American soldiers have been fighting in Afghanistan for over a decade, defending our nation and the Afghani people against the terrors of the Taliban. They have put in place a democratic government and mentored Afghani security forces in the protection of Afghanistan’s own sovereignty. Judging by our progress, it is reasonable to believe that members of our armed forces realize the only way to keep such progress effective and to facilitate the American mission in Afghanistan is to understand and accept the Afghani culture, people and lifestyle. Surely, after over a decade of fighting, our armed forces know that the only way to maintain peace with the Afghani people is to respect their traditions and heritage. One would think so.
But it is not so, far from it in fact. Knowledge of Afghani culture is not at all prevalent amongst our soldiers. Our armed forces, as a whole, are not malicious nor ill-willed towards the Afghani people, but ignorance leads many to commit inadvertent acts that infuriate Afghanis and fuel their hatred of the United States. These acts can push the Afghani people towards embracing the Taliban.
Three such incidents have occurred this year.
On Thursday, January 12, a video surfaced of four Marines urinating on three dead Taliban fighters. “Have a great day, buddy,” one marine said. Afghani President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban immediately responded, pointing to the video as evidence of American brutality, a popular message across the infuriated nation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of States Leon Panetta, too, issued statements condemning the Marines and promising an immediate investigation. Ms. Clinton further stated that such actions, which should probably be classified as a war crime according to the Geneva Conventions, were inconsistent with American values and standards. Yet, many Afghanis are not convinced. They have seen this kind of behavior before from Americans: the images of brutality at the prison camp of Abu Ghraib depict sexual abuse and torture (beatings, electrocutions and derogatory statements targeting religion and family) and will not be soon forgotten by the Afghani people. And they should not forget. It strikes me as unfathomable why Marines, who are expected to uphold “American values and sentiments,” would commit such desecrations, much less why they would videotape it. Because of their reckless actions, Afghanistan’s sentiment has turned against what they call the U.S. occupation of their nation.
On Monday, February 20, it was discovered that American soldiers had burned bags full of Korans at Bagram Air Base, the largest NATO air base in Afghanistan. NATO commanding general, John R. Allen, immediately apologized for the egregious crime, which he claimed was “unintentional.” But now a decade into the war, I cannot help but wonder how these soldiers could think that burning copies of a sacred religious text would not cause riots unlike any other in the course of the occupation. After all, this is the nation where news of a previous single Koran burning by a Florida preacher resulted in 12 deaths and the ransacking of a U.N. office. Riots sprung up around the country after this NATO incident and one massive protest assaulted Camp Phoenix, another NATO base. What really struck – and frightened – me was what the protesters were chanting: “Death to America!” and Taliban songs. Whatever cultural progress we may have made may have all been lost because of what was obviously not a mistake.
Most recently, on Saturday, March 11, a U.S. army sergeant killed at least 16 civilians, nine of them children, in rural Kandahar Province, an international tragedy. Walking more than a mile away from his base, Sgt. Robert Bales methodically terrorized three houses. After the killings, he gathered eleven of the bodies, four of which were girls younger than six, and set them on fire. The other children were found with single gunshot wounds to the head, suggesting execution-style killings. Entire families have been devastated, and many Afghanis are now saying that the attack was planned, wondering how it was possible one man could have committed such acts without help. Many villagers have also claimed to have seen other soldiers during the attack, but such reports are unconfirmed. To us, such an idea may seem more like a conspiracy theory than anything else, but such suspicion is widespread in Afghanistan, where thousands and thousands of civilians have been killed by U.S. soldiers over the course of the war. This killing spree coincides with strategic talks between the United States and Afghanistan concerning the deployment of American Special Forces in Afghanistan long after most NATO and American soldiers are slated to pull out, in 2014. The talks must now contend with new snags, such as the issue of American night raids (where soldiers raids homes in the dead of night looking for insurgents) and the application of Afghan law to American soldiers. The rift between President Karzai and America grows larger with every such attack. Mr. Karzai has become more and more vocal in denouncing the American occupation and its increasing number of civilian casualties, but maintains that he wishes to continue international relations. How long until the number of casualties results in the loss of a powerful ally?
Growing numbers of killings of women and children, burnings of the most sacred book in the country and desecration of Muslims in a Muslim nation demonstrate our soldiers’ continual ignorance of Afghani customs, religion and traditions. I am not saying that our armed forces are inherently malicious and out to kill civilians. But I must also point out that the soldiers who committed the acts of terror and violence are not newly deployed, but in fact are veterans who have been fighting in Afghanistan for many years now. The fact that even veterans of the war would commit such acts clearly shows our government’s and army officials’ continual lack of ability – or even more frighteningly, the unwillingness – to educate our armed forces. By not doing so, we unwittingly promote an incredible danger to national security. The Taliban grow more and more popular each time these incidents occur and pressure mounts on America to pull out of what is increasingly viewed as a foreign invasion of Afghan sovereignty. Such conditions are prime circumstances for a citizensupported Taliban resurgence, the most dangerous threat that could possibly emerge in the entire war. Eventually we will no longer have to deal with a Taliban insurgency, but instead an entire nation of vengeful people.