Murphy's Law: Afghan Honor And Empty Graves

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June 25, 2013: Afghanistan is undergoing a painful culture clash. This is partly the result of more statistics being collected nationwide. This includes data on crimes, which until quite recently were never collected on a national basis. Some of these stats are quite disturbing to Westerners. Take, for example, “honor killings”. This is an ancient custom whereby a woman perceived as acting in a way that reflects badly on the family may be killed by a male relative to maintain the family “honor”. Thus women suspected of adultery or refusing to marry the man her parents have selected for her (or marrying someone they did not select) or getting raped are automatically at risk of being murdered to redeem family honor. In Afghanistan there were records of 240 women killed for “honor” in the past two years. There were believed to be more, whose fate was kept quiet (which is another part of the honor angle). There were also records of 160 rapes in that same two year period. Some of these overlapped with honor killing incidents. Rape victims who were not murdered to preserve honor are often prosecuted for unseemly behavior. It’s believed there were more than 160 cases of rape because this sort of thing is usually kept quiet (if only because more than a third of the time male relatives are the rapists).

Actually, women are being singled out here because Afghan society has long been known to be particularly brutal, with men behaving badly with each other and children often savagely abused as well. This is quite common in tribal cultures, where murder (and other crime) rates are much higher than in more advanced cultures.

Perhaps nothing sums up these cultural differences better than the "dead goat scam." This is one of many common efforts to extort cash from U.S. forces or halt operations against the Taliban. It usually begins with Afghan officials complaining that some recent battle had resulted in Afghan women and children being killed and wounded by U.S. forces. This often includes local civilians injuring their own children to gain more cash compensation for injuries caused by NATO troops. These injuries are often nothing more than those caused by common forms of punishment in rural Afghanistan (like putting the hand of an unruly child in boiling water). Foreign medical teams often encounter this kind of injury, and other types of savage punishments, and sometimes the parents casually admit the cause. It was, after all, part of the culture, like honor killings and defrauding well-meaning foreigners.

American troops have been encountering the dead goat scam for years. It works like this, any time a smart bomb gets dropped in an isolated location (which describes most of Afghanistan) and there is any chance of civilian casualties, the locals immediately make a fuss about seeking out who were hurt or killed. The village elders insist that outsiders stay away during this trying time. Even the foreign soldiers and Afghan police are held off (after the search for Taliban bodies, documents, and equipment is completed). Being good Moslems, villagers bury the dead before sunset of the same day. Sometimes there are no dead but there are fresh graves. The next day, the elders will claim as many civilian dead as they think they can get away with. The additional graves get a dead goat or other animal, so the proper stench permeates the mound of earth. Digging up graves is also against Islamic law, so the elders know the foreign troops have to take their word for it. The elders also know that the foreign troops, depending on nationality, will pay $1,000-$5,000 compensation per dead civilian. Not only is there a big payday, but the Taliban appreciate the bad publicity directed at the foreigners and usually show their appreciation by cutting this village or valley some slack in the future.

This scam works because there aren't many public records in Afghanistan. The only ones who know exactly who lives in a village are the people there and the elders speak for everyone. Investigators have a hard time interrogating individuals because the elders, and everyone there, has a vested interest in not being found out.

Some of the elders get greedy. For example, despite an intensive investigation into a bombing four years ago in Azizabad (outside Herat), the villagers got paid for over 90 dead. Investigators, piecing together what information they could, were certain that there were only 15 dead civilians (plus Taliban). But you can't touch the graves, and even questioning the veracity of the claims gets you howls of indignation.

In Iraq there were records, and most of the action was in densely populated areas. The investigations were prompt, and the Iraqis were not as bold and aggressive as the Afghans in keeping officials out. Iraq has a 5,000 year tradition of central government and officials who cannot be chased away. Afghanistan has none of that, at least out in the countryside. The local Afghan police are not enthusiastic about getting to the truth, since denying the villagers a payday will mean the police will be blamed and the villagers will be eager to even the score down the line. If the police play along, they can expect a reward, from the village elders, for their trouble.

The scam benefits others as well. The Islamic media, and many news outlets in the West, like the idea that a lot more civilians are being killed. For the Westerners, "if it bleeds it leads", and there's a bonus if you want to get in some shots about how poorly the war is being run. Of course, if you interview the American troops involved, you get closer to the truth. But that's not a newsworthy story, and you don't really want to call the soldiers liars, so it's best to just stay away from them. Go for the story, not for the truth.

 

 


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