What do you get when you have a war that’s not legally a war, combat that’s not officially combat, and soldiers who aren’t sure if they’re acting as soldiers?
This isn’t the set-up for a too-complicated joke: what you get is a bombed hospital with dozens of civilian casualties, including medical workers and children.
That’s the takeaway from a Pentagon report on the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital bombing last fall, and its assessment is hardly reassuring that similar mistakes will be avoided in the future. The report includes telling details on the broader state of American military intervention in Afghanistan, a state of confusion in which troops are dangerously unclear on their roles and responsibilities. As one Special Forces member put it, “’How far do you want to go?’ is not a proper response to ‘How far do you want us to go?’”
That too-memorable exchange is indicative of a systemic disarray that goes all the way to the top, beginning with the lack of legal authorization for current U.S. intervention in Afghanistan. Recall, this is a war that’s supposed to be over. President Obama “ended” it way back in 2014, trumpeting the completion of the combat portion of the longest war in American history.
This formal end to the war places the current intervention on shaky legal ground. Nearly 15 years after 9/11, the Middle East in which America is now entangled looks very different from the region Congress had in mind when it approved 2001’s Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), the initial grant of permission to invade Afghanistan.
Limitless in chronological and geographical scope and carefully silent on the subject of constitutional powers of war, the AUMF offers no real legal cover to this zombie conflict.
The White House seems to be aware of this quandary, as evidenced by its persistent avoidance of the word “combat” to describe what U.S. troops are doing in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Mideast. The twisted rationale: if we don’t admit we’re fighting, we can ignore the Constitution. Thus does Obama repeatedly insist that “America’s combat mission in Afghanistan came to a responsible end,” which is a difficult argument to credit when U.S. soldiers on the ground there continue to suffer injury and death in combat situations.
It’s also not hard to imagine how such confusion could be dangerous on the ground—leading, perhaps, to questions like “How far do you want us to go?”
Indeed, the Pentagon’s report suggests that many troops are not certain whether they are supposed to act as combatants or as advisors. “It’s not a strategy and, in fact, it’s a recipe for disaster in that kind of kinetic environment,” one anonymous soldier was quoted assessing the situation. When his unit asked three times for greater clarity on their roles and permissions, the “only sounds audible were the sounds of crickets…though those were hard to hear over the gunfire.”
It’s confusion like this that led to that hospital bombing, which killed 42 innocents, some of them burning to death in their beds. And it could have led to much worse.
This is confusion with no end in sight: Obama has pledged to keep Americans in Afghanistan through 2017, and there’s a strong possibility his successor will extend the fight even further.
There’s no prospect of chopping off this zombie’s head any time soon, even though the purpose of the war, a misadventure that risks the loss of American life and guarantees the waste of American money, is at this point far from clear.
Sadly, such dangerous, costly, long-term confusion is exactly what recent years have taught us to expect. When you have a war that’s not a war, combat that’s not combat, and soldiers who aren’t sure if they’re soldiers, this is what you get.