Michael's Dispatches

The Panjway 16

15 March 2012

The New York Daily News asked for an op-ed on the mass murder in Afghanistan.  I invested several hours writing and they took it as is. As per normal, they changed the title.  Practically every publication does this to suit their specific readership, and that’s fine.  But on my website we can stick with the original title,

“The Panjway 16.”

image-1000Are some in the American forces buckling under the pressure of war?

The mass murder in Afghanistan was predictable. Twice in the past three weeks, I published that it was coming. Why was I able to write this with sad confidence? I’ve spent more time with combat troops in these wars than any other writer: about four years in total in country, and three with combat troops.

About 200 coalition members have been killed or wounded from insider attacks. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is tantamount to being Taliban and has not bothered to apologize. Instead, Karzai whips up anti-U.S. fervor at every opportunity. Twice, Karzai has threatened to leave politics and join the Taliban.

Even our most disciplined troops — not the few problem troops — have lost all idealism. They have not lost heart for the fight. Mostly, they just don’t care. They fight because they are ordered to fight, but they have eyes wide open. The halfhearted surge and sudden drawdown leave little room for success.

We face a discipline collapse. The bulk of our force is solid — then there’s a small fraction, probably a sliver of a percent, who might be crushed by the pressure.

On Feb. 24, I published:

“As the prevalence of insider attacks rises, and we lose more troops to Afghan troops going berserk and murdering our people, it’s likely just a matter of time before a U.S. troop or troops turn the table and intentionally slaughter Afghan forces.

“That could lead to a meltdown. We are at risk of losing control of more than some people might imagine. There is only so much that U.S. forces will put up with before fringe U.S. combat troops start taking matters into their own hands. Believe me.”

The next day, I published, “If things keep going this way, my expectation is that it’s a matter of time before discipline breaks and the gun turns.”

I’ve seen a few men on our side precariously close to the edge. In fact, my official embed status was ended by the Army in August 2011 after I wrote about issues with three soldiers.

I was accused of saying there were issues because I was disembedded. Yet the written trail and chronology is clear: I publicized discipline problems, then the Army circled the wagons and I was shown the door.

I published that a master sergeant stationed in Kandahar was homicidal after he strongly hinted at murder on his website. For years, he had been writing about his mental issues — yet the Army sent him to Afghanistan. Between hate-filled rants about gays and so on, he would write about his mental illness. In January of this year, he turned himself in to a clinic in Kandahar for mental issues.

Why was this guy armed and in Afghanistan in the first place? (He had nothing to do with the 16 murders.)

The 16 murder victims, including women and small children, are Pashtun. Pashtuns live by a code called Pashtunwali, which they take as seriously as the Koran. Pashtunwali includes “nanawatai” (asylum), “badal” (justice/revenge), “tureh” (bravery, specifically protecting women, children and property) and “namus” (honor of women).

Pashtunwali commitment to “badal” makes the Hatfields and McCoys look like a schoolyard fight. Nor is this just a Pashtun thing. There is an annual bloodfest between the Hazaras and Kuchis. That feud should be cranking up again with spring.

Afghan feuds are famously persistent. Badal carries through the generations like DNA. A grandson not born today might take revenge for events decades before his birth. He may kill someone who also was not born at that time.

Panjwai district, the scene of the crime, had been one of the most dangerous districts in Afghanistan. Panjwai saw major battles involving Canadian, U.S., U.K., Dutch and Afghan forces. Many hundreds of enemy were estimated killed, and we took substantial casualties.

Progress was happening there. In early 2011, I drove there from Kandahar city without the military. The mood of the locals was tense. The journey was unsafe, but the fact that we entered what had previously been a Taliban-owned district, and returned safely, was demonstrative.

Yet in one furious night of murder, a single U.S. soldier (apparently) has wiped Panjwai progress off the map.

Karzai is Pashtun. He said, “This is an assassination, an intentional killing of innocent civilians, and cannot be forgiven.”

Afghans will seek revenge and they will have it. This will lead to yet greater possibilities of another mass murder from our side. We are considering holding the trial in Afghanistan. Pashtuns don’t care about our justice system. They don’t even care about the Afghan government; they want blood for blood. We are being drawn into a feud.

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