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Perfect Taliban propaganda

May 2, 2012

By Tim Foxley

The Taliban these days are quite good at combing through the internet and looking for stories, quotes and items that work in their favour as part of their hearts and minds effort.  They could do worse than post up this entire article that I came across through a link from the Travels with Shiloh blog.

It helps you to understand why the Taliban and the ANSF both seem to want to kill American troops and the Afghan population might be very keen for ISAF to leave.  This thoughtful and well-written piece by Neil Shea for “The American Scholar” discusses the issue of war crimes and atrocities and is based on the author’s time embedded in a US infantry platoon in the summer of last year.  It reads like an updated screen play of Oliver Stone’s classic war film, “Platoon”.  In fact it reads like an updated version of pretty much all the Vietnam war films I have ever seen.  A couple of the most depressing moments to give you a flavour:

“Up ahead, in the stream of black shapes, were the American soldiers I had come to fear. They were men who enjoyed demolishing Afghan houses, men who shot dogs in the face. The pair who had embraced like lovers, one tenderly drawing the blade of his knife along the pale, smooth skin of his friend’s throat. There was a guy who’d let the others tie his legs open and mock-rape him, and there were several men who had boasted of plans to murder their ex-wives and former girlfriends.”

and then this,

““Feels like it’s been a month,” a soldier said.

“I can’t wait to wash my hair,” said another, smoothing his dark mop. “Man, we fucked up some houses, shit.”

Givens laughed and leaned against his gear. He was slim, boyish, unscalded by his own anger. He hated Afghans.

“Yeah, we definitely made some Taliban out here,” he said. “It was like a week-long Taliban recruiting drive. And we had fun doing it. I love recruiting for the Taliban. It’s called job security.”

They passed around packs of Pine cigarettes they had “liberated” during the raid and taunted each other with gay jokes. On the walls the Afghan homeowners had hung posters and odd pictures torn from magazines. An image of a yellow sports car, a photograph of Mecca, an idyllic scene of a cabin in Austria or Germany. Dreams beyond war. Beneath them, the men tipped cigarettes onto the floor and lit detonation cord on the rug, burning black coils into the fabric. A few men retold plans to kill former wives and girlfriends. Givens and one of his close friends talked of blowing up the qalat as they left, a parting thank-you to the residents of the valley.”

And this quote in particular, about the Afghan National Army unit they were working with:

“The soldiers of Destroyer talked about how their house searches had become demolition parties. They shattered windows and china, broke furniture, hurled civilians to the ground. Earlier that day, they had blown up a building. They tornadoed through Afghan houses and left such destruction that their ANA allies at first tried to stop them, then grew angry, sullen.

“They were so pissed they wouldn’t hang out with us anymore,” Givens remembered. “They kept saying ‘No good, mistah. No, mistah.’ And I was like, ‘Yes, fucking good. Plate? Smash. Is this a drum? Smash.’ ” He laughed. “ ‘Oh, mistah, no.’ ”

I imagined the Afghan soldiers standing by, helpless, while Destroyer destroyed. I thought of attacks over the past several years in which Afghan policemen or soldiers had suddenly turned on their NATO allies and opened fire. Such betrayals have been increasing. Sometimes the Taliban claim responsibility for them, but often it seems the assailants have been taking revenge on foreign soldiers for some perceived insult to their honor. It was not hard to envision the seeds of such an attack sown in the ruts of Destroyer’s visit.

Slowly, the soldiers began adding more stories, and tales of the past week blended with memories of killing and destruction during other missions and battles, in Afghanistan and Iraq, during many tours of duty.”

Well worth reading in full…

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Jon Ducker permalink
    May 2, 2012 10:12 pm

    This is quite remarkable testimony. What the hell were their officers doing? – or were they too busy drafting Powerpoint slides showing their unit’s kill ratios?

    Have you read ‘Kaboom’ by Matt Gallagher? An excellent account of a platoon commander’s experience of fighting the counter-insurgency war in Iraq, with good insight into the utter pointlessness of of the orders his men are given and the arrogance of the men giving them.

  2. May 2, 2012 10:48 pm

    Jon – I normally find it a struggle to still be shocked by these sort of stories, post Abu Ghraib, etc, but this one succeeded. You wonder about the behaviour of those soldiers if there hadn’t been an “embed” there to force them to moderate their behaviour. I’ll look out for “Kaboom”.



  3. El Snarkistani permalink
    May 3, 2012 1:15 pm

    This was one of the worst-written pieces of embed journalism to come out of this war in a long time…maybe ever.

    Having spent time as an infantry platoon leader and a couple of tours in Iraq later, if I condensed down all the truly insane things my guys did over the course of those several months into a single narrative, they’d all look completely unhinged.

    I’d refer any/all to Restrepo and Junger’s year-long embed with that platoon. Not exactly humanitarians, but not the animals that this Stone-like script would have us believe.

    I’m glad this hasn’t gotten more traction…hopefully it’s an indication that folks don’t take it seriously.

    And they shouldn’t.

  4. May 3, 2012 3:32 pm

    El, thanks for your insight, which I can’t match. I really don’t think the article is as poorly written as you suggest, although, of course, the “Restrepo” book/film is excellent. To be fair on Shea, normally a lot of critical airtime is spent explaining how “embeds” are merely mouthpieces for the military propaganda machine (I’m definitely not accusing Junger of that). I think Shea makes serious allowances for the bravado and bullshit that come from young men who are faced with death or injury each day. I don’t sense he was suggesting that this circumstance was widespread across the army or that all the people referenced in the piece were at fault.

    And I think his point that “We tend to ignore such problems unless they are connected to a crime” is a valid one. But if there is a weakness in Shea’s piece, it is that he is only relying on the hearsay and chatter of the people around him. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he does not actually witness a specific war crime. I’m sure many of the “Restrepo” and “Destroyer” soldiers will (or have already) come out of this just as damaged as some of the Afghan civilians. But surely some units can go “bad”, or “rogue” in the right (wrong) circumstances? I thought we’d already had some pretty unpleasant real examples of this. And it is one thing for the “truly insane things” to be directed inwards, within the group, and another, more dangerous thing, for it to be projected outwards against the population. In which case, hearts and minds suffer, more IEDs get planted, more ISAF troops get killed and the Taliban get, whether fair or not, some perfect propaganda.



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