Every day we hear news about strategies for defeating terrorism with latest weapons and new technologies. The foresight of highly trained knights will overcome the evil forces. Global leaders and intelligence agencies attest that their “well thought out” techniques will render maximum fulfillment of goals and soon the conflict will be resolved and everyone will be able to live happily ever after
Unfortunately these tall claims are nothing more than bedtime fairy tales!
The wars currently taking place in the world are not so simplistic. The weapons are stronger, armies are bigger and the stakes are higher. War conditions are unlike anything that can be put in words and the line dividing good from evil is blurred. Battles nowadays are more threatening than they were say twenty years ago. All this talk about how the new world is resorting to non-violent but effective means of coercion like sanctions is nothing but a lie.
Have a look at the statistics of War on Terror. In Iraq, 150,000 civilian and military lives have been lost. The current war in Afghanistan and Pakistan will be remembered as the longest war ever fought in American history. More than 174,000 civilians have died in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan while the total humanitarian loss is estimated to be 257,000 lives. These war zones have been torn inch by inch by the perpetrators and the opposition forces. Families have been separated, homes have been destroyed, economic security has been snatched away and no silver lining exists in this abyss. A total of 7,815,000 Afghan, Iraqi and Pakistani people have been displaced since 2001.
During these testing times, natives do not have access to food, clean drinking water, medicines and other healthcare facilities. If such facilities do exist, many would choose to forgo them in fear for their security. As a result, thousands of people die from reasons that would not be a possibility if the social conditions were better. Wars have long term effects too. The excessive use of fuel for military vehicles and gunpowder in weapons contaminate water supplies and release harmful chemicals like sulphur, aluminum and lead. The deforestation that occurs in military operations further worsens the situation. Just like the Japanese generations suffered from genetic deformities and disorders after the atom bomb, so too will the Iraqis, Afghans and Pakistanis. In addition to this, severe long term psychological impact on the all affected and involved in these bloody conflicts will haunt the entire region for decades to come.
A common defense offered against civilian brutality is that the war is for a “greater good”. Notions of democracy, liberty and equality are argued for. But how far have these objectives been achieved? The disorder in Iraq after US withdrawal has not made things any easier for Iraqi women. They still have to encounter many barriers to political participation and freedom posed by the new Islamist government. In Egypt, where women were at the front lines for a social change, now feel they are being sidelined by the new government. Afghanistan is still authoritarian and ranks 150 on the Democracy Index. The National Transition Council is struggling to regain stability in Libya by organizing the militias. Libyans are still concerned about the strong leadership their country needs.
Western powers who promised to restore human and civil rights and eliminate terrorism are themselves engaged in criminal activities; according to some natives, perhaps even worse than their local rulers. War crimes committed by Coalition forces have persisted throughout the War on Terror and little action has been taken to rectify them. Since the beginning of this year, the desecration of the Quran, urination over the bodies of dead Taliban fighters, and the inhumane civilian massacre by a US soldier contradict USA’s sincere intentions for the region. Every time such an incident occurs, the leaders offer hollow statements of regret and apology. They vow to bring the culprit to justice but the investigations invariably reveal some mental illness (or some other loophole) which caused the soldier(s) to act reprehensibly.
Battle conditions are no doubt traumatic for soldiers too. More and more cases of PTSD are being reported daily. In the old times, wars would be fought on the front and soldiers had a chance to rest. Nowadays, soldiers are insecure from all sides. The constant state of being on guard takes a toll on many who start experiencing flashbacks, sleep problems, anger and even blackouts. Family relationships become constrained and the probability of disfunctional and dangerous behavior increases.
We can never know for sure the number of war crimes that take place but some serious ones have captured attention worldwide. For example, 24 civilians who were murdered in Haditha or the rape of a young Iraqi girl and the murder of her family in 2006 or the “Kill Team” which collected “trophies” of their victim’s body parts in 2010.
Many feel the punishment for these crimes in insufficient. In the Haditha killings, 8 soldiers were charged but all charges were dropped except for Staff Sgt Wuterich. He made a plea bargain with the prosecutors because of which he only needed to serve 90 days in prison and a demotion in pay and rank. In the case of Abeer Qassim’s rape, Pfc. Spielman was sentenced to 110 years with possibility of parole after 10 years, Spc. James Barker was ordered 90 years prison with possibility of parole after 20 years and Pfc. Steve Green was given a life sentence with parole since the jury could not make a decision regarding his punishment. The Kill Team’s members received sentences according to their role in the unjust killings. Its mastermind Sgt. Calvin Gibbs was sentenced life in prison but is eligible for parole in 9 years.
These examples show a general trend in the kind of convictions given to war crimes. Many of the charges are dropped and if jail time is ordered the convicted is eligible for parole after some years. The last death penalty under the US military justice system happened in 1961. This could be due to political reasons for the US President has to formally confirm the death sentence before execution, something presidents try to avoid. Furthermore, the jury is also conscious of stressful war conditions and would not want to alienate the military which is responsible for protecting the public.
We can never know the true number of war crimes that have been committed. However, cases which have emerged indicate a serious problem in the way soldiers are recruited and their mindset is developed. How are they trained to gauge the severity of a threat and identify a terrorist? More importantly, how are troops counseled and supervised once they reach the warzone? It is one thing to kill an enemy but to torture and mutilate the bodies post-humously suggest revenge. One wonders if the War on Terror is still avenging American deaths or instigating a fight.
Agreed that murder in a warzone can be hard to ascertain but pre-meditated killings and torture should be adequately dealt with. While the army maybe quick to charge suspects, the light sentences ordered to the unfortunate few who haven’t been exonerated seem to laugh in the face of the aggrieved party. While war conditions and psychological trauma are significant, they are not enough to justify the crime. The War on Terror has gone on for a decade. Allied forces plan to leave Afghanistan in 2014. It’s time they sit down and evaluate at what stage is it when we can say a war has gone too far. And who better to give a candid opinion than the troops on the ground and natives of the warzone. A non-interventionist approach doesn’t seem foolish when one realizes the atrocities of a war are not happening in a fairy tale far far away.
By Nida Afaque