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Bored to Death in Afghanistan (and Washington)

If nobody told you otherwise, you could easily believe that almost every breaking Afghan story came from some previous year of the war.

| Thu May 19, 2011 6:55 PM EDT

As it happens, however, from the moment that a B-52 and two B-1B bombers, using precision-guided weapons, destroyed a village wedding party in December 2001, killing 110 out of 112 revelers (only the first of numerous wedding parties to be blown away during these years), such civilian casualties have been the drumbeat behind the war. The Afghan dead—slaughtered by Taliban suicide bombers and IEDs as well—have risen in a charnel heap high above those of September 11, 2001.

Accompanying such stories over the years have been passages like this one from the Times piece: "When morning came, an angry crowd gathered in Narra, the boy's village, and more than 200 people marched with his body to the district center. Some of the men were armed and confronted the police, shouting anti-American slogans and throwing rocks at police vehicles and the... government center, according to the district governor and the [local school] headmaster. "

This is the never-ending story of the war, the one whose only variations involve whether, faced with such deaths, US military spokespeople will stonewall and deny, launch an "investigation" that goes nowhere, or offer a pro forma apology. When it came to the death of that girl recently, an apology was indeed issued, but her father made the essential point: "They killed my 12-year-old daughter and my brother-in-law and then told me, 'We are sorry.' What does it mean? What pain can be cured by this word 'sorry'?"
 

Rogue War

When it comes to the Afghan War, there are other news stories of the present moment that were also the Afghan news of 2006, 2008, and 2010. There's even the newest hot set of rumors about US attempts to open negotiations with the Taliban, whose last iteration ended when American officials discovered that the Taliban "senior commander" they had flown to Kabul was actually a clever impostor (who made off with a pile of money). But let's consider just one more story, the seventh headline of this moment, versions of which have headlined many other moments in these years, and ask whether there isn't something—anything at all—new to be learned from it.

* "Afghan officer fires on NATO troops, kills 9": This was breaking news when it happened. On April 25th, a veteran Afghan air force pilot, armed with two weapons and in a specially guarded and secure area of Kabul airport, suddenly opened fire on a group of Americans evidently involved in a training program for Afghan pilots. He gunned down eight US Air Force personnel, including a lieutenant colonel, four majors, two captains, and a master sergeant, as well as a private contractor (himself a retired US military officer) before being killed. It was "the deadliest episode to date of an Afghan turning against his own coalition partners." But hardly the only one. In a sense, this was no news at all. It was already at least the fourth time in 2011 that someone dressed in an Afghan army or police uniform had turned a weapon on US or NATO personnel. Among such incidents was one just three weeks earlier in which a man wearing a border police uniform, reportedly "upset over the recent burning of the Quran at a Florida church," killed two Americans, and another in February in which an Afghan soldier, reportedly "offended by his German partners," killed three of them, wounding yet more.

By military count, since March 2009, 17 such incidents have been reported. Since the mass killing at Kabul airport, there has already been an 18th in which, according to sketchy reports, a man in an Afghan police uniform opened fire on two NATO personnel at a "luncheon" in Helmand Province in the country's embattled south. In such incidents, at least 34 Americans have died. (Not counted in this total, evidently, is an incident in January 2010 in which a Taliban double or triple agent blew himself up amid a group of CIA employees on a forward operating base in Eastern Afghanistan, killing seven of them, including the station chief.)

Such incidents pile up repetitively, without adding up to anything of significance here. Yes, the literal math has been done and it should be striking, even shocking, to Americans, and yet these news stories seldom get much attention and have already fallen into a he said/he said pattern in which the only crucial question becomes: Was the killer a Taliban plant or a "rogue" member of the Afghan security forces? As soon as such an attack occurs, the Taliban—which has made striking strides in entering the modern age of media spin—promptly takes credit for it, claiming that whoever blew away a coalition soldier was one of its own and the incident a carefully planned operation.

It's easy to understand why the Taliban would want to associate itself with such events. Harder to grasp—though no reporter seems to give it a second thought—is the US/NATO response. Their spokespeople regularly hustle out statements insisting that whoever attacked US or coalition personnel was not connected to the Taliban, but simply having a truly bad day/life (experiencing, say, financial or psychological stress) and that, as a result, the incident was an "isolated" one, "not part of any organized pattern," or as an American general summed it up to reporters, "rare." And yet the phenomenon turns out to be common enough that the military has a label for it: "green-on-blue" violence.

Consider this, though: Is the thought that the enemy is capable of repeatedly infiltrating American or NATO ranks really more devastating than the thought that, on a really bad day, "our" Afghans, the ones we are training or regularly working side-by-side with, have a deep-seated, repetitive urge to blow the foreigners away? That seems to me the devastating message US military officials are rushing to reinforce.

Can you, in fact, even come up with a comparable historical situation? Admittedly, when weaponry is everywhere, war is the subject, and hair-trigger is the attitude, people can die in all sorts of ways, as "fragging" incidents in the US military in the Vietnam era indicated. (There was, in fact, one such incident at a military base in Kuwait as the invasion of Iraq began and, more recently of course, a disturbed Army psychiatrist, Major Nidal Hasan, went on a rampage, killing 13 people at Fort Hood in Texas.)

Still, where else is there such a record of police and military personnel blowing away their own trainers and ostensible allies so often? Isn't it possible that all those "rogues" are offering a collective message Americans simply don't care to hear?

Despite the almost unbroken and certainly repetitive record of three decades of war and destruction, there are undoubtedly new stories to be found under the Afghan sun (as well as across the border in roiling Pakistan). It's just that you aren't likely to find them in American war coverage, in part because you aren't likely to find them in American strategic or tactical thinking.

Perhaps the real question is this: What does it tell us when neither a new policy thought nor a new story can come out of a disastrous war almost 10 years old?

What does it mean when a great power proves incapable of learning anything from its own past actions? What does it mean when you can't think creatively or reimagine the world in a land that has so often been referred to as "the graveyard of empire"? Is it really so hard to guess?

And by the way, is anybody bored to death yet? Then, what if, for the sake of having one new story to write, we decided to come home?

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's (Haymarket Books). To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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