There are few if any Afghanistan experts I respect more than Sarah Chayes. A former NPR reporter, she came to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, but unlike most journalists, she did not immediately leave for some other hot spot. She stayed. And she left journalism to make a difference. She founded a cooperative business in Kandahar, Arghand, employing Afghanistan’s lush fruits and herbs to produce first-class soaps and lotions which were then exported abroad, creating a source of employment other than drug production. She also wrote a first-rate book about post-Taliban Afghanistan, “The Punishment of Virtue,” and went on to serve as an adviser to senior U.S. generals. I got to know Chayes during my own trips to Afghanistan and even worked with her briefly on an advisory team in Kabul, and came away tremendously impressed by her depth of knowledge of, and her empathy for, the long-suffering people of Afghanistan.
Yet I must respectfully dissent, just a bit, from this op-ed she just published in the Washington Post which reflects her understandable frustration with the many mistakes made by the U.S. military in Afghanistan. (I should note that I just left Afghanistan after another visit with U.S. troops and their Afghan allies.) She writes that both Staff Sgt. Robert Bales–the soldier who killed 17 civilians in the Panjwai district of southern Afghanistan–and the innocent Afghans he killed are both victims “of a war whose basis in falsehood and self-deception is growing daily more untenable.”
In support of this provocative claim, Chayes cites various incidents where international troops have accidentally killed other Afghan civilians–including her fellow cooperative workers–and inflicted damage property in the course of their war against the Taliban. The war, she argues, is “chewing up the villagers”–and the men who are called upon to leave their homes to fight in Afghanistan. Men like Bales. She writes:
Never before has so much been asked of such a small segment of the American population. A startling proportion of the troops I’ve seen in Afghanistan have deployed three or more times: They make up less than 12 percent of the less than 1 percent of us in uniform. They endure multiple tours, layering scars on top of scars, becoming strangers to their children, unable to readjust to family life before shipping out again, bearing physical and psychological wounds in aching loneliness.
Chayes is absolutely right about the cost of the war on all concerned and about the serious mistakes made by the coalition, including not taking seriously enough the issue of corruption–a concern Chayes has repeatedly and courageously and correctly raised. Where I dissent is in her implication that Bales was a victim of a misguided war policy or that the mistakes that have been made could justify simply pulling out of Afghanistan–not a contention that Chayes makes in her article but a conclusion some will surely take away from it.
However much we ask of men like Bales who have deployed to combat on multiple occasions–however much stress we place on these men or, perhaps more accurately because they are all volunteers, however much stress they place on themselves–it can in no way justify or even explain his terrible acts. Tens of thousands of other veterans have served just as much if not longer in ground combat than Bales has, and they have not turned into homicidal monsters. In fact, their restraint in the use of force and empathy for civilians–exemplified by the recent story of a soldier who gave his life to save an Afghan child–has been exemplary by any standard. No doubt many soldiers have experienced stress and various traumas; but no one has done anything as heinous as what Bales is accused of doing. His act of evil cannot be cited as an example of combat stress. It is sui generis.
As for the Afghan victims of American and other international mistakes: I feel for them, but we must never forget that the international presence is the only thing keeping a far greater evil from taking power–namely the Taliban. Chayes knows better than I do the terrible cruelty inflicted by the Taliban during their years of rule. If we pull out prematurely there is unfortunately a good chance the Taliban will come back into power and Afghanistan will be plunged into another terrible civil war as it was in the 1990s. By contrast, U.S. troops, for all their faults, have managed to push the Taliban out of many of their sanctuaries in Helmand and Kandahar and have given Afghans a chance at a better life. Kabul, for what it’s worth, is a bustling city full of street life, as I saw for myself for the umpteenth time a few days ago–it is a far cry from the devastated metropolis of the 1990s.
I sympathize with Chayes’ laments about American mistakes and the suffering of the Afghan people. But it would be to compound the errors of the past and to increase their suffering of the Afghans for the U.S. to leave prematurely.