September 18, 2021

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The worst day in Afghanistan

The suicide bombing at Kabul airport was the largest single-day loss of life for Americans in the Afghan war since 2011. It was a terrible day, but it raises the question: what was the worst day of the war Afghan?

At first, it’s hard not to consider the August 26 attack the worst day, with 13 Americans and at least 169 Afghans dead. How old were the Americans? How many hadn’t even gotten out of diapers when the war started 20 years ago? Has anyone had parents who also served in Afghanistan? Who were the Afghans? All the dead were so close to safety, after who knows what journey together so far: a hundred meters across the asphalt and on an airplane. Good people only die at the last minute in bad movies and sometimes in real life.

But was it the worst day? Do we count the dead? The worst day for American casualties was August 6, 2011, when a CH-47 Chinook helicopter was shot down over eastern Afghanistan. Thirty Americans, including 22 SEALs, died that day.

There have been many other worse days. On June 28, 2005, 19 special operations troops were killed during Operation Red Wings. Three service members were ambushed and 16 others lost their lives when their helicopter crashed in an attempt to help them.

On July 13, 2008, nine Americans were killed and another 27 wounded in an attack on an American observation post in the Battle of Wanat.

On October 3, 2009, eight Americans and four Afghans were killed at the Keating fighting outpost when 200 Taliban fighters attacked the base in eastern Afghanistan.

On December 30, 2009, a Jordanian double agent lured seven CIA agents to death in a suicide attack on Forward Operating Base Chapman.

On September 21, 2010, a Black Hawk helicopter crashed in Qalat, killing five 101st Airborne soldiers, three Navy SEALs and a support engineer.

On April 27, 2011, eight US airmen and a contractor were killed at Kabul airport. A US-trained allied Afghan Air Corps pilot got angry during an argument and started shooting.

The worst day may have been one of hundreds of other green-on-blue murders, incidents in which an Afghan soldier purposely killed an American ally, the worst kind of evidence we had lost, and we refused to believe that reality until when belief was imposed on us.

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Or perhaps the worst day, symbolically, was February 8, 2020, when two American soldiers were killed fighting in eastern Afghanistan, the last dead in “combat”. Between those deaths and the death of the suicide bomber at Kabul airport, five other Americans died in “non-hostile” suicides and accidents. Those were bad days too.

The worst day could have been the death of Pat Tillman, the NFL star and American poster boy who ceremoniously enlisted in the military after 9/11 only to die in a barrage of friendly fire and Pentagon lies. Or maybe it was after a Taliban IED tore up State Department officer Anne Smedinghoff on a propaganda mission. Would they both have been proud to give their lives in those ways, knowing what we know now?

Perhaps the worst day was when a soldier at home, thinking his war was over, realized he was scammed, it was all a lie, that he never fought to defend America or help the Afghans, and not even his friend who died among the poppies outside a nameless village. Maybe it was when he realized his father had told him the same thing about Vietnam. Or maybe it was when he heard President Biden, mentally stuck in 2006, claim that the people killed at the Kabul airport were in fact “lives given in the service of freedom”.

Or the worst day could be tonight, when an American veteran tells his wife after a couple of too many that he’s out to clean his gun in the garage. An average of 20 veterinarians take their own lives every day. On August 16, the day after the fall of Kabul, the veterans administration’s crisis line recorded a 12% increase in calls.

Of course, Afghans have had worse days too, although no one really keeps track of those. The suicide bombing at Kabul airport must occupy a prominent place. Or it could have been when the United States bombed an Afghan hospital. Or maybe when an American drone, our national bird, attacked a wedding party. The airstrike of Haska Meyna’s wedding party killed 47 civilians. Another air strike on a wedding party killed 40 civilians. The attack on Wech Baghtu’s wedding party resulted in 37 victims. An air strike on the village of Azizabad killed as many as 92 civilians. Another US drone attack destroyed 32 pine nut farmers.

Since the big days for Afghans were often covered instead of mourning, no one knows which was the worst. We hide behind an Orwellian term that is too macabre for Orwell – collateral damage – to mean sudden, acute, complete, unnecessary and anonymous violence. For most Afghans, it defined our war against them.

Or perhaps judging the worst day for the Afghan side by simply counting the corpses is wrong; there were so many. But if pain is the metric, then the worst day for Afghans clearly happened inside one of the black sites, where the United States as a national policy tortured humans to death.

We only know one name out of many. Gul Rahman died almost naked, wearing only socks and a diaper, chained to the floor at a black CIA site, a black site for freedom, though no one can really explain the connection anymore. He had been subjected to 48 hours of sleep deprivation, mistreatment and cold showers, interrogated 18 hours a day. There were 20 other cells nearby for other Afghans. A CIA council recommended disciplinary action for the man held responsible for the death, but it was overruled.

Those worst days highlight the long line of atrocities committed in Afghanistan (and Iraq, Vietnam and …) instances where our killing of civilians, whether accidental or intentional or something tainted in between, has ruined any chance the United States could. capture those hearts and minds and build a stable society in our image. We may keep up with the tanks, but achieve our broader national security goals only through memory. That’s why we lost.

Because it is so difficult to understand 20 years of tragedy, we focus on something small and fetishize it, turning it into a sign, a symbol of greater failure that is easier to grasp, easier to recognize. Few Americans know much about the horrors inflicted during the decades of the Vietnam War, but if they know anything they know My Lai. As documented in Nick Turse’s Diligent Kill anything that moves, My Lai was indeed a real horror show, but simply the best known, because it was the one in which many photos were taken, not the worst. And that before zooming out to see the CIA assassination program in Vietnam, Phoenix, was just a low-tech version of today’s drone killings.

So it could be with the suicide bombing at Kabul airport. Perhaps they deserve their place in the tail of the war, a way to sum things up. The pieces are all there: Washington’s tactical tinkering, misplaced Americans, civilians just trying to escape by taking the worst of the violence, an enemy no one has seen or knows well that disrupts carefully planned global policy goals again.

There is also the hero element: the Americans were innocent, killed while trying to help the Afghans (although they helped the Afghans out of a mess previously created by other Americans). And, of course, after the bombing, a revenge air strike against ISIS-K leaders, or a random goat farmer or an empty field (we’ll never know) followed by another who killed ten civilians using a “ginsu knife” bomb that cuts human flesh to pieces using six large blades. They could claim some history by being the last Afghan civilians killed by the United States. Have we finally stopped holding that devil’s hand?

The suicide bombing at Kabul airport could be so jarring, so perfectly timed to illuminate 20 years of failure, that it will even be investigated. A high-level committee could tear up what happened, the failure of intelligence, some bad decision from a lieutenant about where to deploy his men. Unlikely, but perhaps even a low-level scapegoat will be named and punished. The committee certainly won’t look too hard at reports that the United States knew the attack was coming and let the troops die to meet Britain’s needs.

We miss the point again. Why didn’t we pin the blame and demand punishments for the leaders who put those 20-year-old soldiers in the impossible situations they faced? Before we throw away the life of another child or a dozen other Afghans, why don’t we ask justice for those in the highest seats of power for creating such a fertile ground for atrocity?

Peter Van Buren is the author of We meant well: how I helped lose the battle for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, Hooper’s War: A World War II Japan Novel, And The ghosts of Tom Joad: a 99 percent story.