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?