On March 11 2012, American soldier Robert Bales stepped outside his base late at night and killed 16 civilians in Afghanistan's southern city of Kandahar. Nine children were among the dead.
On Friday, he was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole. In June, the now-40 Bales pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty. Several family members of the victims who were flown to the U.S. from Afghanistan testified against him, and one cursed Bales for attacking villagers as some slept and others screamed for mercy.
"If someone loses one child, you can imagine how devastated their life would be," said Haji Mohammad Wazir, who lost 11 family members, including his mother, wife, and six of his seven children.
Bales took the witness stand on Thursday and apologized for the pre-dawn attack in March 2012, describing it as an act of cowardice. The father of two from Lake Tapps, Washington, was serving his fourth combat deployment when he left his outpost at Camp Belambay in Kandahar province, in the middle of the night to attack two villages.
The incident is one among many reported incidents of foreign troops committing gross violations in combat zones in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Incidents such as these can go a long way to tarnish the reputation and destabilize the objectives of U.S. interventions abroad.
The prospects of peace, security and liberty U.S. policymakers espoused to bring to Afghanistan and Iraq, if there ever was genuine intent behind such proclamations, are lost on the locals with the regular occurrence of such incidents. Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, drone attacks, post-U.S. Iraq, and the way the war itself was conducted, and the sharp rise in civilian casualties in Afghanistan this year, are all cases that tie into a bigger narrative that have made locals hate foreign troops.
It would not have been difficult to gain the trust of the Afghans. They were subjected to a brutish and extremely fierce Taliban rule. They lived in a an extremely fearful environment where the Taliban ruled with no regard for human life. Human rights groups around the world went berserk documenting and establishing how violent the Taliban rule was.
However, incidents such as the burning of the Koran, U.S. soldiers urinating on dead Afghans (even if they were Taliban), rapes of Afghan women, and indiscriminate killing of civilians are hardly ways the trust of the locals could be gained. Stories and reports of these incidents tend to spread like wildfire among the Afghan public. As a result, anti-American sentiment is rampant among the common Afghan people.
Civilian casualties in Afghanistan have risen by 23% in the first 6 months of 2013 compared to the same period in 2012. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said 1,319 civilians died, and 2,533 were injured as a result of the war from January 1 to June 30, 2013. The number of people killed as a result of NATO airstrikes or fighting on the ground, as reported by Human Rights Watch and the UNAMA etc., is shocking.
As U.S. forces plan to exit Afghanistan, the Taliban are still a force to be reckoned with. They are vying to gain control of certain parts of the country and in the long run possibly take Kabul as well. An eerie sense of all for nothing hangs over Afghanistan.
As for the Afghan people, they find themselves helpless victims to the circumstances. They are caught between the prospect of the resurgence of the brutish Taliban rule on one hand, and on the other the immense bloodshed that has resulted due to the fighting between NATO and Taliban fighters.