The U.S. Can't Keep Absolving Itself Over Afghanistan | Opinion

When a Pentagon inspector general reviewed a U.S. drone strike in Kabul that killed 10 civilians—including seven children—and concluded in early November that no wrongdoing had occurred, the U.S. reiterated the message that it sent over 20 years of war in Afghanistan: It does not value Afghan life.

The strike targeted a man, Zemari Ahmadi, whom military personnel had claimed was an ISIS fighter. Ahmadi was actually an aid worker.

Such incidents are disastrously typical of the two-decade "War on Terror." But unlike most drone attacks, which are shrouded in secrecy to evade public scrutiny, the Aug. 29 attack came in the midst of the haphazard U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan—and so was much more visible to people around the world, and in the United States.

In light of the unusual amount of attention on the strike, the Pentagon's account of the incident took twists and turns. First, the Department of Defense denied killing civilians altogether. But survivors of those killed refused to be silent about the atrocity, and—with the help of high-profile journalistic investigations—forced the Pentagon to admit that Ahmadi and his family were killed in error.

Officials then vowed to compensate Ahmadi's survivors through ex gratia payments. The term ex gratia refers to a moral obligation rather than, for example, a legal one. But weeks after promising such compensation, the U.S. has yet to follow through.

In the early November ruling by the inspector general, the U.S. attempted to close a chapter on its occupation of Afghanistan by absolving itself in one of its final acts of violence in that long war.

The episode is grimly characteristic of the entire war, when incidents like the strike that killed Ahmadi's family were not the exception but the rule. From documented war crimes during the 2001 invasion to the August drone strike and the killing of Afghans seeking refuge during the withdrawal, the U.S. has operated with disregard and contempt for Afghan life.

Year after year, the U.S. carried out drone strikes in Afghanistan—more than 13,000 in total. U.S. troops conducted regular night raids on Afghan homes, as well as joint operations with Afghan forces armed and trained by the U.S. that killed and terrorized many civilians, including children.

Green Village in Kabul
Smoke rises from the site of an attack after a massive explosion the night before near the Green Village in Kabul on Sept. 3, 2019. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. forces bombed medical facilities in Afghanistan, dropped the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in the world on an Afghan village and often prevented journalists from assessing the toll. And, as in Iraq, the U.S. carried out torture in places like Bagram Air Base and the notorious Salt Pit CIA prison.

Unfortunately, current U.S. policy is only continuing the harm.

At the moment, the U.S. is holding billions of dollars in Afghan money, which it has frozen and refused to transfer since its withdrawal. One of the impacts of these actions is a severe hunger crisis, as the United Nations anticipates more than half of Afghanistan's population will face acute levels of food insecurity this winter.

International law says that survivors of war crimes and other violations are legally owed reparations. Instead, the U.S. has attempted to acquit itself.

That's unacceptable, both legally and morally.

The U.S. owes Afghans the money that it is withholding—and so much more. It owes refuge to those fleeing suffering. And it owes reparations to Afghanistan, Iraq and the many countries devastated by U.S.-led wars over the past two decades.

In recent years, social movements in the U.S. have revived conversations about the reparations owed to Black Americans and Indigenous peoples for the atrocities of the past and systematic harms of the present. Alongside those, we need a conversation—and action—on honoring the U.S. debt to Afghanistan.

Reparations are not only about repairing harms of the past, but building a more just future. After years of war and suffering, Afghans deserve that future.

Azadeh Shahshahani is the legal and advocacy director with Project South and a past president of the National Lawyers Guild.

Khury Petersen-Smith is the Michael Ratner Middle East Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.