I recently sat down for 90 minutes to speak with six Afghan judges, all of them women, and an English-Dari interpreter, a man. They spoke to me as individuals. They aren’t preparing any investigations or indictments. The relevance of their being judges is that they know the law. They’ve studied international law, and they were visiting the United States to learn about our legal and political systems. They believe the United States is guilty of war crimes.
I was the one who raised the subject. I pointed to Italian convictions of CIA agents for kidnapping, Spanish investigations of U.S. officials for torture, etc., and asked what these judges’ views were on international law violations, universal jurisdiction, and what appear to be clear crimes committed by the United States in Afghanistan.
The first judge to reply spoke of the horrors of the Taliban, and of the initial gratitude for the U.S. overthrow of the Taliban 10 years ago. But, she said, the mission changed to one of fighting terrorism, and through that “we lost all of our civil rights.” She described U.S. troops kicking in doors of houses at night with women and girls asleep in their beds. She described disappearances and accounts of torture. What the United States and NATO are doing, seizing people, locking them up, disappearing them, and torturing them is clearly illegal and against international law, she said. According to international treaties, she went on, when one country occupies another, the host country does not lose its sovereignty, and yet all decisions are now being made by the occupying country without any say by the Afghan government.
A second judge spoke up. “Your Constitution speaks of freedom and a people’s government,” she said, “but the United States is running secret prisons, torturing, disappearing people, and locking people up for years with no due process.” The behavior of the United States, she said, violates everything that she and her colleagues were being taught the United States stands for. “It may seem trivial,” she continued, “but it affects our daily lives.” If a member of the international occupying forces gets into a hit and run with their car, and you go to the base to complain, you are threatened. They have total immunity from any rule of law, she explained.
She said that in a case involving an Australian, he was turned over to Afghan courts for a murder trial, because the military was not involved. But with U.S. forces, she said, we have to rely on the U.S. court system, and we often hear about these people being acquitted. The judge went on to make a broader point. With the great cost to the United States in blood and treasure, she said, we ought to be grateful. But the perception Afghans have of the U.S. forces, she explained, is of a group of arrogant occupiers who kick in doors.
The first judge to have spoken then joined back in, remarking that “the United States tells other countries how to be democratic and operate within a rule of law, but the United States as role model breaks every one of those things.”
A third judge expressed her agreement. She said that she had witnessed helicopters coming and taking away all of the men in a compound, leaving the women and children screaming. This is not war, she said, but if it is a police action then who authorized it? There is no probable cause, she said. None! And the men are disappeared.
Judge number two broadened the discussion to the topic of the occupation itself, expressing her belief that the U.S. public was being kept in the dark about the real motivations behind the war. Al Qaeda isn’t there and bin Laden is now dead, she pointed out. People should be given some reason for this going on, she said. I replied that actual motivations included the stationing of bases and weapons, a gas pipeline, profiteering, etc. At that, the women all began nodding and talking. A fourth judge to speak up interjected that even a child in rural Afghanistan knew the truth of what I had said, that the Taliban was simply an excuse.
Then it was my turn to answer questions. What does the average American think of war casualties? Why is there so much militarism and patriotism in the United States? Why is it that for centuries the United States has gone abroad to fight wars in other countries? Do Americans know how the rest of the world sees their country? Why do politicians choose policies that kill people? I answered to the best of my ability.
And then, surprisingly perhaps — although this is quite common in speaking with Afghans, especially better-off urban Afghans — the discussion swung around to the judges’ concern that things might be dramatically worse if the United States were to leave before establishing stability.
I asked them whether, after 10 years, stability was increasing or decreasing. They admitted that it was decreasing but proposed that a change in approach might reverse that. The change in approach that at least one of them recommended was for the United States to get tough with Pakistan, which was to blame for the worst forces within Afghanistan. The interpreter apologetically explained that Afghans blame Pakistan for everything just as every country, he said, blames some other country. Yet it is certainly true that Pakistan has done great damage to Afghanistan for decades, with great assistance from the United States, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, not to mention the damage done by the Soviet Union. This does not, of course, mean that a different U.S. approach to Pakistan would create a stable U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. The Soviet occupation was destabilizing for the same reason the U.S. occupation is destabilizing: people hate being occupied.
Well, what would I do? That’s what they wanted to know: what would I advise Obama?
I told them that I would announce that the military occupation was ending soon, that there would be no bases left behind and no weapons left behind, that I would immediately prosecute war crimes, that I would fund educational and civic and aid organizations run and controlled by Afghans, that I would facilitate open and honest elections, and that I would support any temporary international peace-keeping force favored by Afghans’ elected representatives. As this was being translated, every one of the six judges began applauding and declaring things like “You speak from our hearts.”