Giving Perspective to the Killings in Kandahar

Steve Saideman on why we should resist drawing larger conclusions.
By: /
March 14, 2012

The events of this past weekend in Panjwai need to be put into perspective. There is a tendency to come to quick conclusions and think that the most recent event is most significant – a turning point – and far more consequential than any prior event. However, the reality is that there are many events, and the most recent one always stands out simply because it is new. To be clear, the mass-murder shooting spree that took place last weekend is horrible. But we really do not know much about what happened yet, so initial reactions tend to be based more on our predilections than on the facts on the ground. Below, I address several realities, aiming not to apologize for the American armed forces or excuse the event, but to put the incident in perspective.

First, while killing 16 innocent civilians is horrible, Americans are not the only ones who have committed significant crimes in Afghanistan. Canada convicted one of its officers, Robert Semrau, for executing a wounded Taliban on the battlefield. The killings last weekend are, of course, an order of magnitude worse than that. Consider another incident: In September 2009, two NATO fuel trucks were captured by the insurgents but then got stuck in the mud. The local German commander called in an airstrike, concerned that the tankers could be used as massive improved explosive devices – truck bombs. The air strikes killed over 100 civilians who were trying to get some of the stolen fuel. This is an order of magnitude worse than last weekend’s shooting. These three events raise questions about what is worse: coldly violating standards of mercy, apparently losing one’s mind, or fearfully making a poor decision? Obviously, the Afghans are probably not going to make such distinctions.

Second, a key distinction can be made between intended and unintended events. The incidents mentioned above were not the products of NATO policies, but violations of policies. This contrasts rather sharply with the modus operandi of the actors causing most of the harm to civilians in Afghanistan over the past 10 years – the Taliban, the Haqqani network, and other insurgent groups. These actors have been using strategies and tactics that deliberately target civilians or provoke reactions that put civilians in harm’s way. Again, Afghans may not make this distinction, especially since it is NATO’s job, and the job of the Afghan security forces, to prevent such attacks. Still, it is something to keep in mind.

Third, to say that this, and other recent events – such as the Koran-burning incident and U.S. Marines urinating on dead Taliban – represent a turning point in Afghanistan is to focus entirely too much on the most recent news. The reality is that we have already passed the turning point: The publics of NATO countries have lost their patience, the governments of NATO countries have realized that building an Afghan government with President Hamid Karzai’s people in place is akin to building a house on sand, and the neighbours of NATO countries know that NATO is on the way out. 2014, as the time of transition (which means exit for most NATO troops), is already a done deal. The pace between now and then matters, but far less than the reality of this end date. Sure, we do not know yet how many Americans will stick around to advise and to provide special-forces capabilities after 2014, but most NATO countries will have moved the majority of their combat troops out by then. Some may move faster if new governments are elected (i.e. in France), but few are likely to move slower than currently planned.

Fourth, it is quite unpleasant to hear Canadians blame Americans for undoing their work in Kandahar, where so much Canadian blood was spilled. The Canadian Forces left Kandahar, leaving someone – anyone – else to take responsibility for the difficult area. It is mighty smug to leave a difficult place and then criticize those who pick up the slack. Leaving in the middle of fighting season does not give Canada much of a high ground from which to slam the Americans who replaced them. It is, of course, sad for Canadian soldiers to see that the places where they fought and where they bled may now be reversing course, but criticizing the American forces for what one soldier apparently did is a bit much – especially when a Canadian soldier could have easily done the same had the Canadian Forces still been there.

We can, and should, be critical of any country or military operating on foreign land. But before we can accurately assess their actions and behaviours, we need to consider them in context. In terms of the recent shooting spree, for instance, what we currently know is that the incident was not the product of policy, as the individual responsible was violating orders. Still, the situation facing troops in Afghanistan today is the product of a decade of flawed policies that have stressed out the militaries of the U.S. and its allies, produced too little progress on governance, and created more antagonisms between the Afghans and the international community. The news from last weekend is horrendous, to be sure, but let’s take a breath or two before drawing big conclusions or making sweeping accusations.

Photo courtesy of Reuters