On Oct. 3, a U.S. gunship attacked a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing 22 people and injuring many others. Any explanation for how or why this happened is speculative, but speculation can be useful when it focuses on the context in which the event happened. So how could this have happened?
Three possibilities come to mind. First, the Americans involved might have targeted the hospital, knowing that it was a hospital. That would be a war crime, for which they should be held legally accountable.
Second, the attack on the hospital might have been nothing more than an unfortunate accident of war — just bad luck arising from a mistake in identifying a legitimate target or perhaps collateral damage from an attack on a legitimate target. Both these possibilities are extremely unlikely. There was no reason for Americans to target this facility, nor is it likely that this target was simply hit by accident. This attack does not look much like an accident or collateral damage. It’s very likely that some person or people knew what they were doing; it’s just unlikely that it was the Americans who knew.
That brings us to the third possibility: Someone in the Afghan military requested the strikes on this building, knowing what it was and understanding — indeed, intending — the political repercussions of such an attack. It’s worth noting here that after the attack, Gen. John F. Campbell, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said that Afghan forces requested the airstrike.
Americans have long had trouble in Afghanistan distinguishing friends from enemies. Afghan soldiers have regularly turned their guns against the Americans who were there to aid in the fighting or to offer training. Sometimes the Afghans involved were disaffected. Other times, they were settling local scores. And sometimes they were agents of the Taliban or other opposition groups.
The possibility that the U.S. was deliberately used does not excuse what happened. The Americans had the coordinates of the hospital and should have had procedures in place to check any requested attack. No doubt, better procedures should be put in place. Such reforms, however, will not eliminate the core problem, which is that the Afghan army is not what it seems. Despite the U.S. investment of billions of dollars, this army, like its counterpart in Iraq, exists mostly on paper. Time and again, we see thousands of members of the national security forces defeated by what are effectively only a handful of opponents, whether from the Taliban or from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
Of course, part of the problem is corruption. American funding often ends up in private bank accounts rather than in army payroll or equipment purchases. But this is not the heart of the matter. After all, the Taliban can apply force effectively on a much smaller budget. The Afghan people know how to fight on their own; they have been at it for a very long time.
The real problem is political. An army is effective only when its members share a political belief in the state they are defending. Before an army can defend the state, it must believe in that state. The United States can provide money, but it cannot make a unified state out of communities that fundamentally see themselves as, at best, indifferent to one another and, at worst, as enemies.
We see evidence of the absence of a political center all over the Middle East today, from Libya to Iraq. The Shias of southern Iraq are a lot less concerned about the Sunni insurgents in the north than Americans are. The fundamental fact is that they do not care enough about what the U.S. identifies as the state of Iraq to sacrifice themselves and their children for it. Their political community does not extend much to the north of Baghdad.
The same is true of Afghanistan, where the state does not exist as a unified political entity. Its institutions are little more than weakly negotiated distributions of government resources — including positions and ministries — among competing groups. There are genuine political communities willing to defend themselves forcefully if necessary, but defense of the state is not necessarily part of that project.
The distribution of military resources between the national army and private militias is a good measure of the existence of a national political community. Unified states don’t tolerate private militias. As long as religious, ethnic or political communities maintain their own militias, we should not expect much from the national military. The very existence of such militias is a sign that the center is empty.
Politics is practical, not theoretical; its point of departure must be an understanding of the possibilities on the ground. The project of state politics has been shattered in Iraq and Afghanistan, and no amount of U.S. help in the form of military advice or nation-building assistance will create unity out of division.
A wise policy must accept these limits. It must realize that any intervention for the sake of the national government or national forces will be perceived locally as support for one faction or another. Regardless of intentions, the U.S. will be used and abused in support of local ends that they may not even know exist. When that happens, American forces are likely to find themselves once again destroying villages — or hospitals — in order to save them.