Just a couple of days after "Sergeant Massacre" left his base in southern Afghanistan and singlehandedly perpetrated the My Lai of the Afghan War, shooting and evidently in some cases stabbing to death 16 Afghan villagers, including nine children, a district police chief in Kapisa Province reported that a NATO air strike had killed three civilians and injured two more. Mistaken for insurgents, two shopkeepers had, he claimed, died on the spot, as had an elderly man later. A NATO spokesman responded that the dead were, in fact, insurgents, though "additional information" on those deaths was being collected.
Since then, while the media has been filled with discussion of the until recently unidentified sergeant's atrocity and what it means for America's war in Afghanistan, those other dead Afghans have typically faded into obscurity. There have been no further reports on what happened to them, nor, as far as we know, has one of the scores of U.S. and NATO "investigations" so-thorough-they-never-manage-to-see-the-light-of-day been launched. But those three contested deaths, not the sergeant's grim, up-close-and-personal slaughter, best catch the nature of America's Afghan War, ever since in December 2001 a B-52 and two B-1B bombers took out 110 of 112 Afghan villagers celebrating a wedding. Though the sergeant's acts have been headlined, Afghans have been dying, largely unnoticed here, for a long while now. The truth is this: from the air and on the ground, Americans have been profligate with Afghan lives.
Now, thanks to the Koran burnings and those 16 deaths that have refused to fade into obscurity, Washington faces its destiny in Afghanistan, long written in dead bodies. The Obama administration, which doubled down on "the right war" in 2009, confronts a situation that was guaranteed to end badly from the moment George W. Bush and his top advisors decided that taking out al-Qaeda wasn't enough, that the U.S. was going to stay in Afghanistan and dominate the Greater Middle East for generations.
Sergeant Massacre, like those charred Korans, is simply a harbinger of the arrival of the predictable endpoint of that disastrous decision. Even Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta knows that if we stay in Afghanistan, so, after a fashion, will the staff sergeant. As he said recently, "These kinds of events and incidents are going to take place... in any war... and this is not the first of those events, and it probably will not be the last." Yet the Obama administration seens incapable of stopping. Panetta finished his comments this way: "But we cannot allow these events to undermine our strategy." That sums up the folly of Washington today. "These events" are, in reality, making a mockery of that strategy, but the momentum of these last years still carries them toward an Afghanistan forever policy, even when their eyes tell them otherwise and the panic sets in.
Not surprisingly, this leads to a striking set of inanities. A New York Times piece on the debate in Washington about speeding up the troop pullout, for instance, included these bizarre passages from an assortment of typically unnamed American and European "officials." Speaking of an upcoming Afghan War meeting in Chicago, they claimed that "Mr. Obama and the NATO allies... must... present a picture of success that includes... a NATO withdrawal that is coming only after a job well done... A European official said... that it was imperative that the United States and its NATO partners project a public face to the Afghans that while NATO troops will be leaving Afghanistan, the West will not abandon the country. "The most important thing now is the messaging,' the official said."
As it happens, whatever "face" they choose to project, the messaging is already clear. But the momentum is real, too, and the Obama administration clearly has little idea how to put on the brakes. Domestically, there's a similar grim momentum at work, also set off in the early Bush years, and still operative. TomDispatch regular Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, catches Washington's unnerving national security "messaging" of this moment with uncanny accuracy. (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Greenberg discusses a new American state of "legal limbo," click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom
Ever More and Ever Less
The Unstoppable Legacy of the War on Terror
By Karen J. Greenberg
By now, you'd think we'd be entering the end of the 9/11 era. One war over in the Greater Middle East, another hurtling disastrously to its end, and the threat of al-Qaeda so diminished that it should hardly move the needle on the national worry meter. You might think, in fact, that the moment had arrived to turn the American gaze back to first principles: the Constitution and its protections of rights and liberties.
Yet warning signs abound that 2012 will be another year in which, in the name of national security, those rights and liberties are only further Guantanamo-ized and abridged. Most notably, for example, despite the fact that genuinely dangerous enemies continue to exist abroad, there is now a new enemy in our sights: namely, American oppositional types and whistleblowers who are charged as little short of traitors for revealing the workings of our government to journalists and others.
Here and elsewhere, it looks like we can expect the Obama administration to continue to barrel down the path that has already taken us far from the country we used to be. And by next year, if a different president is in the Oval Office, expect him to lead us even further astray. With that in mind, here are five categories in the sphere of national security where 2012 is likely to prove even grimmer than 2011.
1. Ever More Punitive (Ever Less Fair-minded).
Those who imagine the era of overreach in the name of national security coming to an end any time soon would do well to remember that some spectacular national security trials are on the horizon -- and that we may be entering a new age of governmental vindictiveness. Among the most newsworthy of those trials: the military commissions at Guantanamo that will bring to the docket Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attack, and his co-conspirators, as well as Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the alleged point person in the 2000 suicide attack on the U.S.S. Cole in the port of Aden. These will likely include capital charges and be prosecuted in a spirit of vengeance.
But that spirit won't stop with al-Qaeda ringleaders and operatives. A series of cases not involving attacks on or the killing of Americans will also be argued in the name of national security and in a similar spirit of vengeance. To begin with, there is the upcoming court martial of Pfc. Bradley Manning, accused of downloading classified U.S. government documents and leaking them to the website WikiLeaks. And then, of course, there is the potential prosecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in federal court -- a federal grand jury is now considering his indictment -- for his alleged collaboration with Manning.
Both cases have been hailed with a righteous anger that might strike an outsider as akin to frothing at the mouth. Top officials have insisted that the WikiLeaks materials threatened American lives and left "blood" on the hands of both Assange and Manning (though no one has yet pointed to a single individual physically harmed by the release of those documents).
At the more bloodthirsty end of the American political spectrum, former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and Congressman Mike Rogers (R-MI), among others, have called for Manning's execution. As Rogers explained, "I argue the death penalty clearly should be considered here" [Manning] clearly aided the enemy to what may result in the death of U.S. soldiers or those cooperating. If that is not a capital offense, I don't know what is."