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Joao Hwang

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Reflections on Panjwai

Posted: 03/20/2012 9:31 am

In the aftermath of the Panjwai killings in Afghanistan, I am reminded of my time there in 2004. War is by no means a clean business, and much less so in modern counterinsurgency warfare. Insurgents hide amongst the civilian population, and as a result, civilians tend to suffer the heaviest burden of war. Watching now from the safety of home, it's incredibly difficult to make sense of the alleged incident in Panjwai. And reading the comments section in many news articles such as CNN and the New York Times, it is disheartening to see the callousness of some and the lengths some are going to try to justify something unjustifiable. Additionally, many seem to miss an important aspect of this incident: the mental health of our troops and the system that was meant to keep those unfit for deployment out of these rotations.

I remember meeting many Afghans, talking to them, breaking naan (bread) with them and working with them in Panjwai and elsewhere in Afghanistan. To say, "Who cares? They killed our people in America" or "They killed our troops" or any other variation of these comments are reactionary and more than a bit jingoist. I would like to ask: Who are "they?" Not all the Afghans belong to or support the Taliban or al Qaeda. None of them participated in the 9/11 attacks. In fact, there is a difference between the Taliban and al Qaeda. Such comments are a manifestation of an oversimplified view of Afghanistan and it is not fair judgment.

It is not fair to justify the killing of innocent civilians because they practice the same religion as al Qaeda, it is not fair to judge all the people in Afghanistan for the actions of insurgents, nor is it fair to judge all Muslims by the actions of some. By the same rationale, it is not fair to judge the hard work and integrity of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan for the actions of one soldier. By and large, coalition forces in Afghanistan try to do the right thing and work hard to engage the local communities in an extraordinarily complex environment. I know my colleagues and I did the best we could when we were there. There were times when we suspected the very people we greeted with "Zengay" ("Hello") during the day might have had sympathies with the Taliban, but we carried on with common courtesy and tried to win their "hearts and minds." An incident like the one in Panjwai does much to damage the work done by the rest of the coalition forces. The future of the mission in Afghanistan is uncertain and ultimately not up to the U.S. alone, but there is something that the U.S. and its military can do better.

According to the information available, this was the alleged killer's fourth deployment. Supporting the troops does not mean blindly supporting all actions taken by our service members. I got the opposite impression while reading through the U.S. Army's Facebook page where the U.S. Army apologized for the killings. If a service member does something that is wrong, while it is not fair, it does reflect on the nation as a whole, and an apology and investigation is warranted. Otherwise, our judgment on right and wrong as a society comes into question. An apology is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of accountability and responsibility.

Instead, if you want to support the troops ask the right questions: What was his mental state when he allegedly killed those civilians? If he was under mental distress, why was he not removed from the battlefield? Were there signs before the deployment? What is the military doing to take soldiers out deployment rotations if they show such signs? What is the military culture regarding soldiers' mental health help? Is there a stigma? If so, what is the military doing to change it? What kind of mental health assistance are they getting after they leave the service?

Such questions are not meant to weaken our nation's military. They are meant to improve the quality of life of those who fight and have fought for our nation. Those questions should be asked of our policymakers and military leaders, because it is a matter of military readiness. These questions are meant to strengthen our nation's military because such incidents do affect the mission, as we're seeing now in Afghanistan. I believe we can do better, and that we need to do better.