March 25, 2012

Afghan Victims Forgotten in Washington's Blame Game

Mohammed Wazir, the newest face of America's war in Afghanistan

The remorse came flooding into Panjwai as quickly as it drained into oblivion. Condolences, promises to hold a swift investigation and, most importantly, assurances that the cold-blooded shootings of one U.S. soldier don't speak for Afghanistan's entire foreign military presence. Just as he had done following Bagram's Quran bonfire, President Barack Obama phoned Hamid Karzai to assure him that Robert Bales' actions won't be repeated. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta soon told reporters in Kabul, "we extended our deepest condolences to the families, to the villages and to the Afghan people over what occurred. And I again pledged to him that we are - we are proceeding with a full investigation here and that we will bring the individual involved to justice."

Except the idea of swift justice has more to do with clearing Bales from the news cycle than anything else. Now all Washington and Bales' lawyers are interested in is pointing fingers at each other.

Given the accessibility gap between an individual's history and two unsecured Afghan villages, the world began to consume the murky details of Robert Bales before Balandi and Alkozai came into clearer view. Thousands of reports have attempted to uncover Bales's background after his profile was illuminated by leaks from the Obama administration: alcohol use and "domestic problems." These angles are designed to simultaneously explain why he "snapped" and deflect attention away from his over-deployment, and thus draw attention away from the war itself. The administration then sprayed another layer of propaganda over Panjwai, deploying-ranking officials such as Panetta, CJCS Martim Dempsey and commanding general John Allen to laud NATO's progress on the military front.

Panjwai is an inconvenience, another "incident" that Washington and Kabul need to move forward from.

Responding to questions about the connection between Bales's massacre and reports of a recent IED in the area, U.S. Army spokesman Gary Kolb answered with a universal statement: "we won't speak to any specifics of what some of the villagers are saying." That's left the villagers themselves to fill the information sphere even though Afghans are more likely to believe themselves. Those who perceive Bales's actions as retaliation for the alleged IED include Mohammed Wazir, the man who lost his mother, wife and all but one child in the shooting - 11 family members in total. He also keeps an open kind to the multiple-gunman theory that proliferated in the villages, despite Kabul's public conclusion that no witness saw a second gunman with their own eyes.

In either case, the Obama administration will be unable to force its version of the massacre on Afghans who complain of being left in the dark. Wazir points to U.S. claims that only one shooter committed the shootings, saying, "It shows that they are not interested in the truth. At least they should wait for an investigation." He added that no U.S. officials "have come to investigate, or to talk to us, or seen the village." The truth could be equally defeating; two U.S. investigators said that Bales likely returned to base before continuing his personal night raid. That leaves the base itself to be viewed as complicit in the attack or else incompetent - something that wasn't supposed to happen after U.S. soldiers charred a box of Qurans.

“When we got to my home," Wazir says, "more than 1,000 people were standing with sticks and hunting guns, saying they wanted to attack the American base."

This animosity is further compounded by witness testimony that U.S. military officials had encouraged villagers to return to the area. After losing his brother, Mohammad Dawood, to one of Bales's first bullets, Mullah Baran captured the all-encompassing breakdown within U.S. "The Americans said they came here to bring peace and security, but the opposite happened. Now, this village is a nest of ghosts."

In regards to the conditions of Bales's trial, Panetta claimed that Karzai accepted the administration's decision to fly him out of the country and hold "a transparent process" for Afghans - as if Karzai had a choice. Livid at being undermined once again, Karzai travelled to the villages and condemned Washington's failure to cooperate with his own investigation. A demand that U.S. troops withdraw from village areas by 2013 soon followed. Karzai knows too well that a failure to punish Bales to the maximum extent will land on his desk, and seems to expect the inevitable. Pulling Bales out of the country represents the fastest motion by the Obama administration. Now that the Pentagon's legal charges are being handed down, Bales's lawyer said he expects the government to face "a very difficult case to prove."

John Henry Browne predicted, "All my cases start out with the government making as many charges as they can and then we spend months, years sometimes - in this case it will be years - whittling them down hopefully."

Afghans affected by the massacre have a closer, speedier trial in mind. They view Bales's return to America as evidence that he will be prosecuted more leniently than his crime warrants; raw distance manifests in the two countries' sense of justice. If Bales isn't put to death immediately, his trial should be held in Afghanistan in order to bring a brief measure of closure to the families. A U.S. trial "is not acceptable to us," Wazir warned during a Friday interview from the border town of Spin Boldak. "We want him to be tried in Afghanistan, in our presence."

Instead of being treated with respect after losing nearly all of family, Wazir has been left on the side of America's war path: "Like anyone, I wanted my children to be doctors, engineers — important people. All my dreams are buried under a pile of dust now."

Other relatives of the deceased complain of similar mistreatment and demand the same justice. Haji Samad, an elder whose family members were among those killed, expressed his feelings in simple terms, saying, "If this man is prosecuted in Afghanistan, we will be relieved. If he is prosecuted in the US, we will be angry and it will remain a pain in our hearts." Naturally the Taliban have incorporated this doubt into their ongoing propaganda. Another man who lost his wife, cousin, brother and 3-year-old granddaughter feels that Washington is intentionally offending Afghans by continuing NATO patrols in the area.

"There is still blood in our houses," said Sayed Jan. "It hasn't been removed. And they are moving through our streets again. It's like they are pushing us, just showing that they can."

According to various reports, all Afghans scarred by Bales's shootings have received compensation for their losses. Karzai immediately distributed $2,000 to the families and later invited them to the Kandahar governor's office, where U.S. military officials handed out additional U.S. payments. Wazir confirmed that he had received $50,000 for each family member, a figure that attempts to reflect the magnitude of his losses, but the current father of one doesn't "consider the money as compensation for human loss." Other Afghans, including Kandahar council member Hajji Agha Lalai, expressed the same opinion.

“We are grateful to the United States government for its help with the grieved families," he said. "But this cannot be counted as compensation for the deaths."

Wazir and his shell shocked neighbors don't want to hear about America's "progress" in their country. They want the justice that they feel has already been robbed from them.

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