Late Friday, the United States Armed Forces revealed the identity of the suspected perpetrator of a civilian massacre in the villages of Balandi and Alkozai in the southern Kandahar region of Afghanistan that killed 16 individuals, including 9 children. This horrifying attack on unarmed innocents is only the latest in a series of episodes involving U.S. troops that have attracted bad publicity (and corresponding intensified anger toward coalition forces) in the last few weeks, including two provocative incidents where U.S. Marines were video-taped urinating on the bodies of dead Afghanis and soliders engaged in the burning of Qurans at the Bagram Airforce Base in Kabul.
As the Obama administration haplessly attempts to placate the Karzai regime that (at least publically) states it wants the U.S. military to leave, it also continues to weigh extending the 2014 U.S. withdrawal date. However, with incidents of brutality and disrespect amongst the rank and file on the rise, can the U.S. afford to lose its soul to gain security and stability in Afghanistan?
Enlisted immediately after the 9/11 attacks, Robert Bales was a veteran of three tours of service in Iraq before being deployed to Afghanistan last fall. By most accounts, he was a good soldier, earning a medal of commendation during previous campaigns. Bales himself stressed the importance of safeguarding civilian lives, expressing pride in the soldiers under his command in the battle of Najaf, Iraq in 2007, as “we discriminated between the bad guys and the non-combatants.” At home, Bales is remembered as a gregarious family man, although he has a troubling past of an assault complaint in 2002 and another charge of leaving the scene of an accident in 2009 which were apparently not known — or considered —in his military profile.
While there is no record of physical or mental disorders, he was injured twice in Iraq and witnessed combat wounds amongst fellow troops (including one gruesome incident the day before his attack). He was also thought to be drinking heavily in Afghanistan, including the evening of the massacre in the villages.
Over the weekend, Bales retained the services of high profile attorney John Henry Browne, who has defended several “celebrity” clients (including serial murderer Ted Bundy and the “Barefoot Bandit” Colton Harris-Moore), in preparation for an apparent insanity plea. As Browne told an assembled press conference, his client was a “mild-mannered” soldier who bore no animous toward Muslims. “I think it's of interest that we have a soldier who has an exemplary record, a decorated soldier who was injured in Iraq, to his brain and to his body and then despite that was sent back,” he argued, continuing, “It's a tragedy all the way round, there's no question about that. I think the message for the public in general is that he's one of our boys and they need to treat him fairly."
Whether or not Bale was motivated by the delusions of post-traumatic stress disorder, viewing the Staff Sgt. as a mentally-disturbed lone wolf ignores a broader pattern of military misconduct that must be considered in the debate over U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. As lessons from the Israeli case in Lebanon and the occupied territories, the British and French colonial experience, and previous U.S. operations in Vietnam and Iraq demonstrate, when liberal democracies occupy other countries in the name of nation-building, it often not only fosters corruption within the regimes they intend to assist, but has unintended moral consequences for themselves.
In spite of the fact that the mission in Afghanistan remains incomplete — a corrupt, ineffectual government, an indigenous armed forces incapable of defending against both internal and external threats, a restive and emboldened Taliban, a harbor for Al-Qaida and terrorist groups, an anemic civil society, and many other concerns — the consequences of remaining on the ground may be too great. The United States must carefully consider whether it is willing to win the battle for Afghanistan, but lose the war for its own soul in the process.