Warring ethics

The war in Afghanstan between Taliban and the Northern Alliance bears an eerie resemblance to the war between Trojans and Athenians in the Iliad: courage, steadfastness, deceit, and revenge. Does the warrior ethic of the Afghans harken back to the ancient code embedded in Homer’s account, or is it the natural ethic of a culture dominated by warlords? A Pashtun saying sums it up: "Me against my brother, my brother and me against our cousins, we and our cousins against the enemy." Clearly the Afghans battle one another by an ethic different than that of the United States and its allies, the military of sovereign states subject to international law and their own rules of engagement.

News stories from the fronts in Mazar-e-Sharif, Kunduz, and Kandahar have reported chaos on the ground, men rushing from one front to another and then milling about waiting to fight. At the same time, there appears to be a set of rules intended to stave off battle, and perhaps save lives. The "victories" of the Alliance, in north and south, follow rounds of skirmishing and negotiating rather than pitched battles. Surrendering Taliban warriors have been greeted with open arms; some are amnestied, while others, especially foreign Taliban, are imprisoned. Some Taliban surrender their weapons, others apparently do not. Booty is taken-Toyota trucks and plunder from the bodies of the dead. At the same time, it is likely that Taliban military assets, including their leaders, are being hidden to fight another day. Changing sides is an accepted practice among the Afghans: Some warlords frankly admit that their allegiance goes to the winning side-once it was the Taliban, now the Alliance. And next year?

This is war, Afghan style. Taking prisoners, being a prisoner, or caring for prisoners appears not to be part of the tradition. Nor are civilians exempt from use as shields. It is these ethical differences that are likely to bring scrutiny from human-rights groups, who give every indication of holding the United States responsible for departure from international standards. There have been reports of summary executions of prisoners in the field and of Alliance soldiers parading prisoners on the streets for baksheesh (tips). An uprising of prisoners at the Qala Jangi fort left over two hundred Taliban dead, but not before an American and forty Alliance soldiers were killed. Had the prisoners given up their weapons? Did they seize weapons? Did they really see themselves as prisoners, or soldiers carrying on the war by other means? Were they wantonly killed by their captors?

East meets West, clashing cultures, clashing ethics-it will be difficult to establish what rules apply, and when. As for soldiers milling about, there is much to be said for the Afghan ethic of skirmish and surrender. As for prisoners, the Geneva Conventions seem a better bet. At the current juncture, it is obvious that international law, and the just-war ethic as well, are at odds with the Afghan warrior ethic, and vice versa. It seems unlikely that they will buy our ethic. So for now, we will have to learn whether-or to what extent-we can live with theirs.

December 11, 2001

Published in the 2001-12-21 issue: 
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