A horrific news report from Afghanistan brings to light a wider problem afflicting the American, and Israeli, way of war — but, no, it is not what you think.
Washington faces perpetual allegations of “war crimes” for its military conduct in Afghanistan, and Israel, in Gaza. We’re asked to believe that U.S. and Israeli forces are overly aggressive, but that picture is perversely warped. The truth is that Israel and the U.S. wage self-crippled wars. To begin to understand that phenomenon, start with that sickening tale out of Afghanistan.
The practice of turning boys into sex slaves is rife in Afghanistan, reports the New York Times, “particularly among powerful men, for whom being surrounded by young teenagers can be a mark of social status.” But if American soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan encounter that practice, they “have been instructed not to intervene — in some cases, not even when their Afghan allies have abused boys on military bases.” Why?
Washington’s turning a blind eye “is intended to maintain good relations with the Afghan police and militia units the United States has trained to fight the Taliban. It also reflects a reluctance to impose cultural values in a country where pederasty is rife.” (Emphasis added.)
Outraged at Washington’s betrayal of individual rights, some American service members pushed back against the policy. But they “have been disciplined or seen their careers ruined because they fought it”. (Read the whole story but be warned: it will turn your stomach.)
Such appeasement of an odious Afghan practice fits the pattern of Washington’s self-effacing way of war. The proper objective in Afghanistan was to defeat whatever threat the Islamists posed, by crushing them militarily. And it entailed recognizing the unwelcome necessity of civilian casualties (for which the Islamists bear full responsibility). Instead, U.S. leaders waged a supposedly compassionate war that put the needs and welfare of Afghans first — ahead of the military objective. I document how this way of war played out in my book Winning the Unwinnable War: America’s Self-Crippled Response to Islamic Totalitarianism. The ultra abridged version: It was a disaster. A few illustrations:
Washington’s war planners defined lists of targets that were excluded from bombing missions. On these “no-strike” lists were cultural-religious sites, electrical plants — a host of legitimate strategic targets ruled untouchable, for fear of affronting or harming civilians. At the start of the war, American cargo planes dropped 500,000-odd Islam-compliant food packets to feed starving Afghans and, inevitably, jihadists. Bombing raids were often canceled, sacrificing the opportunity to kill Islamist fighters. The no-strike lists grew ever longer, giving the enemy more places to hide in and fight from. While handing the Islamists umpteen advantages, which they exploited, this self-crippled way of war tied the hands of American soldiers in combat zones.
That is how the Afghan war was actually conducted, because ultimately Washington believed we have no moral right to defeat the Islamists in the battlefield: the Afghan people had to come first. On that premise, who are we to assert the objective superiority of our moral values by standing in the way of Afghan men who turn boys into sex-slaves?
Now imagine being an American soldier, witnessing an Afghan leader keeping a boy chained to a bed as a sex slave, and having to decide between complying with orders (ignore it) and doing the right thing (at minimum, speaking up). Defying orders could get you kicked out of the military and destroy your career. Contemplate the psychological toll of looking the other way and plugging your ears.
Soldiers face that same impossible choice — but with their own lives on the line — under the self-crippled rules of engagement on the battlefield. Over the last decade, I’ve met veterans of the Afghan and Iraq wars at my public talks. The insanely restrictive rules of engagement are maddening, they tell me: we were supposed to go after the enemy, risking our lives, but we were made to back off, retreat, and let them fight another day. Listening to them is heartbreaking. The tragic story behind Lone Survivor, recently made into a film, is emblematic. The injustice done to them, by the irrational policy of our leaders, has yet to be acknowledged. What must that do to their morale?
Yes, it is astounding that the world’s most powerful military force actually pursued a self-crippled way of war.
But it is not alone: Israel, the Middle East’s most powerful military force, has adopted essentially the same approach. Peter Berkowitz, a legal scholar, has noted the searing irony: the U.S. and Israel are widely accused of “war crimes” but in fact both “devote untold and unprecedented hours to studying and enforcing” the customary rules of war, which enjoin the avoidance of harming noncombatants.
Look at last year’s Gaza war. Israel’s paramount responsibility was to defend the lives of its own citizens. Morally, in defending itself, Israel’s priority must be eliminating the threat from Hamas. Hamas declares its goal of destroying Israel in no uncertain terms. It is responsible for devastating suicide bombings and, over the years, thousands of rocket attacks from Gaza against towns and cities in Israel. Yet, against this backdrop — and mirroring the U.S. way of war — Israel subordinated the objective of self-defense in the name of safeguarding civilians in a war zone.
Recall, to take just a few examples, how the Israel Defense Force dutifully went far out of its way to warn of impending strikes. It dropped thousands of leaflets in Arabic warning Gazans to avoid certain areas that may be targeted. It phoned and texted people residing in apartment blocks where a rocket is about to hit, giving them time to evacuate. Often it fired “a knock on the roof” warning rocket, before leveling the building. It aborted missions if civilians were spotted nearby the target. Hamas notoriously stashed weapons, ammunition, and missiles in private homes. And it puts rocket launchers in densely populated areas.
Just as America hamstrung its own troops and drew up no-strike lists, handing a tactical gift to Islamists in Afghanistan; so, Israel’s conduct, shaped by the same premise, benefited Hamas.
Consider another parallel. Earlier this year, members of the Knesset read aloud testimony from Israeli soldiers who fought in the 2014 Gaza war. The aim was to rebut a UN report on supposed Israeli war crimes.
“The [Israel Defense Force] followed all the rules to clear areas of civilians, but Hamas cynically forced some to stay,” MK Dani Atar (Zionist Union) said, reading the testimony of a Golani soldier. “[Palestinians] were killed by explosives they didn’t know were there that Hamas planted.”
“We lost our element of surprise, the best of our sons, to make sure we wouldn’t kill civilians that the enemy used as human shields,” he added. . . .
MK Merav Ben-Ari (Kulanu) read a testimony by Dror Dagan, who was injured while arresting a terrorist, and listened from the visitors’ gallery, sitting in his wheelchair.
“When we burst into the house and quickly scanned the rooms, the wife of the terrorist, a senior Hamas member, fainted. As a medic, I did not hesitate and started taking care of her,” Dagan wrote. “Not two minutes passed and it turned out that it was a trap. It was all pretend, a trick to gain time so the suspect could get organized.”
“I was injured, because I was taught the values of the IDF, to take care of anyone who is injured, even if it is the wife of a terrorist,” Dagan added.
The cumulative aim of the statements was to illustrate — as if further evidence were needed — the tragic lengths to which Israel went to avoid harming civilians in the war zone. It’s vital that the lies and distortions about Israeli military conduct be exposed and refuted.
But a fundamental problem common to Jerusalem and Washington is the underlying moral idea shaping their conduct of war. It is the idea that America (and Israel) ought to put their own interests last; that they must sacrifice the lives and security of their citizens to the enemies they are combatting. Both strive to conform to that prevailing norm. The more consistently they conform to it, the more they cripple their ability to engage in self-defense — the prime responsibility of a government to its citizens. The conventional norm shaping the conduct of war subverts free societies that abide by it, while enabling their enemies on the battlefield. Surely it is past time to rethink that way of war.