The Wichita Eagle front-page headline is "Soldier suspected in
killings gets to Kansas," the piece attributed to Kansas City Star
staff and wire reports. (I can't find the piece online, but it is
apparently based on
this piece.) It doesn't
acclaim Staff Sgt. Robert Bales as a hero, but isn't everyone who
signed up for the post-9/11 Global War on Terror a hero? They're
automatically acclaimed when they die, as at least
6,398 have done, or when
they're wounded (as Bales was, losing part of his foot), or when
they receive medals (Bales is oft described as "much decorated").
So why not when they go berserk? The Army may prefer precise and
unemotional control over its violence against Afghan villagers,
but Bales' methodical killing of sixteen (mostly) children wasn't
far out of the long line of atrocities other US "heroes" have
committed. It just underscores how unfit the US military is for
the difficult task of nation building, and therefore how hopeless
what Obama can only describe as "the Mission" -- an abstract noun
that has thus far proven impossible to define -- really is.
Some background on Bales is available
here. He is 38, was born in the Midwest, is married, has two
children (3 and 4). He served three tours in Iraq, and was recently
deployed to Afghanistan. He was trained as a sniper, which is to
say someone who calmly and methodically picks out targets at distance,
and kills them. The Pentagon describes his career as "unremarkable."
A neighbor is quoted: "A good guy go tput in the wrong place at the
wrong time." Happens all the time.
Problem is, if you're Afghan, this looks like stone cold murder.
And if you're Afghan, you probably have a clear idea of what justice
should look like -- and it's probably not that it would only be fair
to ship the killer half-way around the world to a cozy cell in Kansas
to let his shrinks and lawyers come up with arguments and excuses to
try show that Bales is the victim here.
There is a case to be made that Bales was indeed a victim: of a
president who decided to double down on the same military that had
turned eight years of arrogance into abject failure, but Obama was
stuck, like Rumsfeld complained earlier, with the army he inherited,
and with a political culture that insists that America's heroes will
prevail eventually (unless sabotaged by cowardly politicians). No
one thought of the welfare of the troops before launching this war,
but ever since politicians have been hiding behind their confused
feelings, ignoring the fact that they were never fit for the purpose,
that their deeply trained lethality ensures a string of atrocities.
Anyone who seriously believes the popular counterinsurgency theories
should start by building a new army; the real one doesn't work, even
if some officers have learned to talk the talk.
Talking the talk, after all, has always been the easy part. What's
hard is understanding you can't occupy a country you have no business
in, no understanding of, and no awareness of your own alien nature.
The US entered Afghanistan seeking revenge for 9/11, and never quite
satisfied that itch. Overstaying its welcome, the US set up a puppet
regime, then proceeded to delegitimize it by continued dominance --
Bush was too busy starting new wars to bother cleaning up after this
one. Then came Obama, proving that America's best efforts were just
as futile as America's worst efforts. Now he thinks he can tiptoe
away without admitting fault or error, when the entire campaign has
been nothing but wrong.
Bales' massacre is deeply embarrassing for Obama because there's
no way to scrub away the stain. Either it was policy or not, the
latter proof that we cannot manage our policy: we can't control our
own troops, nor the Afghans we've trained, even less the Taliban.
Even the right is abandoning this war: the carnage doesn't bother
them, but they'd rather hate Muslims from a distance than try to
divide and conquer them far away. And I suspect more and more we'll
see the military itself turn on the mission: as good as it's been
for budgets and careers, incidents like this show that the troops
are wearing out, that the strain is cracking them up. Maybe they
even like the idea of leaving Obama holding the bag. His statements
this past week have been the most tone-deaf of his tenure.
Some more relevant links:
Afghans angry over removal of accused U.S. soldier whose name remains
Afghan lawmakers expressed anger Thursday over the U.S. move to fly an
American soldier accused of killing 16 civilians out of the country to
Kuwait, saying Kabul shouldn't sign a strategic partnership agreement
with Washington unless the suspect faces justice in Afghanistan.
Negotiations over the agreement, which would govern the presence of
U.S. forces in Afghanistan after most combat troops withdraw by the
end of 2014, were tense even before the shooting deaths of the civilians,
including nine children, in southern Kandahar province on Sunday.
The killings came in the wake of violent protests last month triggered
by American soldiers who burned Qurans and other Islamic texts. Over 30
people were killed in those demonstrations, and Afghan forces turned
their guns on their supposed allies, killing six U.S. soldiers.
Rory Stewart: The West must get out of Afghanistan this year:
Afghanistan is a tragedy: but it is not one the West can end. For a
decade Nato has tried to fix a failed state and defeat the Taliban.
This strategy required three things: preventing the Taliban from
finding safe haven and supplies in Pakistan, creating an effective
Afghan government, and winning the support of the Afghan people.
None of this has worked. The house-to-house shooting of women and
children by a US soldier yesterday feels like a terrible, final symbol.
But it follows many dramatic public examples of failure. There was the
anger after the burning of the Korans two weeks ago. There was the
discovery, last year, that Bin Laden had been living next to a Pakistan
military academy. There was President Karzai's statement last week
supporting conservative social codes, targeted at women -- on
International Women's Day.
Ahmed Rashid: A deal with the Taliban is the only way out:
Increasing numbers of Afghans would agree with what the Taliban have
been arguing for almost a decade: that the western presence in Afghanistan
is prolonging the war, causing misery and bloodshed.
[ . . . ] Moreover, faced with an increasingly
corrupt and incompetent government, Afghans are seeing fewer improvements
on the ground. So-called "nation building" has ground to a halt, simple
justice and rule of law is unobtainable and a third of the population is
suffering from malnutrition. The people blame not just the Americans but
equally Hamid Karzai and his inner circle, which gives him conflicting
and contradictory advice, leading him to flip and flop on policy issues.
Fred Kaplan: Game over in Afghanistan:
The game is over in Afghanistan. An American presence can no longer
serve any purpose. Or, rather, it can only extend and exacerbate the
pathologies of this war. It is time to get out, and more quickly than
President Obama had been planning. The consequences of leaving may be
grim, but the consequences of staying are probably grimmer.
Sunday's massacre in Kandahar province, in which a veteran U.S.
Army staff sergeant sneaked out of his base at 3 a.m., strolled into
a village, and methodically gunned down 16 Afghan civilians, including
nine children, is but the latest sign of a massive unraveling.
Stephen M Walt: Why Afghanistan was Obama's biggest mistake:
A brutal reality is that counterinsurgency campaigns almost always
produce atrocities. Think My Lai, Abu Ghraib, the Haditha massacre,
and now this. You simply can't place soldiers in the ambiguous
environment of an indigenous insurgency, where the boundary between
friend and foe is exceedingly hard to discern, and not expect some
of them to crack and go rogue. Even if discipline holds and mental
health is preserved, a few commanders will get overzealous and order
troops to cross the line between legitimate warfare and barbarism.
There isn't a "nice" way to wage a counterinsurgency -- no matter
how often we talk about "hearts and minds" -- which is why leaders
ought to think long and hard before they order the military to occupy
another country and try to remake its society. Or before they decide
to escalate a war that is already underway.
And the sad truth is that this shameful episode would not have
happened had Obama rejected the advice of his military advisors and
stopped trying to remake Afghanistan from the start of his first
term. Yes, I know he promised to get out of Iraq and focus on Central
Asia, but no president fulfills all his campaign promises (remember
how he was going to close Gitmo?) and Obama could have pulled the
plug on this failed enterprise at the start. Maybe he didn't for
political reasons, or because commanders like David Petraeus and
Stanley McChrystal convinced him they could turn things around. Or
maybe he genuinely believed that U.S. national security required an
open-ended effort to remake Afghanistan.
Whatever the reason, he was wrong. The sad truth is that the extra
effort isn't going to produce a significantly better outcome, and the
lives and money that we've spent there since 2009 are mostly wasted.
That was apparent before this weekend's events, which can only make
our futile task even more impossible.