New York Times war correspondent CJ Chivers offers insights into the Afghanistan conflict that are uniquely perceptive. That said, his most recent dispatch left me thoroughly perplexed. “At 11:48 a.m., a fourth Afghan appeared, pedaling on a bicycle toward the first of the dead fighters. He reached the dead man, picked up his assault rifle, slung it over his bicycle’s handle bars and began to pedal away, according to the reports. One of the Apache crews saw him with the rifle. Under the rules of engagement that guide when and how American troops can use lethal force, the cyclist was now considered a combatant under arms. This made him a justifiable target. The aircraft opened fire with the chain gun, striking the cyclist in the head. The shooting was now over.” As are any questions about whether or not it was a clean kill. Only the the fourth Afghan was an “11 to 14-year-old boy.” And? . . .

There are any number of reactions one might have to his killing, each with merit of arguable degrees.

A soldier on the ground might say: He was clearly a combatant.

Someone removed from the decision might venture that Muhammad Sharif was coerced by older Afghans to rush into the open and try to seize the rifle before the Americans did. He would be, in this view, a victim of both sides — the Afghans who ordered him into danger and the pilots who killed him once he touched the slain fighter’s rifle.

Those who have not flown low to the ground in a helicopter at more than 100 miles an hour might say that the pilots should have held their fire. The fact that at the speeds and ranges involved, a 12- or 14-year-old boy with a rifle can be indistinguishable from someone with a rifle who is 17 or 28 can be interpreted as either exculpatory details or as an another example of the counterproductive perils of air power . . .

The distraught villagers who came for Muhammad Sharif’s body claimed, variously, that the boy was innocent, that he had been ordered into the field by a Taliban fighter, or that he simply wanted the rifle to sell.

Whatever the real motivations behind his dash on a bicycle into the kill zone, the officers and intelligence analysts who puzzle over incidents like this are left wonder: What propelled him there?

I’m going with “a bicycle.” And I’m with the soldiers on the ground. The boy was fair game. Simple, sad, but true. What’s your take?

Recommended For You

32 Responses to CJ Chivers on a Moral Dilemma That Isn’t

  1. War is just that. War. And until my boots are the ones in the sand, I’m gonna let those who are there to do the do, do what they do. I’ll trust in them and keep my big fat FREE mouth shut.

    • War is just that. War. And until my boots are the ones in the sand, I’m gonna let those who are there to do the do, do what they do. I’ll trust in them and keep my big fat FREE mouth shut.

      What is war though? It’s a racket.

      America is far from free.

  2. Too bad but he made himself a target by picking up the weapon. A fourteen year old can kill just as much as any grown man.

  3. And I’m with the soldiers on the ground. The boy was fair game. Simple, sad, but true. What’s your take?

    Practically speaking I agree. From a moral and legal perspective the soldiers are the illegal invaders and have no right to harm anyone. One can not have a “clean kill” when working for the Evil Empire. The scummiest Taliban has a right to defend their land and the most honorable of our troops doesn’t have any right to stop them.

    No offense intended but you did ask. If the roles were reversed and that was an American boy shot by an Afghani on American soil I’m sure many would have said it was wrong to kill the boy.

    • The problem with the adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq is illustrated by this anecdote. If Islamic terrorism represents an existential threat akin to Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, or the Soviet Union, then the only logical response that we should have is the threat of total annihilation. We did not need to kill all of the Japanese, we just needed to demonstrate that we were willing to. In that scenario it hardly matters that one 14 year old boy carrying a rifle was shot by a helicopter.

      • If Islamic terrorism represents an existential threat akin to Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, or the Soviet Union,

        They didn’t and neither does Islamic terrorism. The existential threat comes from within. Rome fell because of Rome. The Vandals and Goths only finished the job of destroying the facade of Rome that remained.

        In that scenario it hardly matters that one 14 year old boy carrying a rifle was shot by a helicopter.

        Opinions vary widely, but I believe that the harshest form of gun control comes from a foreign soldier killing folks for mere possession of a firearm. If I had picked up the same rifle here I would be facing a prison term. I guess we got it lucky by comparison but it goes to show that this is a dubious sort of freedom we are fighting for.

        And as I am morally and finally responsible for this situation – it matters to me. YMMV.

        • Maybe the Nazis and Japan weren’t an existential threat to the United States of America, but they certainly were to Poland, France, China, and Korea. Those countries literally ceased to exist for a time. If you think that the Soviet Union was not an existential threat to the US then you have a strange definition of existence.

        • Those countries literally ceased to exist for a time.

          I can’t agree with including China in that list…or stating that those countries literally ceased to exist. They existed albeit in an occupied state, just as Afghanistan and Iraq exist in an occupied state.

          If you think that the Soviet Union was not an existential threat to the US then you have a strange definition of existence.”

          The most dangerous group of Communists with regards to the US were not Soviets – they were Americans. I refer to FDR and the many others who gave considerable aid and assistance both overtly and covertly to Stalin and to the Soviet Union as well as working actively against American liberty and rule of law. The Soviet Union would have been smaller and collapsed sooner if it wasn’t for the help from it’s American supporters. We would be more free and our own nation further away from collapse if it wasn’t for those same people.

    • The 11 to 14 year old enemy combatant won’t be turning 12 to 15, and he also will never be able to kill one of our guys. Like they say “WAR IS HELL”.

    • The U.S. troops are not illegal invaders, we sent them there so it’s legal. The U.S. has always stepped in to eliminate the evil rulers of the world. We all know that might makes right, and we’ve proven that for over 200 hundred years. These little trouble makers need to learn that if you screw with our economy, we’ll kill you. It’s just that simple.

  4. Any military in the world (including ours) would love to put you to work at 14. Denial of own mortality, able to swallow the most outrageous propaganda, loyal to a fault, physically developed enough to do most anything.

    Goes on today all over Africa – many rebel soldiers are 12-16. Some are younger. A little training, some indoctrination, an AK, some coke, and voila! Instant army.

  5. The pilots followed the ROE. They had to make a split second decision and like the author said, there is no way you can distinguish between boy and man while skimming the deck at 100 mph. To them it was a guy with a gun and a viable target.

  6. If we have not done so already, perhaps its time to blanket Afghanistan with leaflets showing a crude pictogram of ‘ villager+AK=dead villager.’ This kid probably knew that already.

  7. As said above, the boy placed himself in harms way by picking up the weapon.

    That said, the Americans shouldn’t have been there in the first place. These people represent no threat to us, never did.

    A huge waste of life and treasure for no reason anyone can think of. Except an oil pipeline that will never be built. And the money from the heroin trade to prop up the banks.

  8. In an insurgent war fought by “irregulars,” where women and children carry bombs under their clothing, anyone with the power to do harm is a legitmate target. Big news here: war sucks. And the only thing worse than fighting a war is losing one.

  9. I agree 100% with the soldiers view. AK = combatant. But, as a fellow soldier, I’d just like to throw out there that in Afghanyland, the civilians are permitted to openly carry their AK-47 and other weapons. Thats why theres ROE, you can’t just engage anybody with a rifle… (but, in a combat situation, the kid became a combatant the second he rushed in with anything more than a first aid bag)

  10. I can’t believe there’s even a question here. As was intimated in the article, the pilot and gunner in the chopper can’t possibly tell the age or motivation of a local with an AK. ROE says he’s fair game. They did the only thing they could/should have done.

  11. The question was not the larger one of whether the war is justified. It was if the incident was a good shoot. The only standard of measure is/are the ROE. The soldiers are there and must follow those guidelines to perform their jobs until they are recalled. End of story as far as this particular incident.

  12. As soon as he touched the rifle, he was a valid target for Coalition forces. Even the dumbest of people have to realize that carrying a weapon near US forces, especially after a fight is the next best thing to suicide.
    This reminds me of one of the adventures of Carlos Hathcock during Vietnam. While acting a blocking force for a marine sweep, he sighted a young boy pushing a bicycle loaded with AK-47s. Reluctant to shoot a child Hathcock took out the bike. As the Boy and bike spilled, the boy jumped up and loaded one of those AKs as expertly as any seasoned professional. Then the Boy had to die.

  13. Wow you are some pretty sick bastards on this forum. And blatant hypocrites too.

    So, you believe in the 2nd Amendment here. We should be able to possess and carry our weapons without reproach. But you support the murder of a young kid for daring to do the same, claiming that “it’s war.” Oh, sorry, I meant to say “young BROWN kid” which makes all the difference in the world. After all, he was probably wearing those weird arab clothes, which makes him “fair game” to kill. He was a terrorist too, right? Sure. They’re all terrorists over there. And they should be happy that they’re occupied by a foreign army approaching 10 years. And if they dare to resist foreign occupation? TERRORIST! TERRORIST!

    You can sit in your air conditioning and la-z-boys and “support our troops” and feel good about yourself. What the hell – kill them all and let god sort em out, right? If the roles were reversed you would all be singing a different tune.

    • The kid picked up a rifle. A little more discretion probably would have been advised here – but an insurgency can involve just about every living person in the occupied country – just ask the Soviets.

      If the roles were reversed, yes, I’d expect to be shot at, if someone picked up my weapon, they’d probably be shot at too.

      The right to bear arms extends across all of humanity – the cost of it is that people believe different ideals and will come to blows over resources. It’s been happening WAY before guns ever existed. We’re there for our own interests and they’re fighting for their own. And then what? They supported the murder of our troops and our contractors and possibly NGOs working there – so neither one of us is clean.

      Ralph had it right the first time.

      • I think you’ve just exposed a very salient point. We condemned the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 80s and supported the “freedom fighters.” Now that we have invade the SAME country two decades later, those same people defending their homeland are suddenly “insurgents,” or “terrorists.”

        The fact that this is lost on the majority of Americans just baffles me. WE are the occupying force over there. And even those individuals who originally did NOT resist the American occupation, have probably over the course of 8 years been given good reason to resent our presence there. Either because one of their family members was killed, or a friend, or a friend of a friend.

        Under our flag, with our support, our military has killed 100s of thousands of people over the course of our occupation. To say “war is hell” is such a pathetic cop-out, but it’s used all the time by “brave” Americans with yellow ribbons on their trucks. That doesn’t make you brave. That makes you cold, callous, and in the eyes of many (and certainly in the eyes of the victims), complicit in the murder of innocent people.

        • I was never looking to be “brave” or “a good person.” Here at TTAG the antis talk crap about us all the time being “evil.” I think we get used to it after a while.

          We cast aspersions everywhere with this politically charged environment. And thus no one is really good. We’re all guilty and we’re all evil. There is no real truth in the end but our own survival.

          War is in of itself, hell, it’s cold, callous, horrendous, terrifying, etc. That’s the way it has always been. But we don’t go around trying to be do-gooders and lying about it with false compassion like you or like any of the flag-wavers and yellow ribboners.

          People have taken up arms as a result of our inability to actually carry out an effective counter-insurgency strategy – with imprecise explosive weapons and ineffective diplomatic talks and corruption control – this is what you get. An insurgency involves ALL members of the occupied society and to them, it is their total war. The last time total war happened was in World War II when cities with CIVILIANS were bombed over and over again.

  14. I take it that the original owner of the rifle in question did not expire of old age.

    So let’s look at the facts:
    Individual of Side A using Weapon A gets killed by Side B.
    Individual C picks up Weapon A.
    Individual C gets killed by Side B.

    I would imagine other Individuals would soon understand Side B will shoot at anyone running around with a weapon.

    Lesson Learned: Everyone’s actions have consequences.
    Right and wrong will, of course, very according to your perspective.

  15. We here in the US are backseat drivers. For those who haven’t been in combat it’s impossible to say what’s right, left or wrong. For those who have been, hind sight is 20/20 that person picking up the AK may have in the future killed 20 or more. Who knows? But that desision had to be made by the PERSONS on the scene. Lest we forget the person in combat is a person combat brings with it little time to What if yourself to death.

  16. I find it so petty that we sit here debating the nuances of “Rules of Engagment” as if this is some sort of complex brain teaser. That kid is dead – he had a family who loved him. Just like 100s of thousands of others slain by our soldiers. And for the record I feel just as sorry for our men in uniform “serving” over there. They have been turned, unwittingly, into cold blooded murders by our government.

  17. Agree with most commentators above. War is unfair and cruel. We cannot expect a perfect, clean war, where only uniformed enemy combatants are killed and innocents are unharmed.

    The rule of engagement are blunt instruments used to balance the competing needs of combat efficacy and preservation of noncombatant life. They will not prevent tragedy, but simply minimize it. The Geneva conventions were designed to “humanize” war, but they require the cooperation of both sides. When one side fights asymmetrically, there is little the other can do, but to simply cope, imperfectly.

    But again, if this child is innocent, that shouldn’t be dismissed. We shouldn’t condemn the soldiers or the officers who created these RoE, but we should reevaluate our foreign policy. If we cannot accept these inevitable consequences of war, than perhaps we should be more unwilling to go to war. (I don’t want to get into just war or pacifist arguments … guns not politics, of course… but war is messy, we should realize that, and make sure our decisions to go to war are solemn and necessary. This is not to say our current commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan were not solemn and necessary. Not here to argue that.)

  18. OK I’m stupid (just ask my wife) but any fool knows better than to arrive at the scene of a gunfight and pick up the first AK laying around. Afghanistan has been “occupied” by hostile forces for the past 100 years (probably much longer) and I’m fairly certain anyone born there over the age of 2 knows that to pick up a weapon is to become an instant target. It’s sad and regrettable but in war, stupidity will get you killed.

  19. Afghanistan has been “occupied” by hostile forces for the past 100 years

    As I think you’e not stupid so, might I suggest a little googling of Afghanistan. I think you might find it interesting.

    Since the dawn of recorded history Afghanistan has been known as “the graveyard of empires”. No one from the outside has EVER taken that place over and run it for long. Nobody. Ever.

    The Brits tried a couple of times in the 1800s and failed just like all before and after. Early 1900s the Afghan monarchy returned to power and worked pretty well till the late 1970s. The Russkies has always had their hand in there, but were generally smart enough not to get too far in till the 80s.

    In the 80s the party that coup’d out the monarchy began drag the Soviets in till 89, when they threw up their hands like everyone else, and left. Oh yeah, that was when the CIA was really good friends with that one dude, Osama Bin Laden. Once he finished waging our little Charlie Wilson proxy war with the Soviets, we split the scene, forgetting all the promises we made to the mujahadeen while they fought and died in our stead. Oops. Blowback? Nothing much, just 9/11 and Al Qaeda.

    There’s a ton more fun facts about the mountainous region that has cost every nation that has ventured into it dearly.

    The Russians think we are absolute fools going in after they lost. They just don’t understand how we could have the hubris/utter stupidity to not see the lesson they learned not 20 years ago. Especially when we helped teach it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *