It is November 4th, 2008. An American woman, chartered by the U.S. Army, is talking to an Afghan man in a small town 80 kilometers from Kandahar about the price of fuel. Suddenly, he ignites the pitcher of gas he is holding, and throws it on her. She is set aflame. He is immediately captured, held by American contract and uniformed security forces for the ten minutes it takes to get a report on the woman’s condition. She is alive, but horribly burned. A U.S. security contractor presses his pistol against the side of the Afghan’s head and pulls the trigger, killing him instantly.
The woman was Paula Loyd, and she died January 7th of her injuries. The dead Afghani was Abdul Salam. The security contractor, Don Ayala, was temporarily held in a joint US-Afghan facility that allegedly did not meet the incarceration standards required for US citizens. Now home in New Orleans on a $200,000 bail, he is charged with second-degree murder. Plea bargaining appears to be underway with the US Federal District Court in Alexandra, VA.
Ayala is the first defense contractor to be charged with murder under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, a 2000 law which allows prosecution of civilian contractors accused of crimes while working for the United States in a foreign country. CIA contractors have been charged with murder, as have active duty military members. Defense contractors, after eight years, are now on notice.
There are many questions that can be asked, many things to wonder about. Some observers believe this case is going to trial (or plea) quickly because of the remarkable lack of confidence Afghans have in the U.S. occupation, and the U.S. satrap, Hamid Karzai. Prosecuting this case, even halfway around the world, may send a message that we care about justice in Afghanistan. Others feel that this case had to be prosecuted for the sake of the American and interpreter eyewitnesses who were apparently shocked to see a detainee, under restraint, shot intentionally and at point blank range, this time in full view of an Afghan public.
Beyond the particular tragedy, there are other questions. Paula Loyd is the third American anthropologist in the Army’s controversial Human Terrain System project, where social scientists are imbedded with combat brigades to help them "understand" the local satrapy, its customs and idiosyncrasies, to save their own lives as occupiers, and perhaps, kill fewer of the occupied. The American Anthropological Association opposes the Human Terrain System project, because it violates the "[AAA] code which mandates that anthropologists do no harm to their research subjects."
One may wonder if there has been any anthropological success with the HTS program, disregarding that it operates in conflict with basic professional ethics of professional anthropologists. Here is a team with an Afghan expert, an Army Reservist, who had not only studied Afghanistan’s culture, its people and its language, but had spent years working in Afghanistan for USAID and for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, prior to joining BAE Systems on the HTS contract. She is blindsided by the Afghan man with whom she is conversing, over the price of fuel.
Well, what is the price of fuel in Afghanistan? Rising for years, much only available on the black market, and the situation worse than ever. The CIA reports that Afghanistan’s 32 million people use about 5000 barrels of oil per day, and they pay dearly for every drop. Possibly, Paula doesn’t see the problem with the same intensity as does the Afghan, she with her blond hair, her kind and caring nature, and her long association with the Department of Defense — an agency employing maybe 3 million active duty, reservists, and civilians burning 340,000 barrels of oil per day, fuel that no one seems to pay for, ever. Perhaps, as Paula comes from a country that does not understand the impact of artificial governmental price controls in a command economy — she may not have been fully aware that price controls create an alternate marketplace where illegal trading in the price-controlled commodity drives real prices for the needy (i.e. not government-connected) sky-high. Perhaps, Paula simply wasn’t paying attention to signs of anxiety in her soon-to-be assailant, weary of the abject poverty and never-ending problems in her chosen line of work.
We could ask these questions. We might also wonder about the success of a program like HTS on our own combat brigades and defense contractors, who are supposed to be benefiting from enhanced cultural insight. The clear hostility and anger of Don Ayala was probably not on display for the first time in his career doing security, first in the Army, later as a defense contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan. His quickness to act as judge, jury and executioner seems not to have been tempered by his association with the Human Terrain Team. Or perhaps it was. Perhaps, as some bloggers have commented, he gave the Abdul Salam exactly the kind of justice that would have been meted out by an Afghan council, had the victim been an Afghan male. If so, HTS might well write this case up as a success.
The questions we should ask are far simpler. Why are we in Afghanistan? It appears that no one knows; although being there to launch future attacks against neighboring Pakistan, Iran, and perhaps an oil-rich former Soviet republic to the north seem to be contenders. Al Qaeda? I’m just not sure.
How are our occupation forces helping that country? It appears that our management of Afghanistan has brought more civilian deaths and cruelty than the Soviet invasion and occupation, more unwarranted imprisonments and hidden torture than the Soviet-backed regime conducted, and is today making the Taliban look like genuine statesmen in the eyes of surviving Afghans. Under a George W. Bush logic process, this means we should place more troops there, and do more of the same, only much faster. And yet this alternate universe strategy is precisely the Barack Obama position.
It is November 4th, 2008. A new president has been elected. A different party, a better man, a new family in the White House, and an exciting agenda of change. Like the Army’s attempt to hire its way into an improved methodology of fear, feeling it less and making the other side feel it more — our own country has attempted to vote its way into an improved methodology of fear — 53% feeling it less, and making the other 46% feel it more. It occurs to me that Paula Loyd could be a metaphor not for Americans in Afghanistan — over-confident, misunderstood and hated — but for Americans in this country who voted for change with hearts aflame. Those voters are already feeling the heat, eyes widening at the news each day of no good change coming, only more of the same, a corrupt state’s grip on our lives ratcheting tighter each day, condition deadly stable despite all efforts at democracy, the patient’s recovery prognosis slim.
Or perhaps there is a lesson for us all in the fate of Abdul Salam, who conducted a single deadly and violent act against the occupier, even in a moment of temporary insanity, and was instantly demobilized.
Or maybe, we should look at the iconic case of Don Ayala — professional mercenary, the decider on the wall, to be forgiven everything except the public exhibition of his righteous anger.
If we are to reclaim our country, our American dream, which metaphor is best?
This article was first published at The New American Dream.
LRC columnist Karen Kwiatkowski, Ph.D. [send her mail], a retired USAF lieutenant colonel, has written on defense issues with a libertarian perspective for MilitaryWeek.com, hosted the call-in radio show American Forum, and blogs occasionally for Huffingtonpost.com and Liberty and Power. To receive automatic announcements of new articles, click here.