Happy Memorial Day Weekend

by Joshua Foust on 5/24/2008 · 7 comments

In 2007, 117 American and 115 Coalition soldiers gave their lives in the fight for a free and stable Afghanistan. Lest they be forgotten, the Afghans themselves have suffered even worse losses: well over 900 policemen were killed in clashes with militants in 2007, and I couldn’t find how many ANA soldiers were killed in the last year. Several thousand—somewhere between 6,500 and 8,000—Afghan civilians died last year as well. These are worth remembering, even if Western governments refuse to keep track of them, for I truly hope their sacrifice can accomplish lasting good there.

And therein lies the dark side of it. The Marines on that disastrous mission last year in Jalalabad, which on March 4, 2007, resulted in 19 dead civilians and over 50 more shot and wounded, after an initial investigation that resulted in 12,000 pages of findings, will not be charged for the incident. Naturally, Afghans in Jalalabad are furious, quite rightly seeing this as a miscarriage of justice.

When discussing this with Nathan, he cautioned me that the real problem was whisking them out of the country—by doing that, and not allowing local justice to work, we helped to ensure anger, no matter the result. I could be wrong, but I don’t place that little faith in the critical thinking skills of the people we keep claiming we’re trying to free: had there been a trial, the anger would still be less violent than the almost inevitable rioting that will ensue from this decision.

Worse still, it sends the message that you can behave like a rogue unit—and that Marine Corps unit behaved atrociously—and no one, not the unit CO, not his superiors, or anyone involved in the decision to place them in theater and then keep them there when they were flaunting orders and bragging of their kill-lust, will be held accountable.

Worse still, the Army officers who expressed shame at the wanton killings of civilians along 10 miles of a shooting spree, are still looked down upon. And the officer who revoked the Marines’ country clearance is still under investigation for wrongdoing.

Is it possible for the Marine Corps to send a worse message? When our cops flaunt the rules and kill a single person, they go to jail. Yes, war sucks, and I really don’t have the right to judge having never been in combat, blah blah blah. You can make all the excuses you want. But our policies in Afghanistan are not helping us. Eastern Afghanistan is doing far worse than the PR flacks at the Army will let on, Khost—the province hailed as a raging success by blind propagandists—has been wracked by suicide bombers, and the rest of the country is slowly falling to pieces as the militant groups find new ways of demonstrating the impunity with which they operate—say, by shelling the military day parade in Kabul.

We keep saying we are doing this for their sake, and for ours, that our interests coincide with those of regular Afghans in killing the roots of Islamic militancy in the Durand hinterlands. Actions, however, speak louder than words. Charlie Wilson once warned us that “we f*cked up the endgame” by not paying attention to the consequences of our actions in Afghanistan. I am terrified we are doing the same thing now, and even if those Marines were perfectly within the bounds of the ROE by not charging them with any wrongdoing we are sending a message to the people of Afghanistan: your lives do not matter. We don’t count them when they end, and if we’re responsible we won’t punish or correct for the reasons why it happened (or worse still, lie about our own dead as well). Happy Memorial Day, Afghanistan.

I should never blog angry or frustrated. But I am both. And I wish I had better a solution.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Nathan May 24, 2008 at 6:36 pm

I think that you’ve misrepresented what I was saying, and you’re kinda-sorta saying I don’t think Afghans have critical thinking skills. It would be more accurate to say that I am skeptical that Afghan critical thinking skills result in the same conclusions you make. After all, we’re dealing with different sets of values and norms.

I also have to throw out that nothing has happened yet. I don’t think it’s unlikely there will be a reaction, but I think it’s worth keeping in mind that the reaction won’t be to what people read in an AP story, but instead to what they hear. And what they hear will be filtered.

My point was essentially that there’s no good way to fix the fuck-up once it’s happened. I see negligible benefit to most realistic courses of action after the initial damage is done, especially in this case. In general, I value history most for how it can help us understand the present and prepare for the future.

And you’re right, one shouldn’t blog angry or frustrated — especially on policy.

fnord May 25, 2008 at 11:17 am

It comes down to what extent the US shows willing to actually prosecute officers who fail in the line of duty. If these marines get off for their actions, they set a precedence. At least their commanding officers should get jailed, not in Afghanistan but in the US. It would curb the macho-bullshit no end.

Darksaga May 25, 2008 at 8:53 pm


I find it interesting that a person of your knowledge and expereince applies an American observence to another culture. Did you effectively subvert the occassion to promote your views? Yes, I believe you did.

I also find it interesting how you, like fnord, not having seen the investigation data are drawing conclusions and assuming guilt.

Josh, do you atleast recognize that the Marine unit was Recon? Essentially, Marine Special Forces without the soft touch. Do you really think they were out on a routine patrol?

Start using your critical thinking skills. The military are not police officers.

BTW Charlie Wilson was referring to appropriate follow up and not leaving the job half done.

Furthermore being an arm chair general doesn’t help anyone.

Jim May 25, 2008 at 10:17 pm

Is it okay to blog while drunk? Software being my other interest, I wonder if there is a “Ballmer Peak” phenomenon for policy. 😛

In relation to the substance of the post itself, and the follow-up comments, I disagree with the statement, “being an arm chair general doesn’t help anyone.”

While Darksaga may (or may not) bring up some valid points of consideration, the outright dismissal of any critical analysis of the military as unhelpful doesn’t even stand up to a moment’s consideration.

To the greater point, I can see Nathan’s perspective that the cat is out of the bag, if you will. But I do think it’s worthwhile to consider that these sort of events have two stages. One is the outrage over the initial incident, and the other is the outrage over its handling. And I don’t think anyone needs reminding of just how effective Afghan citizens can be against a trained Army when they get pissed off and pass that hidden breaking point (that’s a reference to the multiple times the British have been ‘owned’ in Afghanistan, for those keeping score). So while the cat is out of the bag on the incident, perhaps adding insult to injury isn’t wise.

Also, ignoring strategic considerations, shouldn’t we just do the right thing? Isn’t punishing those who don’t represent our purported values the right thing to do?

Perhaps Darksaga is right, and maybe we don’t know all of the facts. Wouldn’t a transparent investigation and court martial provide this? Set a positive example?

Zohra May 26, 2008 at 1:10 pm

Thank you for this revealing post. Blogging angry is what blogging is about. Otherwise, what is the point. Afghan life is just as worthy to remember on Memorial Day as American life. Thank you for making that connection.

Joshua Foust May 26, 2008 at 1:35 pm

Nathan, you’re right — that is what I was trying to get across, and I am sorry if I misrepresented what you said. I was trying to treat it honestly.

Darksaga, I’m basing my opinion on the Marine unit on the testimony of the other military offers stationed in the same base — that shootout was but one of many breaches of protocol, violated orders, and “cowboy behavior” (to quote one LTC) the unit demonstrated. This is not entirely their fault, though they do bear some culpability: from all accounts, this one unit was dropped into the AO without any support, the surrounding units had no guidance for how to interact with and manage them, and there was little oversight of their actions and behaviors.

I think Jim raises the key point about not knowing all the facts here. The Marine investigation unit that chose not to press charges classified all 12,000 pages of testimony and findings from the inquest… so we really have no idea what was said, what they think most likely happened, or who might ultimately be at fault. While it may mean that the Marines are in fact vindicated by the findings, by keeping it secret in the face of a controversial decision, the message is that there is guilt involved, but the reasons for it are so embarrassing the USMC would rather it be kept quiet. Right or wrong, that is the impression this decision gives.

And I feel I should make it clear: for one, Nathan did make a compelling argument about the damage already being done by the time the Marines were whisked home — that is why I tried to represent his view, even if I did so imperfectly. For another, I don’t hate the USMC. As Darksaga notes, they are not police officers, they are an expeditionary fighting force, and they are extremely good at what they do. The Marines have the reputation for peerless performance on the battlefield for a very good reason, and I am proud to have a men I consider close friends to serve with them. The complaint here is about this specific Marine unit, which appears, from accounts in the media, to have behaved recklessly — by being given the wrong job, if it were.

It is just, as with President Bush’s veto of the new GI Bill, the timing — right before Memorial Day Weekend, when we celebrate the service of our armed forces — is particularly bad.

Shohmurod May 27, 2008 at 10:01 am

Attack. Noise. Dust. Blood. Chaos. Shock. Anger. Fright. Flight. Revenge. Coverup. Andijon? No, Jalalabad.

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