normal people, then they will be more effective soldiers. But they will be less decent human beings. And if you are a soldier in an occupying army, fighting an unjust war, the moral problem becomes more acute. For if you are hated, you will quickly find it difficult to distinguish between the enemy, and the population you are supposedly there to liberate. And so, you will start to justify to yourself being inhumane towards the enemy, which becomes increasingly ill-defined, and increasingly associated with the general population.

Christian Science Monitor journalist Neil Shea described the gradual process, noting that:

they begin with small things. They'll insult Iraqis or Afghans behind their backs, and that's sort of the very mild beginning of it. And then they sort of move up the chain, if we can call it that, into more serious acts of aggression, where they'll kill animals or they'll beat somebody or treat them roughly, and it sort of builds up from there.

What I saw with these guys in Afghanistan when I was with them was that several of them had already been through multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they had reached a point where they hated Afghans, they hated the country, and they were really not interested in doing any of the hearts and minds stuff anymore that's a crucial part of the mission. So by the time I reached these guys, they had already been sort of—they had been building up anger and aggression in strange ways for a number of years. And when I saw them, they had just shot a dog that had been a pet in an Afghan home that they had confiscated during the mission, and they treated Afghan civilians fairly roughly, and they took a few prisoners and treated them very roughly, as well. Nothing that would rise to necessarily the—sort of a crime at that time, but the way that they talked about things and the way that they sort of handled themselves was really aggressive. And it was only—it seemed to me only to be barely kept in check.

It is nice to think that our brave soldiers are there fighting the good fight against the Islamist fanatics of the Taliban. Yet US vice president Joe Biden has explained that the Taliban per se is not the enemy. And the truth is that we have been trying to negotiate with the Taliban for years. Karzai has even described the atmosphere of talks in 2011 as "brotherly". Perhaps this is from gratitude, as the US has "pushed to take Taliban leaders off a United Nations blacklist, a move that would make it easier for them to travel abroad."

The objection we have to the Taliban is not that wish to impose a despotic version of Islam on Afghanistan. It is that they have not properly demonstrated a willingness to make Afghanistan a client state of the US. We are fighting in Afghanistan to prop up the corrupt, fraudulently elected government of Hamid Karzai, which is properly obedient.

It is reflective of the poverty of the Western media's coverage of the war that we have been so completely shielded from the nature of Karzai's regime. Throughout the Muslim world, the name Karzai is perceived as the archetype of a puppet of foreign occupation, like a Muslim Vidkun Quisling. As As'ad AbuKhalil asked:

"is there any Muslim who is more hated and despised by Muslims than Hamid Karzai? This is a Muslim who cannot even walk in any Muslim city. Hell. He can't even walk in his own cities in Afghanistan, and has to be sequestered in the presidential palace in Kabul, protected by US guards, to stay alive."

Which is why he is also known as the "Mayor of Kabul". In an interview with CNN, he replied to critics: "if I am called a puppet because we are grateful to America, then let that be my nickname."

Indeed, so notorious is the name of Karzai, a story on Palestine in an Egyptian paper noted that Yasser Arafat had:

forced Abu Mazen to resign as prime minister in the wake of a vicious mudslinging campaign that had sunk to the depths of dubbing Abu Mazen the "[Hamid] Karzai of Palestine".

Such a comparison is considered a "vicious mudslinging campaign" - an insight into how our puppet is perceived. One could go on and on. The Washington Post reported casually that during Zalmay Khalilzad's 19 months as US ambassador to Kabul:

No significant decision was made by Karzai in that time without Khalilzad's involvement, and sometimes his cajoling and prodding.

Or the Afghan governor who Karzai sacked for criticising "a US air raid which killed at least 15 civilians".

The story of Karzai is of a puppet of the foreign occupying powers, who has struck deals with misogynist, fundamentalist warlords to further extend his support influence. The result has not been impressive. A few weeks ago, the Independent reported that Karzai:

has backed guidelines issued by Afghanistan's religious council that relegate women to the position of second-class citizens..."Men are fundamental and women are secondary," the 150-member Ulema Council said in a statement that was subsequently posted on Mr Karzai's own website. It also said that men and women should not mix in work or education, and that women must have a male guardian when they travel.

Not the first time Karzai has taken an appalling stand against women's rights.

Australia's role includes support for our "most vital local ally in Afghanistan, controversial warlord Matiullah Khan". Strangely, Dutch forces have "refused to work" with him "because of his alleged connections to murder and extortion". The New York Times notes that Matiullah was "the head of the Highway Police in Oruzgan Province". A Western diplomat explained:

"The highway police was one huge drug smuggling operation."

One could pick out many more individual atrocities here or there. Apologists of the occupation may say they are not the point, which often reflects a kind of callousness to the suffering of the people of Afghanistan. Yet in a way, they only reflect a more fundamental point. We are fighting an unjust war. There will never be a just way to occupy another country. After more than 10 years, it is time we said enough.

Michael Brull is studying a Juris Doctor at UNSW. He tweets at @mikeb476.

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