The Ghosts of Direct Action

In early 2009 I was walking away from a compound a platoon from the Second Ranger Battalion had just assaulted when a staff sergeant I knew held up something in the dark.  I couldn’t tell exactly what it was.  It was small and he was bragging about it.  I tried to make it out but was soon distracted.  It wasn’t until I got back to Forward Operating Base Salerno and saw his pictures that I realized that he had been showing me a square piece of flesh that he had cut out of a dead woman’s neck.

Mutilating the corpse of a female noncombatant was just the final act in a horror show that night put on by this young Ranger.  He had killed several people.  One was a military-aged male, the rest were women; one looked to be about thirteen.     

Why did they die? Sadly, all too often when people die in Afghanistan that question is a lot harder to answer than it should be.  There are as many truths about that mission as there were people on it.  But, they didn’t have to die.  It could have been avoided.  And the war crime that occurred after the deaths gives you an idea of the mentality of the shooter.

I had other experiences with horror.  I saw children accidentally bitten by military working dogs.  I saw detainees beat.  I saw a boy that couldn’t have been older than fourteen killed in front of me as I talked to him through an interpreter.  Every single civilian death I witnessed was unnecessary and could have been avoided if the forces I was supporting had made it a priority to reign in soldiers that enjoyed killing.

One particular incident that remains vivid in my memory concerns an unarmed man who resisted when unknown assailants (Rangers) burst into his home.  He was beaten badly and some of his property was destroyed.  After it was determined that he had no links to any “bad guys” he was given a small sum of money as compensation.  It made me think of a mob movie where a tough guy beats the shit out of someone and then pulls out a wad of money, peels off a few bills and drops it on the limp body writhing on the floor in front of him.  

These are some of the highlights of my tour of duty supporting the 75th Ranger Regiment in Eastern Afghanistan.  They, along with numerous other horrors replicated throughout the JSOC direct action task force in Afghanistan, are what I call the ghosts of direct action.  

The ghosts of direct action are largely ignored in the United States but in rural Afghanistan, they are everywhere.  For years, Afghan villages targeted by the Rangers and Navy Seals were subjected to numerous atrocities.  These operations released shockwaves throughout entire communities as collateral damage became murderous aggression to Afghans.  Afghans were killed, abused, humiliated in front of their families.  And they haven’t forgotten. 

I often think of young boys that I interrogated, manipulating them to get information.  I wonder how many of them, especially the ones that were left orphans, have joined the Taliban. 

Although I haven’t been to Afghanistan in a few years and I’m now a veteran with PTSD, not a soldier, I still can’t forget these Afghans who surely can’t forgive the things I saw done to them.  And America’s mission in Afghanistan, whatever it is anymore, will always be complicated and maybe futile until the ghosts of direct action are dealt with.

The ghosts of direct action make nation-building in Afghanistan very difficult.  Rural Afghans see Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and American troops as one in the same.  They don’t trust the ANSF and in many cases they believe the Taliban is more likely to respect their cultural values.  They harbor resentment and distrust as a result of the many pre-dawn raids in their communities and they have no reason to believe they will end when America leaves Afghanistan for good. 

Rural Pashtuns in the South and East of Afghanistan simply don’t believe the Afghan government is even functional because it was utterly powerless for years when it came to controlling direct action missions.  When a particularly appalling atrocity occurred when I was in Afghanistan, our task force would be shut down for two weeks.  Then everything would resume as before until another atrocity.  This has left Afghans with absolutely no faith in their government. 

Other aspects of how direct action forces operated are never discussed but had a huge impact on Afghans.  For example, the Rangers I worked with – and I worked with over a dozen platoons from all three battalions – routinely took detainees that would be held at most for a few days on the outside chance that they might provide important information (most never did).  Once released, these men were often far from home and faced with a journey back to their families fraught with danger.  It’s likely that some never make it back.  Even when they did, their loved ones had been without a provider for days or weeks, some may have lost their jobs or had their crops destroyed, and others likely found that their families had been targeted by criminals.  

The death, hunger, dislocation, and destruction that years of direct action missions have left in their wake undo any supposed progress the United States claims to have made in building a stable Afghanistan.  And if a stable Afghanistan is what American policy-makers want, they must confront the ghosts of direct action and find a way to make amends for the injustices inflicted on Afghans.  Reconciliation is necessary so that Afghans and Americans (who will likely be in the country at least in small numbers for years to come) can work together to build a stable, prosperous, and extremist-free Afghanistan. 

Healing takes time but if there’s a concerted effort to reach out to Afghans and atone for the actions of some U.S. troops, not only will Afghans be better off but maybe, just maybe, the ghosts of direct action won’t haunt veterans like me quite as much. 

Anthony Walker served 8 years in the Army as a psychological operations specialist, doing three tours in Afghanistan and one in Yemen attached to the embassy in Sana’a. He is currently a college student at Arizona State.  Visit his blog.

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