Afghanistan’s Tragedy of the Commons

I wasn’t a bit surprised by the news of the horrific massacre of Afghan civilians by a deranged noncom in a Stryker brigade. Not because I think this sort of thing goes on all the time: in my seven embeds with American troops in Afghanistan, I’ve seen unbelievable patience with hostile locals. But because it was only a matter of time before the inherent frustrations of “counterinsurgency” in Afghanistan collided with some individual who was at the end of his tether, and who joined derangement with weaponry.

When you’ve been deployed in a rural area of operations for some months, you know full well the degree of complicity of local civilians in the IED attacks that kill Afghans and American troops.  Yes, there are heroes in the Pashtun belt, and it has been my privilege to know some, now slain—like the mayor of Kandahar, Ghulam Hamid, and Bismallah, the police chief of Gorbuz District, Khost; and some still living, like Haji Doulat, the subgovernor of Mandozai, also in Khost. But these are vastly outnumbered by those who look the other way at the murder of their own citizens and ours. I have known brilliant young Americans blown up by IEDs that many Afghans must have seen planted. These were men like Captain Dan Whitten, 27, slain in Zabul, a West Point grad I was told by a brigadier general to “keep in my Rolodex” because he would be a general officer some day.

Dan would have taken a bullet for an Afghan civilian without even thinking about it. He and his fellow officers were trying to clean up governance in filthy little Zabul, only President Karzai kept reinstating the drug dealers and child rapers (no joke) that the 82nd Airborne tried to remove. No one will bother now. No one but the Americans bothered then. The Afghan subgovernors and police chiefs in Zabul range from the mediocre to psychopathic criminals. And our man President Karzai is behind the very worst of them. The US, and particularly the US Army, has done a lot of good in Afghanistan, building schools, roads, dams, streetlights, and jumpstarting commerce. Sample Afghan reaction: in Zabul, the solar-powered streetlights Americans installed in the main bazaars have been stolen, reputedly not just by individuals who want to light their homes, but by Taliban who used them to power their relay radios. Talk about the tragedy of the commons.

It’s been clear for a couple of years now to everyone concerned—with the exception of some diehard ideologues, who will have to answer to their consciences some day—that our time in Afghanistan is up. The horrific slayings in  Kandahar Province underline that. But we should remember that for every American who has shamed our flag in Afghanistan, there are tens of  thousands who have honored it, and, unfortunately, thousands who have died doing so.


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