From Newtown to Panjwai

On December 18th, the PBS Newshour aired a segment featuring several residents from Newtown, Connecticut reflecting on the horrors of the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting that resulted in the deaths of 26 people, including 20 children. The people interviewed stated that they all felt a sense of helplessness and expressed a responsibility as a community to help and “to do something.” For the rest of the interview the various respondents suggested ways that civil society could affect positive change through political advocacy on issues such as gun control and school security, and by using their platform to start a serious national discussion if Washington remained locked in political gridlock.

That same day the U.S. Army announced it would seek the death penalty for SSG Robert Bale’s alleged murder of 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children in two villages outside Kandahar.  Local Afghans interviewed about those horrible events last spring expressed a desire to see that justice would be done through a legitimate legal process.  But aside from seeking retribution against the perpetrator, there has been little coverage in the Western media of how the tragedy has affected the Afghan people, and what means are available for Afghan civil society to address the broader political and social issues raised by the killings, namely the constant insecurity of the Afghan civilian population.

Sandy Hook and Panjwai may not be perfect parallels, but the stark contrast between the civil society outlets available to Afghans and Americans highlights one of the negative aspects of scaling back U.S. objectives in Afghanistan. What little progress the Afghan government has made on protecting human rights and providing good governance has largely been a result of international pressure.  Usually this has amounted to little more than lengthy paper decrees issued from Kabul that provided the Afghan population with few measurable improvements.  Afghan civil society organizations have had some success in organizing, but are still a long way from having influential voices in public policy discussions and are vulnerable to government reprisals when they become too controversial.

While the U.S. certainly can’t fix all the problems facing Afghan civil society, there is no reason to pretend that conditions for the Afghan population are somehow going to improve post-2014. Newtown might have shaken the American public to its core, but for Afghans what happened at Panjwai was sadly just another day.

Please note that the views expressed in this article do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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