It was a sunny, windless day in November. It would be a frigid night, but the daytime weather was as nice as you’d see for late fall in our part of Afghanistan. My soldiers and I were working in our compound—we had recently contracted a local that we knew well to help replace the rotten carpet and paint, and we were moving every piece of furniture out of our building before we repaired it.
One of my interpreters told me that there was a visitor. Our courtyard gate was open, and inside the larger area of the provincial governor’s compound was a one-legged Pashtun man. He had a ragged prosthesis and a cane; his hands and face were weathered and chapped. He wore the usual long shirt and baggy pants, shalwar kameez and pantloon, and a heavy woolen shawl wrapped around his shoulders.
His name was Abdulhaq. He was from a village in a district to our east. I said the basic greetings to him in Pashto and shook his hand, but I didn’t try to fend for myself in the language. My interpreter was one of the only native Pashto speakers that I encountered while deployed to the country. That’s not to say that his English was spectacular (it could sometimes be hilariously unintelligible), but he could communicate with the most isolated and rural villagers that we encountered.
Abdulhaq had come to us because he heard that Americans worked in the provincial compound. He had a question for me. His father had recently been shot by the Americans, he said, and four members of his family had died. He wanted three things. He wanted to know if his father was still alive. If he was alive, he wanted to know how to contact him. Also, he wanted me to write a letter in English, because he understood that the entire raid had been a big misunderstanding, and he wanted a way to communicate to any Americans that came to his qalat (a castle-like adobe compound that rural Afghans build and occupy) that he meant them no harm and wanted to cooperate.
I immediately recognized the situation he was describing. My battalion commander had confessed to me that it was the ugliest thing he had ever seen. The recent WikiLeaks have shown to anyone intrepid enough to read them that the action of various special operations units (for the sake of simplicity, I’ll call them commandos) have contributed to a lot of underreported civilian deaths in nine years of war. This was one of those situations.
When commando units identify targets in a conventional Army unit’s area, they have to ask permission to pursue them. Conventional units are responsible for patrolling the land, but Afghanistan is a huge country, and there are never enough people to have a presence in every district that we supposedly control. Given that the commandos have their own dedicated aircraft and legions of support that regular Army units can’t access, they are often given the green light, and understandably so—they can take care of problems that we as “battle-space owners” cannot, simply because we can’t get there quickly or surreptitiously enough.
The common thought process goes like this: the commandos have all sorts of intelligence-gathering capabilities, not to mention really connected Afghan sources, so they probably know something that we don’t. Or maybe it’s a target we’ve been following for a long time to no avail. They can take it out with ostensibly surgical precision, and all we have to do is go link up with them on the scene. We police up the mess, and if the guy is still alive, the commandos take him for questioning. If it sounds too good or too precise to be true, it’s because it is.
In this case, I wasn’t there. I saw the two-page PowerPoint presentation that they distributed after the incident. There were two guys who fled the scene when they heard the helicopters, and when the commandos ran them down, they shot at them. They were armed with AK-47’s. They were wearing chest racks of ammunition and grenades. So, the commandos killed those two. I can’t really argue with that decision, and they weren’t part of Abdulhaq’s family.
The commandos moved toward the house. They burst into a room in which all the men in the house were sleeping. Supposedly they found a hand grenade after the fact—I’m not sure if a guy was holding it or they just happened to find it. People were yelling and screaming, and I’m sure it was confusing. The commandos killed four people in the room, but not as surgically as advertised. They laced them up. The photos showed two men in their twenties or thirties, eyes and mouths locked in permanent screams, bloody all over. The other two were ancient old men, probably in their seventies or eighties, and they were comparably bloody but just looked like they were sleeping. According to the summary presentation, “They were non-compliant and assessed as a threat.”
Abdulhaq’s father was shot in the same room. He was eighty-five years old, but he was still alive when the dust settled, so the commandos took him to the hospital in their helicopters, the Chinooks that we’d sometimes see on the large American airfield near to us.
My battalion commander had a profound connection to Afghans. He was from rural eastern Texas, and after having lived through frustrating times in Iraq, he came to really appreciate Afghan people. They’re country folks, he said. They care about their families, they don’t want to hear hot air, they’re pragmatic, he said. Plus, they all dipped tobacco, and they loved to shoot the breeze with him. So, he was a true believer in joint American-Afghan partnership, whereas many American officers just give it lip service while truthfully hating Afghans and every moment they spend with them.
When the commandos conduct a raid in your area, you have to do what the Army calls a “battlefield hand over.” Effectively, the guys who live and operate in the area, the regular Army guys, they have to link up with the commandos and take over the scene. They tell you what happened and what they experienced, and before the sun comes up, they’ve flown away with any evidence. Meanwhile, you’re left to tell their side of the story, even if you had nothing to do with it. So, as the sun rises, the neighboring families and elders come out of their compounds and gravitate towards the origin of the night’s disturbance. The families start bawling when they realize their relatives are dead. The elders are furious, and they want answers. Your interpreters, probably 21-year-old Kabulis with no earthly business in this pastoral hell, are overwhelmed and wide-eyed at the accusations being thrown around. They probably don’t even understand what’s being said because Pashto is invariably not their native language.
But my commander, despite his lack of a beard (proof of age and experience in rural Afghanistan), was the authority on the scene, and he had a stellar interpreter. “I’m in charge of all the American forces in this area,” he told them. “I can’t explain this. This is wrong, and I’m sorry. I want the same answers that you do.” The elders sat down with him and aired their grievances. A boy fetched them tea and they sat around the blanket the way they always do.
“The man you are looking for was not even here,” the elders said. “We know who he is, but he’s not here. We want to know why this happened.”
“So do I,” my commander said, “and I promise you—I’ll give you my cell phone number, and I’ll take you to the governor myself. I want to know the same answers.”
When they left that day, the people were furious, but the elders restrained them. They believed my commander could provide answers.
Seeking as much, Abdulhaq came to me.
This man was poor beyond belief. He couldn’t read or write. He was missing a leg. His clothes were dirty; he didn’t even own a cell phone, which is uncommon even in a rural province. I immediately went to my office and called our hospital first, and then Bagram. Many Afghans have only one name, and the names are very common throughout the Pashtun regions. Abdulhaq had no last name, and his father’s name was Mohammad Qadir. The U.S. Army developed a system of assigning Afghans trauma names that we can use to keep track of them. I think his father’s trauma name was “Carpenter,” but I’m not sure. He was still alive; the people at Bagram said that Abdulhaq could come and visit on Tuesdays and Thursdays—he just needed to show up at the gate at nine in the morning and bring his tazkera, a primitive attempt at a national ID card system.
I wrote him a letter in English to present to the gate guards. It had his story, his brother’s cell phone number, his father’s name and my contact information as well. I also wrote him the letter that he wanted. It basically stated his name and explained that he couldn’t speak English but wanted to cooperate. It said that he had lost four members of his family in a US raid. I didn’t think it would make a difference if the commandos wanted to come back, but I at least wanted to make the gesture. Through my interpreter, I explained to him how to get to Bagram and what to expect. I gave him $40 for the cab fare (it was a five-hour ride), and I asked him if he had any kids. He had six, he said. So, I let him into our container full of donated clothes. He took a few packs of children’s socks, some coats, some hats and a baby jumper. I gave him an Army cargo tie-down strap as well; the Afghan truckers love using them to secure everything on their vehicles. I gave him a brand new one, and I told him that he could sell it in the bazaar and make a little bit of money on it. I told my interpreter to walk him out the gate past the Afghan police checkpoint so that they wouldn’t search him and confiscate his stuff. He could barely walk, but he said he would get a cab ride back to his village.
He thanked me, and I said I was sorry again, and he left. I never saw him again, but my interpreter came back to my room afterward. I was making some coffee with the camper coffee kit I had brought to Afghanistan with me. “Do you know what he said to me, sir?” My interpreter asked. I shook my head. “He said, ‘All the Americans I have ever met have been so angry. The ones who came to my house, they were so bad. But that one, he is not angry. I wish there were more of him.’”
“It wasn’t like I was doing anything special,” I said. But I was choking up.
Abdulhaq was wrong, though. I was angry. I was angry that there’s no justice for people like his father. I was angry that the heat-of-the-moment justification allows the shadows among us to commit murder and never answer for it. To cower behind embarrassing terminology like, “we assessed a threat and eliminated it.” To watch the blame fall on other Americans who are at least trying to make the best of the situation, who have to pay the consequences when weeks later their trucks get blown up on the road between one forlorn village and the next, because the people want answers, because we can’t give them.
Because a little human decency goes a long way in a land so bereft of it, in a place where the death of your entire family can be called a “misunderstanding,” and all I could offer were socks and coats and condolences. But never answers.