When America Reflects on Why a U.S. Soldier Killed 16 Afghan Civilians

We should try to understand what led the rogue sergeant to murder 16 Afghan civilians on Sunday, and maybe even apply the same empathy to Afghan acts of terror.

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Anar Gul, right, is interviewed as she sits next to the charred body of her grandson, allegedly killed by a U.S. soldier / AP

The last piece of good news from the Afghan war was probably Operation Moshtarak. The early-2010 Marine-led assault on Helmand Province, a poppy-rich Taliban stronghold, reduced the number of insurgent attacks there by up to 70%. There were a few years at the end of the Bush administration and mostly at the beginning of Obama's when these sorts of stories -- not signs that the war was turning for the better, exactly, but hints that one day it might -- seemed frequent.

Not anymore. In the two years since Moshtarak, the story of the Afghan war has declined from one of promise to one of resignation to, increasingly, one of despair. Just this year, there has been the January video of Marines urinating on dead Afghan insurgents, the February accidental burning of Korans that sparked nationwide riots and led a number of Afghan soldiers to kill their American trainers, and now the U.S. soldier who walked off his base and into a nearby village where he killed 16 civilians, nine of them children. At one point he paused in his shooting spree, which is described as "methodical" and "from home to home," to pile 11 bodies, four of them of girls no more than five years old, and set them on fire.

Afghans are not immune to the exhaustion of war any more than Americans are.

Whenever there's a school shooting in the U.S., we have two national conversations about the shooters. The first and briefer of the two is a condemnation of their actions, a moment of catharsis. The second and perhaps more difficult is an attempt to sort out what drove them, to understand, to empathize, and then to learn from it. No one forgave the shooting at Columbine or Virginia Tech, but we did confront our society's problems with high school bullying and with student mental health. The discourse around Sunday's shooting in Kandahar is already following a similar pattern. That can probably only be a good thing, and though the lessons are obvious -- soldiers are stretched too thin, the war is exacting a significant cost on them, and perhaps we should consider whether it's worth those costs -- they're still worth exploring.

This is a world where a young man or woman might face five tours of duty over two wars, years of listening to roadside bombs in Baghdad or Basra only to have it follow him or her to Kandahar or Panjshir; where they join at 18 or 19 for want of a job and end up spending a fifth, a quarter, of their adult lives far from home, in an alien and hostile place, surrounded by violence. It's hard not to think of the Eric Harrises and Dylan Klebolds, the Seung-Hui Chos, exhausted, confused, afraid, and angry.

It's also hard not to think of the Afghans themselves, some of whose communities have been living with almost unbroken violence for now 33 years. In a place where mothers are young and life expectancy is 45 years, those three decades of war are an entire generation, maybe two. Is it any wonder, whether or not we choose to label Sunday's terrible incident as "terrorism," that some Afghans have also made the crazed, immoral decision to kill innocent people? The vast majority of American soldiers in Afghanistan do not shoot civilians, of course, but neither do the vast majority of Afghans.

Afghan war critics may be hesitant to sympathize with the deranged American who killed those civilians on Sunday, which would after all complicate their criticism of the war, just as Afghan war hawks often categorize the Taliban and its allies as a force of pure evil that must be stopped. But that American is human and so were the causes of his actions, as wrong and destructive as they were. No one should want to forgive him, but the media focus is already beginning to evaluate the causes; a New York Times story only hours after the fact cited "a feeling of siege here among Western personnel."

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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