The controversy over whether the United States should apologize for the many war crimes committed during its 12-year occupation of Afghanistan misses an important point. Although the U.S. government now insists that there is no chance of issuing an apology, or even acknowledge “past mistakes,” the fact is so many apologies have been issued over the years it’s not clear exactly what good another one would do.
Judging by the hostile reaction to the idea that the U.S. might apologize, it appears most have forgotten that the Defense and State Departments – as well as the White House – have issued numerous high-profile apologies, for example, regarding the desecration of corpses in Afghanistan, a photograph of U.S. Marines posing with a Nazi SS flag, an incident in which copies of the Koran were burned by U.S. personnel at a military base, the emergence of gruesome “kill team” photos and the killing of nine young Afghan boys in March 2011.
The apology over the massacre of the young boys, incidentally, was rejected at the time by Afghan President Hamid Karzai who said that excuses by the U.S. cannot relieve the pain caused by these incidents. “Regrets and condemnations of the incident cannot heal the wounds of the people,” he said.
Another controversy erupted in early 2012 when a group of U.S. Marines were caught urinating on killed Taliban fighters in a video that went viral on YouTube. The NATO command in Afghanistan, the Pentagon, the White House and the State Department all denounced the actions, offering varying levels of apologetic remarks.
“A video recently posted on a public website appears to show U.S. military personnel committing an inappropriate act with enemy corpses,” said NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in a statement. “This disrespectful act is inexplicable and not in keeping with the high moral standards we expect of coalition forces.”
The U.S. Marine Corps vowed a full investigation. Those involved could face court martial proceedings for violating U.S. military rules which specifically forbid “photographing or filming… human casualties,” according to a CBS News report.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, “I have seen the footage, and I find the behavior depicted in it utterly deplorable. Those found to have engaged in such conduct will be held accountable to the fullest extent.”
A Pentagon spokesman emphasized that “the actions portrayed are not consistent with our core values and are not indicative of the character of the Marines in our Corps.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney later echoed these remarks, telling reporters, “We apologize to the Afghan people and disapprove of such conduct in the strongest possible terms.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the “deplorable behavior” of the Marines and said that “it is absolutely inconsistent with American values.”
About a month after the corpse desecration episode, another incident erupted over the burning of a number of Korans on a military base north of Kabul. Again, apologies were issued, including one by Defense Secretary Panetta who called the incineration of the Muslim holy book by U.S. occupation forces “inappropriate.” He pledged to “carefully review the final results of the investigation to ensure that we take all steps necessary and appropriate so that this never happens again.”
Gen. John Allen, the U.S. Marine who commands Western forces in Afghanistan, reiterated the apology, saying, “I offer my sincere apologies for any offense this may have caused, to the president of Afghanistan, the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and, most importantly, to the noble people of Afghanistan.”
However, as the Los Angeles Times reported, “even some Afghans who said they believed the action had been the result of error, not malice, found it difficult to accept” the U.S. apology.
“They are careless with our holy things, and they are careless with our country,” said Wali Aziz, an Afghan shopowner.
In response to a March 2012 atrocity in which 16 Afghan civilians – including women and children – were methodically murdered by a U.S. soldier, Secretary of State Clinton asserted that “This is not who we are, and the United States is committed to seeing those responsible held accountable.”
“This incident is tragic and shocking, and does not represent the exceptional character of our military and the respect that the United States has for the people of Afghanistan,” said President Barack Obama in a statement.
Yet, despite all of these previous apologies and statements of regret, the U.S. now appears to be drawing a line in the sand, insisting that it will not offer a new one.
As the New York Times reported earlier this week,
Afghan officials said Tuesday that in return for such a letter from Mr. Obama, President Hamid Karzai would end his vehement opposition to American counterterrorism raids on private Afghan homes — one of the most contentious issues between allies over a costly dozen-year war — clearing the way for an agreement to keep a smaller American troop force in the country past the 2014 withdrawal deadline.
As described by Mr. Karzai’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi, the letter would be tantamount to an apology, though he did not use that word. But not even that would be enough to ensure the final passage of a security agreement the United States had pressed to have in hand before next year. The Afghans have made final approval subject to an Afghan grand council of elders, a loya jirga, that is to begin meeting on Thursday, and aspects of the security deal remain deeply unpopular with the public.
But even the notion that the pact would include a U.S. acknowledgement of “past mistakes” touched off a flurry of criticism, with some declaring the idea outrageous. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer said, “The president will be severely criticized if anything comes out looking like the United States is apologizing to Afghanistan after all the blood and treasure the U.S. committed to trying to help the Afghan people since 9/11. That will be pretty politically outrageous here.”
Susan Rice, President Obama’s national security adviser, said bluntly that an apology was “not on the table.”
“Quite the contrary, we have sacrificed and supported them in their democratic progress and in tackling the insurgents and al Qaeda,” Rice told CNN.
Jen Psaki, the chief State Department spokeswoman, reiterated the point and noted that nobody on the Afghan side actually asked for an explicit apology.
President Karzai apparently however had spoken with Secretary of State Kerry on the phone twice in two days, in which Kerry acknowledged “mistakes” had been made by U.S. forces over the twelve years of war.
Indeed, the number of civilians harmed in the war annually spiked dramatically since Obama intensified the fighting during the 2010-12 troop surge, although the United Nations mission in Afghanistan says that around 90% of civilian deaths and injuries are now attributed to the Taliban.
Nevertheless, U.S. war crimes and atrocities are commonplace, as recently documented by an in-depth investigative report by Rolling Stone into killings of civilians and torture by a U.S. special forces unit.
“Over the past five months,” journalist Matthieu Aikins reported on Nov. 6,
Rolling Stone has interviewed more than two dozen eyewitnesses and victims’ families who’ve provided consistent and detailed allegations of the involvement of American forces in the disappearance of … 10 men, and has talked to Afghan and Western officials who were familiar with confidential Afghan-government, U.N. and Red Cross investigations that found the allegations credible. In July, a U.N. report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan warned: “The reported disappearances, arbitrary killings and torture – if proven to have been committed under the auspices of a party to the armed conflict – may amount to war crimes.”
It is perhaps because of this history of war crimes that the Bilateral Security Agreement hatched between United States and Afghanistan ensures that the U.S. military will retain legal jurisdiction over its forces, a key requirement for the United States. Without such an agreement, U.S. troops could be arrested and tried in Afghan courts.
According to the BSA wording,
Afghanistan, while retaining its sovereignty, recognizes the particular importance of disciplinary control, including judicial and non-judicial measures, by the United States forces authorities over members of the force and of the civilian component. Afghanistan therefore agrees that the United States shall have the exclusive right to exercise jurisdiction over such persons in respect of any criminal or civil offenses committed in the territory of Afghanistan.
The deal will also reportedly allow U.S. night raids on Afghan homes to continue in “exceptional circumstances” as demanded by the U.S., and it explicitly states that the pact will remain in effect “until the end of 2024 and beyond.”
And, of course, no apologies if we happen to commit a few war crimes. President Obama, however, tried to offer the Afghan people assurances that we’ll do our best not to commit any more atrocities.
In a letter that Karzai read out to 2,500 delegates of the Afghan Loya Jirga this week, Obama promised: “We will continue to make every effort to respect the sanctity and dignity of Afghans, in their homes and in their daily lives, just as we do for our citizens.”