A line was crossed in the last few days, one from which there is no coming back. Those of us who've spent a lot of time in Afghanistan knew that line had been breached the moment we heard about Panjwaii.
There is no coming back from the horror of the last few days after hearing a U.S. soldier was accused of shooting 16 Afghan civilians. Nothing you can say; nothing you can do. Forget the empty political rhetoric coming out of Washington, Ottawa, and even Kabul. And never mind the blood-throated screams of vengeance coming from the Taliban whose body count is capriciously higher than 16 innocent lives.
Just focus on this ...
There comes a time in war when some people want to just blow it all way; shoot, bomb, flatten whatever threatens or even annoys. That's what it comes down to: a focused, breath-taking concentration of violence without regard for consequences. It is war with the amplifier turned way up.
That is the line. Fight against the inner beast all you want; eventually it's going to win, in long wars and sometimes even short ones. Staying just back of that line is what every sensible soldier -- or anyone with a gun -- tries to do.
Before you start thinking this is some kind of rationalization to explain the war-wasted actions of one very troubled mind, consider that there is no acceptable clarification for putting a bullet in a sleeping child. End of discussion. Move along.
The Afghans, I would suggest, can tolerate civilians dying before NATO guns; even when it's en masse because deep in their hearts they know they were careless, senseless acts. The burning of copies of the Qu'ran, although deeply offensive, was seen as utter stupidity, but incited even the most good natured, who also understood there was the distinct whiff of Taliban politics among the embers.
What happened in Panjwaii was different.
It was personal. It was deliberate. It was search and destroy with a fever.
Not even the sport killings in western Kandahar a couple of years ago were felt so deeply. Maybe it was because most original Afghans understood that the Maiwand district was lousy with Taliban.
The rage unleashed with such precision last weekend in the middle of the Kandahar night was a brutal repudiation of general Stanley McChrystal's counter-insurgency manna of protecting the population. It is all over in Afghanistan, except for the crying. No amount of pleading or obfuscation will make it right with a people whose media is bombarding them with images of dead children. The Taliban don't need to say anything. Not one word.
A school of thought I've watched with some dismay is that they'll get over it and some have even quietly suggested, without shame or even a hint of irony, that massacres like that happen everywhere, even in the U.S. I couldn't help but gawk at the television when I heard that. You're kidding? Right?
Reports of the shooter's possible traumatic brain injury were greeted with snorts of ridicule by Afghans whom I know. It was all just wriggling for an excuse in their tired eyes.
Many Afghans, for all of their Bronze Age tribalism and heaping helpings of corruption, consider the West to be vulgar and undignified. They see through moral hypocrisy quicker than you may think.
Cast aside all of the academic and political arguments you've heard over the last few days about legacy, transition, tactics, and handover. It's all just noise and self-absorbed chattering. If we were smart, we'd just sit down and shut up.
Everything the Afghans need to know they can discover by watching Western news coverage where television networks, eager to showcase computer-generated wizardry, have turned the massacre into some kind of sad, obscene, stickman-like video game. It's all for the wont of visuals to explain the story.
In Kandahar the visuals are decidedly more stark for there is this freakish tradition of parading the blood-spattered corpses of murder victims and sometimes killers through the streets. It's brutal and something the West tried swear off of in the 20th century with its tenuous grasp of civility.
I can't help but think we've crossed another troubled line when we start drawing people pictures to explain this kind of thing.