No Comment — March 21, 2012, 4:08 pm

Justice in Afghanistan

Early in the morning on Sunday, March 11, sixteen villagers were killed and five wounded in the Panjwai district of Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. The dead included nine children, four men, and three women, of whom eleven were from the same family. In one home, the bodies of the murdered members of a family had been dragged into a pile and set on fire. Reports about the incident rocked a country that was slowly returning to calm following the demonstrations and riots that had erupted over reports that U.S. military authorities at Bagram Air Base had collected and burned copies of the Koran. American officials quickly stated that the Panjwai incident was the work of a single gunman, whom they subsequently identified as Staff Sergeant Robert Bales from Joint Base Lewis–McChord, Washington.

The American media soon began running stories, apparently fueled by off-the-record statements from military public-affairs officers, that speculated on what caused Bales to go on a homicidal rampage. Remarkably little of the coverage came from the ground level in Afghanistan or offered the Afghan perspective. Media in Afghanistan and Pakistan, meanwhile, has been dismissive of U.S. claims that the crimes were the work of a sole gunman, stressing accounts of villagers who said they saw significant numbers of U.S. troops and a helicopter at the time of the incident (the U.S. insists that its forces were on the scene only in the wake of the killings). Afghan political leaders quickly demanded that the perpetrator be tried in Afghanistan, before an Afghan court, and they have complained that the U.S. is refusing to cooperate with their efforts to investigate the crime. These developments have the markings of another firestorm, which would be a tragic turn of events for Afghans interested in peace and stability, and for Americans and their NATO allies.

I have little doubt that the U.S. military-justice system can deal with an explosive high-profile case like Bales’s, but international media attention will provide the system with a rigorous test. American military and diplomatic leaders in Afghanistan will have a number of competing interests to juggle. One is the safety of U.S. and NATO forces. The recent incidents have badly damaged military–civilian relations in Afghanistan, and have fueled the Taliban’s propaganda mill. Officials will have to deal with the case in a way that sustains the value of the massacred civilians’ lives, and that acknowledges the suffering and grief of the survivors. These exigencies should not translate into a show trial for Sergeant Bales, which would only demean U.S. concepts of justice; rather, it means that the prosecution must be vigorous and well informed. U.S. commanders in Afghanistan should also offer ex gratia payments to the survivors, a practice that accords with Afghan traditional law (diyya), under which the commander of a soldier who does wrong may offer compensation on the soldier’s behalf.

It is not unreasonable for Afghanistan to want to try Bales. This was a heinous crime, it occurred on Afghan soil, and the victims were Afghan civilians. Moreover, as the facts are now understood, it did not occur within the scope of a combat mission. On the other hand, the United States has a reasonable interest, under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, in dealing with its own uniformed military personnel. Normally the question of criminal jurisdiction would be addressed by a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), but Washington and Kabul have never succeeded in coming to terms on such a document, so the issue is currently covered only by a vague exchange of diplomatic notes. The United States appears to have acted to preempt the Afghan claims by putting Bales on a jet to Kuwait and then—when the Kuwaitis objected to his presence in their country—to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. But American authorities in Afghanistan shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that their fundamental mission is to help build a rule-of-law state. By exhibiting their lack of confidence in Afghanistan’s criminal-justice system and courts, they are operating at cross purposes with their mission.

It would be unreasonable to expect U.S. officials to surrender Bales for trial in Kabul, but they should cooperate with the Afghan authorities investigating the crime by sharing crime-scene reports, offering access to forensic evidence, and furnishing key witnesses for interviews. Failure to cooperate will only fuel Afghan suspicions about America’s intentions.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2015

Weed Whackers

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Tremendous Machine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Goose in a Dress

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Genealogy of Orals

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Romancing Kano·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:

The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.

leadership
service
integrity
creativity

Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.

Article
The Prisoner of Sex·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It is disappointing that parts of Purity read as though Franzen urgently wanted to telegraph a message to anyone who would defend his fiction from charges of chauvinism: ‘No, you’ve got me wrong. I really am sexist.’”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Gangs of Karachi·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Karachi, sometimes only the thinnest of polite fictions separates the politicians from the men who kill and extort on their behalf.”
Photograph © Asim Rafiqui/NOOR Images
Article
Weed Whackers·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Defining 'native' and 'invasive' in an ever-shifting natural world poses some problems. The camel, after all, is native to North America, though it went extinct here 8,000 years ago, while the sacrosanct redwood tree is invasive, having snuck in at some point in the past 65 million years.”
Photograph by Chad Ress
Article
The Neoliberal Arts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“College is seldom about thinking or learning anymore. Everyone is running around trying to figure out what it is about. So far, they have come up with buzzwords, mainly those three.”
Artwork by Julie Cockburn

Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:

65

An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.

A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today