Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Somebody asked some Afghans ...

I first became conscious of Carlotta Gall's reporting from Afghanistan for the New York Times in 2003 when she broke the story that U.S. military medical authorities had labeled the death while in custody of a detainee named Dilwar a "homicide." She was the rare foreign reporter who seemed to assume that the journalist's job was to find out what it meant to Afghans to be invaded and then occupied by U.S. and NATO forces.

Here's that story again in The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014. On hearing that a prisoner had died in U.S. custody, Gall went looking to understand more.

When I visited his family in Yakubi in February, Dilwar's brother, Shahpoor, showed me a death certificate they had been given along with the body. The certificate was in English, and the family did not understand fully what it said. It was dated December 13, 2002, and was signed at the bottom by Major Elizabeth A. Rouse, a pathologist from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology based in Washington, D.C., and medical examiner Lieutenant Colonel Kathleen M. Ingwersen from the Army Medical Corps based in Landstuhl, Germany.

It gave the circumstances of death: "Decedent was found unresponsive in his cell while in custody." Under "Cause of death" was typed, "Blunt force injuries to lower extremities complicating coronary artery disease." Mode of death, it stated, was "homicide."

Dilwar was a young taxi driver picked up by mistake; he had no part in resisting U.S. forces. His story is told in the documentary Taxi to the Dark Side.

Gall lived in Afghanistan from 2001 through last year. She's a Brit whose father had reported from Afghanistan and who had worked herself in Chechnya and Bosnia. She likes Afghans. Her explanation of why she wrote this book:

[The conflict/occupation] would become America's longest overt war. Thirteen years later, there is no swift resolution in sight, and support at home has waned. Few Americans seem to care anymore about Afghanistan, and I decided owed it to all those caught up in the maelstrom of Afghanistan to put down a record of events as I had seen them from the ground.

In Gall's view, the arc of the U.S. Afghanistan war begins with most Afghans welcoming help in throwing off Taliban rule; through neglect, failure and corruption as the U.S. turned its attention to Iraq; the Petraeus/McChrystal "surge" under Obama which Gall portrays as succeeding in the Pashtun heartland from whence the Taliban originated; through U.S. disengagement and the Kabul government's weakness, pointing to an uncertain future. Looming over this entire bloody trajectory, in Gall's view is the unceasing determination of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to manipulate Afghanistan by funding, training and inciting Afghan Islamists. Pakistan was the true enemy of Afghan peace and security; only in those sporadic episodes when U.S. administrations pressured Pakistan's governments to curb the militants did Afghanistan enjoy relative peace and development.

There are many other schools of thought about the NATO/US Afghanistan adventure; perhaps the one most familiar to readers of this blog is that the U.S. never decided what its objective was in mucking about in this strange, distant, peripheral hornet's nest of a place and consequently accomplished little except death and destruction. Gall has another view, one informed by extensive discussion with many sorts of Afghans. The book is fascinating on that level.

A Western reader naturally wonders how a woman reporter managed to function so broadly in such a conservative religious environment. Gall explains:

Most Afghan and Pakistani houses have separate rooms for entertaining guests and holding meetings. The guest room often has its own entrance and is designed to allow visitors to be entertained without disturbing the sanctity of the women's quarters. Many Afghan and Pakistani families, especially the conservative tribal and religious ones, still continue the practice of purdah. Women only mix with their extended family and do not meet unrelated men. ...

As a foreigner I was exempt from such rules. I had little difficulty working as a woman in Afghanistan and Pakistan where hospitality is a much-honored custom, and I often had the bonus of being invited into the inner sanctum to visit the women of the family.

... It is a strictly honored custom that no one enters an Afghan's home without being invited, and no man unrelated to the family enters the women's quarters. This becomes second nature to anyone living in Pakistan and Afghanistan, yet the readiness of foreign soldiers to violate this cherished custom in their search for militants, kicking down doors in house-to-house raids and searching women's quarters, became one of the most upsetting issues for Afghans across the country.

The American and NATO forces violated a code that could have worked in their favor: when you are invited into someone's home, you are under the protection of your host. I felt no fear going to interview a Taliban commander in the warren of Quetta's [Pakistan] back streets. I knew and trusted my host, who had organized the meeting. He would make sure I came to no harm.

In Gall's view, U.S. forces sacrificed their chance at a cooperative relationship with Afghans by killing too many ordinary civilians, whether through mistaken application of their overwhelming firepower or out of blatant (racist?) indifference to Afghan life. She reports a chilling story:

One day an Afghan I knew and trusted told me a story he had never dared tell anyone, even his closest family. He had worked as an interpreter for the U.S. military for several years.

One night he had accompanied U.S. special operations commandos on a raid. Helicopters dropped off the team a mile or so from their target village, and they hiked in silence to its edge. The unit split up, and the interpreter went with a group of four men to a house in the center of the village. Two men were in front of him and two behind, armed with American assault weapons with silencers attached. They moved without noise, communicating with hand signals. They kicked in the door of the house and entered a room.

A gas lamp was burning very low but enough for the interpreter to see the astonished faces of a young couple in their twenties as they leapt up from their bed on the floor. "Why? Why are you shooting?" the man asked. The Americans did not answer. They crouched and shot them both. They fired four or five rounds, the silencers making a dull "tick, tick" sound. As the woman fell, she let out a dying gasp. A child sleeping beside them began to cry.

The Americans moved straight on to the next room. The translator began to shake. This time he did not enter the room but stopped at the door. He saw four people by the lamplight. A grandmother stood, her head uncovered, and asked, "What's happening? Why?" Three teenagers, a boy and two girls, were cowering on the floor, wordless, trying to hide among their bedclothes. The Americans did not speak. They fired two or three rounds. The translator did not see who was shot. He was never asked to translate anything. "You have to wait until they ask. If you say anything, or translate anything, they say 'Shut up, motherfucker, or I'll shoot you.'"

Gall also describes the atrocities U.S. soldiers experienced from Taliban ambushes.

One Humvee had made it out with survivors, but three men were dead at the scene and two more were missing. Search parties scoured the area for the rest of the day. Just before dark they came across the remains of one of the men. He had been dragged nearly a mile from the ambush site, and his body had been mutilated. His arms had been cut off, and someone had tried to carve out his heart. The search went on through the next day, but the units only ever found parts of the other soldier.

... The mutilation of victims, which was not often revealed to the public, was a particular horror for the men serving in Afghanistan, a sign of the brutalizing effects of the war. It was a grim burden for those who encountered it and led to acts of retaliation on both sides.

Gall is not hopeful about Afghanistan's future.

... after thirteen years, a trillion dollars spent, 120,000 foreign troops deployed at the height, and tens of thousands of lives lost, the fundamentals of Afghanistan's predicament remain the same: a weak state, prey to the ambitions of its neighbors and extremist Islamists. ...

... The cost in lives to reach this unfinished state had been painfully high. There is no complete count of how many Afghans have died since the American intervention began in October 2001. My own rough estimate places it between 50,000 and 70,000 Afghans. By the end of 2013, over 3,400 foreign soldiers have died in the campaign, 2,301 of them American.

Civilian deaths in the war had been running between two and three thousand a year since 2006. Casualties among Afghan security forces have been between one and two thousand a year, and rising, as their forces have grown and they have taken up the frontline fighting.

Thousands of young Afghan and Pakistani men have died in the ranks of the Taliban, too, many of them villagers and madrassa students, used as so much cheap cannon fodder. They are referred to as "potato soldiers" by their Pakistani recruiters.

This is not a hopeful book. Whether or we agree with Gall's take on the geopolitical situation, we can be glad that someone from the Western media bothered to listen so closely to so many Afghans.

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