Michael Skinner 12 March 2012
The story that a lone “rogue” American soldier murdered sixteen Afghan civilians, including nine children and three women, dominates headlines around the world.
Some news sources report a group of laughing and apparently drunken American soldiers were the murderers
Most news reports agree the murderer(s) set fire to eleven of the bodies including four girls younger than six.
Few if any journalists, however, observe that burning the bodies of most of the massacre victims compounds the humiliation of Afghans, because Moslems consider burning a body is harama – it’s a sacrilegious desecration.
After all, Sanger argues the Taliban have few reasons to negotiate with an occupying force they know is leaving in 2014 anyway. He suggests that after every atrocity committed by the occupiers, the Taliban increase their capacity to “appeal to the understandable national allergy to foreign occupation”.
The fact that a New York Times reporter writes a phrase like “the understandable national allergy to foreign occupation” is itself remarkable. Military oversight of media is so complete that the words “invasion” and “occupation” are verboten for any journalist who hopes to maintain relationships with official sources. “International intervention” is the euphemism military spin-doctors invented to describe the battlefront of the Global War on/of Terror in Afghanistan.
The “national allergy to foreign occupation” is hardly surprising considering Afghan history and the past decade plus of occupation. After listening to Afghans during my visits to Afghanistan, I think it’s a good bet that many are equally allergic to the Taliban, the Karzai government, and the foreign occupation forces.
What is lacking, however, are viable alternatives to both the Talban and Karzai regimes. While resistance organisations including Maoists and women’s groups exist, these organisations lack sufficient resources and influence to counter the power of either the Western backed Karzai regime or the Taliban.
Is the massacre the product of an insane murderer, or systemic insanity?
Many journalists echo the ideas New York Times journalist William Yardley wrote yesterday. Yardley acknowledges that individuals within the US military have committed war crimes throughout the occupation. But he contends individual war criminals are merely a few bad apples.
Among the worst of the bad apples is Sgt Calvin Gibbs, the ringleader of a “rogue” Army unit. In November, the US Army convicted Gibbs of murder and other crimes.
The evidence military prosecutors used to convict Gibbs showed that he and a dozen members of the unit he led, staged combat situations so they could kill Afghan civilians for sport. Some of the soldiers photographed grisly trophy pictures using the murder victims as props. They also removed victims’ body parts to keep as souvenirs.
The horrific murders that Gibbs and the men of his unit committed, and the latest massacre, as well as a video of US soldiers urinating on dead Afghans, and the recent burning of Qur’ans are the most notorious stories of late.
Nonetheless, officially sanctioned attacks cause “collateral damage” that kills and maims civilians, and destroys homes, farms, other property, and the means for Afghans to make their livelihood. No one officially recorded Afghan civilian deaths before 2007; almost 12,000 civilians were killed between 2007 and the end of 2011.
Afghans are displaced from their homes at an average of 400 people per day. 730,000 Afghans have been internally displaced, since 2006, and foreign forces military offensives caused most of the displacements.
Night-raids of private homes, arbitrary arrests, disappearances, and torture of detainees are ongoing problems.
As justifiably angry Afghans are with the supposed bad apples, it is not merely a few bad apples who turned Afghans against the foreign occupation.
The systemically induced insanity of war.
Yardley’s article, among many other commentaries, suggests the few bad apples in the military may be victims of battle-induced traumatic stress. There might be a grain of truth to this assessment.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental illness is a growing problem for military personnel. Substance abuse as well as domestic abuse and other social problems are on the rise among military personnel and their families.
One report claims an American veteran attempts suicide every 80 minutes, a current service member attempts suicide every 36 hours, and successful suicides among serving US personnel have increased from 160 per year in 2001 to 309 in 2009. [see the full report here]
The psychological stress military personnel suffer during their tours of duty is an indisputable fact.
However, few writers acknowledge the never-ending stress suffered by Afghans who have lived in an incredibly stressful state of perpetual war, since 1978.[i]
Numerous journalists and commentators criticize the lack of sufficient PTSD treatment for military veterans here in Canada and elsewhere. But no one wants to imagine an entire nation of Afghans traumatised by war for generations. Is it possible to treat an entire nation for PTSD? Can we even call it PTSD when what we are seeing is ongoing traumatic stress disorder with no foreseeable end to the trauma?
Misplaced faith in the mythology of the “Good War”
The Sunday morning killing spree began in Belanday a village in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province.
Belanday is one of several communities Canadian Forces Major-General Jon Vance chose, in 2009, to serve as a so-called “model village”. Vance hoped that if he could win the hearts and minds of the residents in the “model villages”, he could spread this successful model throughout Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, what is most likely to spread from Belanday is more bloody warfare
Postmedia News journalist Matthew Fisher quotes Canadian Forces Maj-Gen Vance’s reaction to the massacre in Belanday:
If it happened there, this will be shocking to the people of Belanday, as you can imagine, but I think that they can recover. One bad actor cannot spoil the reputation of the whole. I believe that to be true.
It may be wishful thinking on the part of the general to hope Afghans will buy the “one bad actor” story, but Jon Vance seems regularly prone to wishful thinking.
The one time I met the general was at York University during one of Vance’s cross-Canada propaganda tours promoted by the Canadian Forces. To introduce his talk, to a small group of academics, Vance played an overly long feel-good video composed primarily of photographs depicting smiling Afghan children posed with Canadian soldiers. The video was set to the music of John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith in Me”.
I told the general it was ironic he chose “Have a Little Faith in Me” as the soundtrack for his video. Those of us in his audience were sceptical academics who ask questions to which we seek answers based on evidence not faith. I asked why he thought the knowledgeable academics present, some of who had visited Afghanistan, should “have a little faith” in his fanciful story that all is well in Afghanistan and with Canada’s participation in the Global War on/of Terror. I asked the general whether he had any hard evidence to back his appeal for faith in his mission. The general appeared dumbfounded that anyone would question his authority and his appeal to faith. He was unable to back his appeal with significant evidence.
A concrete idea of what Major-General Vance believes is found in his writing.
In 2005, Vance wrote a chapter in the military textbook, The Operational Art: Context and Concepts. There he argues Canadian foreign policy is “more concerned with the political advantages of being seen to participate” in US-led missions, and that Canadian strategy centres upon “protecting Canadian interests rather than pursuing them.” In other words, according to Vance, the Canadian Forces purse Canada’s interests by supporting the pursuit of whatever interests American forces pursue.
Vance’s idea that Canada is subordinated to the US as it was subordinated to the UK in previous centuries, is highly problematic; indeed, his is a mythical account of the how Canadian Forces support Canadian foreign policy. This idea leads to the excuse that Canada must follow the US into its wars.
The reality is that Canada is a subdominant imperial state. The US is undeniably the dominant state in global affairs often acting as a bully to get its way. Canada plays a supporting subdominant role to the dominant bully not because Canadian decision-makers have no other choices, but instead because the US and Canada pursue mutual interests that revolve around globally expanding capitalist social relations and maintaining America’s “global primacy” .
Unfortunately, I have insufficient time or space to analyse Vance’s mythology in detail here. For counterarguments see Yves Engler’s, The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy and Lester Pearson’s Peacekeeping: The Truth May Hurt (with a foreword by Noam Chomsky), Todd Gordon’s, Imperialist Canada, and the chapters of various authors including myself collected by editors Greg Albo and Jerome Klassen in their upcoming book, Empire’s Ally: Canadian Foreign Policy and the War in Afghanistan.
It suffices to state the idea that the battlefront of the Global War on/of Terror in Afghanistan is somehow a better or more just war than the other battlefronts in Iraq and elsewhere is a myth.
I expect “the understandable national allergy to foreign occupation” in Afghanistan might soon become an epidemic.
[i] Since 1978, four periods of war blend into one:
1) The anti-socialist jihad, when American backed anti-socialist mujahedeen fought Soviet backed government forces, which, after Christmas Eve 1979, were directly supported by Soviet occupation forces (1978-1992).
2) The internecine first civil war, when after one mujahedeen force seized Kabul to institute the first Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, rival mujahedeen factions fight one another and the governing forces (1992-1996).
3) The second civil war is fought, between the Taliban, which emerged in 1994 and by 1996 governed most of Afghanistan, and several of the rival mujahedeen factions and the government, which during the fall of Kabul in 1996, joined forces to form the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan aka the Northern Alliance to govern parts of Northern Afghanistan (1996-2001).
4) The Global War on/of Terror, which began when US-UK led Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) forces invade Afghanistan on 7 October 2001. After the Bonn Agreement of 20 December 2001, the occupation is administered by the combat forces of the US led OEF coalition and a UN led International Security Force (ISAF) initially conceived as a “complex peace operations” force. On 11 August 2003, NATO forces assumed command of ISAF. The Obama administration placed both the OEF and ISAF forces under the command of one American general, in 2009, eliminating any differences that might have still existed between the OEF and ISAF forces.
Michael Skinner is a researcher, human rights activist, musician and composer. For a decade he was a National Education Facilitator for the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. Since 2006, he has been an Independent Researcher and Graduate Fellow at the York Centre for International and Security Studies at York University, Toronto, Canada. Skinner is currently writing his Ph.D. dissertation titled, Peacebuilding, State-building, & Empire-building: The emerging Empire of Capital and its interventions from Central America to Central Asia. Michael Skinner recently returned from his second research trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Read Michael Skinner’s academic papers and journalism at: http://yorku.academia.edu/MichaelSkinner
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