Massacre in Mazar

The murdered U.N. workers are the latest trauma for a city that's seen centuries of horrific killings.

The death count from the sprawling United Nations compound in Mazar-e-Sharif trickled like an arsenic IV drip. Seven U.N. workers dead -- no, eight -- no, twelve. Some foreigners, some Afghans, all killed while trying to bring some stability to a nation crippled by a history of almost incessant violence. On Friday afternoon, a deranged rabble enflamed by vitriolic mullahs poured out of the Blue Mosque, mobbed the U.N. offices in the south of the city, toppled guard towers, set walls ablaze, and, beneath the alluvial slopes bloodred with wild spring poppies, proceeded to deliberately slaughter the people inside.

Who is to blame for these deaths?

The mob of knee-jerk, parochial fundamentalists in Mazar-e-Sharif, to whom anyone inside the U.N. compound -- like the 10 international relief workers slaughtered last August in Badakhshan province, or the Scottish aid worker kidnapped a month later in Kunar province and killed during a botched rescue attempt -- were not agents of reconstruction and aid but symbols of the infidel West, emissaries of the invading forces?

Or the mob of knee-jerk, parochial fundamentalists led by Pastor Terry Jones in Gainesville, Florida, some 7,449 miles away, whose callous and xenophobic burning of the Quran last week had enraged the Afghans?

Or the decade-long, excruciating standoff between two seemingly equally entrenched forces, NATO and the Taliban-led insurgency, that has convinced a nation envenomed with despair that violence is the ultimate and only solution to insult?

Underneath its fibrous connective tissue of tinsmith alleys, cerulean-tiled mosques, and rusty chipper vans, Mazar-e-Sharif festers with the memory of savageries inflicted upon it again and again and again. Friday's attack on an office that promotes governance and economic development in northern Afghanistan added a new wound. The Balkh provincial governor told the New York Times the mob fired on its victims with weapons wrested from U.N. guards, and, according to a U.N. spokesman, 24 people were injured. In today's Afghanistan, where some 30 million people eke out a hand-to-mouth existence with virtually no social protection, these injuries will condemn the victims and their families to a cycle of poverty and resentment that already garrotes the country.


I left Mazar-e-Sharif on Monday, March 28, after a four-week-long stay. It was my first trip to the city in almost a year, and a tense reunion. As new chunks of Afghanistan's north fell to the insurgency, this city, and most of Balkh province (of which Mazar is the capital), remained more or less free of violence. But apprehension hung over the city, gray and heavy like the pancake of smog that always looms above its flat roofs. A bomb detonated beneath an overpass near the airport a few days after my arrival; police told me several suicide bombers from southern Afghanistan were scouring the city for a convenient time and worthy targets to strike.

For the Zoroastrian New Year, known as Nawruz in Afghanistan, a pagan holiday that draws thousands during spring equinox, my friends and hosts eschewed the traditional pilgrimage to watch the raising of the maypole in the tiled courtyard of the Blue Mosque -- the supposed burial place of both Imam Ali and Zarathustra. Instead, we sipped haft mewa, a delicious holiday compote of dried fruit and nuts, and wished each other Sal-e-Nau mubarak, Happy New Year, in boredom inside a walled compound. As one of my hosts explained, outside "the security is not good." The 10,000 police and army officers the city government had reportedly dispatched to the streets that day did nothing to reassure him.

"When was the last time your family celebrated Nawruz at the Blue Mosque?" I asked my host. A flotilla of perfectly round cumuli sailed over the courtyard like gun smoke. To our north, a duet of military helicopters hovered above the city.

"Five years ago," he said. "After that, security got worse and worse."

He thought about it.

"Nothing has happened so far," he said. "But we have a saying: The jug is not always broken. It means, it only breaks once, but when it does, you can't fix it again."


A close friend works at the U.N. compound. I'll call him A., out of concern for his safety: In today's Mazar-e-Sharif, friendship with a Western journalist may be a hazard. After I heard about the attack I telephoned him; his cousin picked up and said A. was shaken but unharmed.

I remembered a conversation A. and I had last month. We had been watching news on television: footage from Japan, waterborne cars smashing into pleasure boats and homes collapsing. I found it difficult to watch: people dying in real time, and us, thousands of miles away, utterly unable to help.

My friend lit a cigarette and said, "When I was 18 I drove a minivan and the Taliban had ordered me to deliver dead bodies from the front lines to the morgue. I'd carry 20 bodies every day. Most of them were bodies of dead Taliban. I would throw them into the morgue yard and go back to pick up more bodies."

It was not a non sequitur: A. simply was responding to my vicarious trauma with his actual experience. Now he carries the grief of witnessing another bloodbath. Another atrocity lodged underneath the scar tissue of a city that never fully heals.

STR/AFP/Getty Images


Mission Creeps

John Yoo and Robert Delahunty's tortured logic on Barack Obama's Libya strategy.

John Yoo and Robert Delahunty -- two lawyers who owe their reputations to the key role they played authorizing torture while working in George W. Bush's Justice Department, have taken President Barack Obama to task in Foreign Policy for the "erratic, improvisational, and amateurish character" of his operations in Libya. Robust criticism of foreign policy in general, and war-making in particular, is a good thing (I've taken Obama to task over Libya operations myself), but there is something fundamentally dishonest about this article.

Yoo and Delahunty open their barrage by criticizing Obama's unwillingness to commit ground troops to Libya. Their timing couldn't have been worse: Shortly after their piece was published, Reuters's Mark Hosenball reported that Obama had signed presidential findings perhaps as long as three weeks ago that would authorize covert action supporting the rebels. Other stories quickly appeared confirming that there were, in fact, U.S. "boots on the ground" in Libya -- at least in the form of CIA agents establishing contacts with the rebels and assisting the military in targeting operations. Moreover, Obama himself told Diane Sawyer that the option of arming the insurgents was on the table; it would be less than shocking if it turns out that the Obama administration has been shipping weapons to Benghazi for weeks. So, on this point, Yoo and Delahunty present us with an administration far more timid about the use of military force than the facts allow.

But even before these reports showed otherwise, Yoo and Delahunty's argument that "the current administration, like Bill Clinton's and Jimmy Carter's administrations before it, seems swayed by the view, born of the Vietnam War, that American power in the world is the problem, not the solution" was a deeply disingenuous one. The United States is now in armed conflict in a third Muslim country, led by a president who has increased military spending every year he has been in office and whose first military actions included ratcheting up the scale of military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan far beyond those of his predecessor.

But the authors' target isn't really Obama's actions -- it's multilateralism. Like George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf, Obama enters this conflict intent on building an alliance and shifting the burden of the cost to others who share American interests. To Yoo and Delahunty, this is foolishness: Why draw on French blood and treasure when you can use your own? Alliances, they suggest, come with too many strings and burdens. But the intervention in Libya shows just the opposite. As the Heritage Foundation's Sally McNamara notes, one of the interesting aspects of the current operations is their demonstration of the flexibility of long-term alliances, particularly the ability to fashion alliances within alliances in an effort to spread the costs and burdens.

Yoo and Delahunty go on to argue that "There remains a serious risk that Qaddafi might, in desperation, destroy [oil fields] in order to punish his Western enemies. He has already threatened to turn the entire Mediterranean Sea into a theater of war, and he has the example of Saddam Hussein's destruction of Kuwait's oil fields in 1991 as precedent." Really? Do they truly believe that Qaddafi presents the risk of a reenactment of the Battle of Lepanto in the eastern Mediterranean? Even armchair generals have an obligation to bring their readings up to the current century. Qaddafi is a crazed figure who has a well-established record of using violence casually and opportunistically; assassinations and bombings are his calling card. His military force is relatively small, however, and much of it has already deserted him. His key retainers are going, too: Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa fled to London on March 30, and reports suggest that a number of other senior figures are also preparing to abandon ship. All this shows that the tactics settled on by the alliance -- a mix of bombing, psychological operations, asset seizures, and international pressure -- are working. Qaddafi could still do some crazy things, to be sure, and it's important to be on guard against that prospect, but his conventional force options are rapidly shrinking. And if he boards a plane for Zimbabwe or Uganda in the next week, his regime could finally implode with minimal further loss of life. That is the desired outcome here -- not a tactical military victory over one side in a civil war.

But all this raises the question. Yoo and Delahunty are eager to defend the record of the George W. Bush administration in which they served -- an administration that reconciled with Qaddafi, restored normal relations with him, and sent emissaries to the oil and gas industries to encourage them to return to Libya. And that's not even digging into the dark side of Bush-era operations in which Yoo and Delahunty were so deeply enmeshed. The CIA opened close dealings with Libya on counterterrorism matters and handed over at least one senior al Qaeda operative to Qaddafi's intelligence service; Qaddafi's desperate attempts to characterize his enemies as al Qaeda reflect an effort to draw on that relationship.

Note that Yoo and Delahunty avoid any mention of the single issue that has most provoked the rebellion against Qaddafi: torture and mistreatment of ordinary Libyans. After the liberation of Benghazi, rebels uncovered a vast subterranean prison at al-Fadtheel Barracks, where hundreds had been tortured and left to die. Stories of prison abuse have multiplied since the revolution began, a number of them now from foreign journalists who have gotten a slight taste of what Libyans have experienced for four decades. But under the Yoo torture memoranda, the executive has plenary commander-in-chief authority to torture and abuse these prisoners all he likes, provided he claims he's doing it for national security. Does anyone really believe that John Yoo -- who told a Justice Department investigator that it would be perfectly OK for the president to order the massacre of a village and who told an audience in Chicago that the president could authorize crushing the testicles of a child to get a prisoner to speak -- is motivated by humanitarian concerns for the people of Libya?

Yoo and Delahunty also present a bizarre, twisted construction of the U.N. Security Council resolution, starting with the irrational premise (which they obviously don't themselves believe) that foreign powers can do nothing beyond what is explicitly authorized in the resolution. A good resolution, they argue, would have authorized the seizure of Libyan oil fields and the use of Libyan assets to bribe generals and mercenaries. It's hard to read this without stirring memories of Bush administration offices filled with maps of Iraqi oil fields and of Paul Wolfowitz's assurances that Iraqi oil production would more than cover the cost of U.S. operations in Iraq -- among the more dangerous of many chimeras that marked the Iraq war. What Yoo and Delahunty advocate is a nostalgic return to the early weeks of that conflict; far from being "realistic," they are systematically discounting the costs of war while maximizing the prospect of success, oblivious to the myriad unanticipated problems that can arise on the road ahead. One experience of the Iraq War couldn't be clearer: When lawyers advocate lawlessness and the resolution of problems through unrestrained used of military force, the buyer should beware.