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War Crimes in Afghanistan | Globe Editorial

Depravity under tough strains

March 28, 2011

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THE US ARMY took an important step by apologizing for what it called the “repugnant’’ content of three photos published earlier this month by a German magazine. In the photos, American soldiers pose with the corpses of Afghan civilians, as if showing off hunting trophies. It’s to the Army’s credit that five soldiers from a “kill team’’ in Kandahar Province, including one soldier who has confessed to the charges, are now facing court-martial for murdering civilians, while seven other soldiers stand accused of lesser crimes.

But after-the-fact apologies and criminal prosecution for war crimes, no matter how warranted, are not enough. The Army must also face up to the possibility that the strain of extended counterinsurgency warfare played a role in the soldiers’ depraved behavior.

In the case of the accused “kill team’’ in Kandahar, court-martial evidence suggests that an undersupervised group of soldiers had been spiraling out of control. The soldiers testified to heavy drinking and constant use of hashish. Senior commanders need to be vigilant for such signs of indiscipline and intervene as needed.

All wars expose soldiers to extreme psychological stress. Yet the counterinsurgency strategy that General David Petraeus is trying to implement in Afghanistan depends on winning the trust of the population — and on a high level of restraint from US service members amid an unpredictable war against an often invisible enemy. When soldiers go to the other extreme, as the Kandahar kill team did, Taliban propagandists are the direct beneficiaries.

As long as US forces are in Afghanistan, the burden is on senior commanders to provide closer oversight and beef up protections for whistleblowers. These measures wouldn’t just preserve the honor of the Army; they’re also an indispensable form of self-defense.