Foreign Policy Blogs

Perception is Reality: the Problem in Afghanistan Today

Perception is Reality: the Problem in Afghanistan TodayPerception is reality, here there and in Afghanistan; and for good reason, whatever the truth. After thirty years of near constant war the Afghan people might be forgiven for not being bothered to test their reality for truth, when often enough their lives are bought for cheap blood money and whatever passes for reality is a tough affair.

This past Sunday afternoon, March 11, 2012, a 38 year old U.S. Army staff sergeant, a married man and father of two, just set loose in Kandahar after three tours of duty in Iraq, allegedly left his base, walked into the neighboring village of Panjwai and there broke into three households where, in turn, he serially executed 16 innocent civilians, 9 of them children, the youngest only two years old.

After his killing spree, the yet unnamed staff sergeant allegedly burned the bodies of several victims, possibly to hide the stab wounds on the faces and heads of the babies he’d just murdered, again, allegedly. He later went back to his forward operating base (FOB) and, confessing to the murders, handed himself over to his fellow officers.(There is an alternative story about his arrest: a search party was formed after an Afghan soldier alerted someone to the unnamed soldier’s absence. After a search through the village, the soldier was found in a field, resting, though one wonders whether restive.)

Now this soldier has been shipped out to Kuwait, far from a maddened crowd. Afghans out on the streets are angry, protesting the move. For they think: of course, after tinkering around with the law, fidgeting with this and that evidence the United States courts, military or otherwise, will let this man walk free. This is their perception; no doubt, they think this is also their reality.

There’s much to that perception, and therefore the reality it engenders, whatever the truth. Successive U.S. governments have fought hard to make sure that no American soldier is prosecuted under the jurisdiction of another sovereign state. (This is the principle reason no administration has, nor is any future administration likely to, ratify the Rome Statute to accede into the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.) Further, consider that out of eight Marines, the only one convicted of committing the 2005 Haditha Massacre in Iraq, did not see jail time. Consider also that in the unfortunate case of the accidental Qu’ran burning no one was punished, in a way that say an Afghan might be punished in Afghanistan. Prosecution in the U.S. a country with considerably more lax laws, where burning a bible isn’t illegal, much less given to corporal punishment, Afghans fear that much else will go awry: the families of the butchered 16 will not see justice.

The perception that the unnamed soldier will walk will no doubt be fanned into a mirage of reality for, and within, an ever-angrier crowd. These terrible events transpired this past Sunday; there’s yet the first Friday prayer to account for after that heinous act. It’s likely that hard-line partisans and nationalist clerics will call on more youth to get out on the street to stand up for Afghan claims of justice, still unmet after ten years of constant war under U.S. and NATO occupation. (There are by now, at least two generations of Afghans who have known political and social calm only as stopovers between long stretches of war; thirty years worth.)

The reality is that the U.S government must be a fair regent of justice for the Afghan people. The terrible crimes were committed in Kandahar, the Taliban’s stronghold and the Taliban now seem to be ascendant. To fight back the Taliban who will not be stalled, certainly not bowed, the U.S. needs to do a fair job of prosecuting this man in a way that does not seem a paltry move on Afghan streets (all the while attending to American public sentiment for American soldiers and their altogether terrible plight, one deployment after another; often one deployment too many).

That one soldier, three stints in, possibly suffering mental illness, was one of nearly 90,000 soldiers, the vast majority of whom routinely fight the “enemy”, while treating civilians with the respect they are due. This is reality. A patently true one. Nevertheless another reality is that the vile, brutal actions of one soldier, whatever the state of his mental health has undone a lot of good work that the U.S government and NATO have done over the course of the last ten years. There was a lot of infrastructure built for a nation that has not yet come together. That’s a reality that Afghans and Americans alike will have to live with. The 2001 invasion of Afghanistan was justified on the grounds of capturing al Qaeda, who were then guests of Mullah Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban. Now gone, al Qaeda, dislocated, made incapable of strategic moves in Afghanistan, Afghans have been left a corrupt and indecent government. Meanwhile the Taliban, grass roots and national groups alike, have shown themselves to be a competent lot, the only Leviathan worth allegiance or even the slightest respect.

For, the perception in Afghanistan, fed by the Leviathan Taliban, and increasingly in the rest of the world is that the actions of that one lone soldier are part of a pattern of gross inhumane behavior on the part of the members of the occupying U.S. and NATO security forces. The perception in Afghanistan is that the Karzai regime in Kabul is a puppet government beholden only to their international donors. In that they are not wrong. The truth, of course, is that the actions of one soldier were just that. They were not part of a directed or designed pattern that can be justly perceived. The truth, of course, is that the Karzai regime chose to depend on U.S and international donor aid, rather than set itself up for decent politics for a decent people. But that’s beside the point.

The reality is that the U.S. must move swiftly to set right the perception of the country as, at best, a helpful, if not entirely impartial, peace-keeper between the Taliban and the Karzai regime. This is, of course, a fanciful turn. Nevertheless that fanciful turn, defined pragmatically, should be the goal of U.S. policy; its outcomes, even if far from this goal, due necessarily to the Karzai regimes incompetence and corruption, should map a perhaps circuitous, certainly difficult, path to reconciliation. For though nation building is no longer part of the story, it tells itself to justify its involvement in Afghanistan, national interest is. And it is in the interest of national interest that the U.S government must, somehow, be reconciled to the justly angry people of Afghanistan.

(I’ll soon offer some solutions that others have proposed before and have done a better job of it, I’m sure. But perhaps I can conjoin those solutions to other musings on whatever might pass for a separate peace with the Taliban.)

Image Courtesy of AFP.



Faheem Haider

Faheem Haider is a political analyst, writer and artist. He holds advanced research degrees in political economy, political theory and the political economy of development from the London School of Economics and Political Science and New York University. He also studied political psychology at Columbia University. During long stints away from his beloved Washington Square Park, he studied peace and conflict resolution and French history and European politics at the American University in Washington DC and the University of Paris, respectively.

Faheem has research expertise in democratic theory and the political economy of democracy in South Asia. In whatever time he has to spare, Faheem paints, writes, and edits his own blog on the photographic image and its relationship to the political narrative of fascist, liberal and progressivist art.

That work and associated writing can be found at the following link: