Just a couple of days after “Sergeant Massacre” left his base in southern Afghanistan and singlehandedly perpetrated the My Lai of the Afghan War, shooting and evidently in some cases stabbing to death 16 Afghan villagers, including nine children, a district police chief in Kapisa Province reported that a NATO air strike had killed three civilians and injured two more. Mistaken for insurgents, two shopkeepers had, he claimed, died on the spot, as had an elderly man later. A NATO spokesman responded that the dead were, in fact, insurgents, though “additional information” on those deaths was being collected.
Since then, while the media has been filled with discussion of the until recently unidentified sergeant’s atrocity and what it means for America’s war in Afghanistan, those other dead Afghans have typically faded into obscurity. There have been no further reports on what happened to them, nor, as far as we know, has one of the scores of U.S. and NATO “investigations” so-thorough-they-never-manage-to-see-the-light-of-day been launched. But those three contested deaths, not the sergeant’s grim, up-close-and-personal slaughter, best catch the nature of America’s Afghan War, ever since in December 2001 a B-52 and two B-1B bombers took out 110 of 112 Afghan villagers celebrating a wedding. Though the sergeant’s acts have been headlined, Afghans have been dying, largely unnoticed here, for a long while now. The truth is this: from the air and on the ground, Americans have been profligate with Afghan lives.
Now, thanks to the Koran burnings and those 16 deaths that have refused to fade into obscurity, Washington faces its destiny in Afghanistan, long written in dead bodies. The Obama administration, which doubled down on “the right war” in 2009, confronts a situation that was guaranteed to end badly from the moment George W. Bush and his top advisors decided that taking out al-Qaeda wasn’t enough, that the U.S. was going to stay in Afghanistan and dominate the Greater Middle East for generations.
Sergeant Massacre, like those charred Korans, is simply a harbinger of the arrival of the predictable endpoint of that disastrous decision. Even Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta knows that if we stay in Afghanistan, so, after a fashion, will the staff sergeant. As he said recently, “These kinds of events and incidents are going to take place... in any war... and this is not the first of those events, and it probably will not be the last.” Yet the Obama administration seens incapable of stopping. Panetta finished his comments this way: “But we cannot allow these events to undermine our strategy.” That sums up the folly of Washington today. “These events” are, in reality, making a mockery of that strategy, but the momentum of these last years still carries them toward an Afghanistan forever policy, even when their eyes tell them otherwise and the panic sets in.
Not surprisingly, this leads to a striking set of inanities. A New York Times piece on the debate in Washington about speeding up the troop pullout, for instance, included these bizarre passages from an assortment of typically unnamed American and European “officials.” Speaking of an upcoming Afghan War meeting in Chicago, they claimed that “Mr. Obama and the NATO allies... must... present a picture of success that includes... a NATO withdrawal that is coming only after a job well done... A European official said... that it was imperative that the United States and its NATO partners project a public face to the Afghans that while NATO troops will be leaving Afghanistan, the West will not abandon the country. ‘The most important thing now is the messaging,’ the official said.”
As it happens, whatever “face” they choose to project, the messaging is already clear. But the momentum is real, too, and the Obama administration clearly has little idea how to put on the brakes. Domestically, there’s a similar grim momentum at work, also set off in the early Bush years, and still operative. Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, catches Washington’s unnerving domestic national security “messaging” of this moment with uncanny accuracy in “Ever More and Ever Less, The Unstoppable Legacy of the War on Terror.”