I met her in 2010, at a conference held at a U.S. military base in Alabama. I was there to ask questions about drones. She was there as part of a training program for military leadership. Lt. Col. Siri Skare, Norway’s first female fighter pilot, and I sat on a bench in the austere close-cropped lawn outside the base hotel and talked. She was about to leave to join the United Nations mission to Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan. Her job there would include work on issues related to women’s rights. She wanted to learn and to understand about Muslim women.
Her sincerity, the earnest curiosity of her questions, was striking. I did not believe in the possibility that any Westerners could do any good at all in Afghanistan or anywhere else in the region. The War on Terror, the occupation of Afghanistan, the use of my own country, Pakistan, as a supply route for American troops and the remote control drone deaths, had all wrought irreversible harm. Siri Skare knew about all that, and we spoke about it that afternoon; but she also believed that good work could be done. She wanted to be a part of this mission, she told me, specifically because it was a UN mission focused on human rights and humanitarian work. War was not the answer to Afghanistan, we agreed; she took notes, names of books and articles. The last thing we spoke about was our daughters—hers was flying in that afternoon from Oslo. We bonded over how gut-wrenching it always is for a mother to say goodbye, even for the noblest of political causes. Then we went our separate ways.
Time passed. The War on Terror plodded on, unconcerned with the truth that Americans were no safer because Afghanistan had been invaded. In those days, Christian right-wing groups had not yet turned their ire quite so much to other Americans—other than immigrants, that is. Their imagined enemies then were Muslims and anything to do with them. A decade of America’s wars against Muslims had passed, but another decade was yet to come. On March 20, 2011, a pastor in Florida named Terry Jones decided to hold a mock trial of the Holy Quran outside his Church, which culminated in a book burning. The events at the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, would reverberate all the way to Afghanistan. General David Petraeus, then the Commander of the American forces, called the act “hateful.” When Jones was challenged directly about whether he was making things more difficult for American forces in Afghanistan, he called the General’s remarks “unconstitutional.”
Word of Jones’s Quran burning got to Afghanistan and to Mazar-e-Sharif, the city where Lt. Col. Skare was posted at the UN compound. It was a Friday, and during prayers, speakers and preachers at the city’s famous Blue Mosque riled up their own congregants, urging them to stand up against the insult that had been done to their holy book. When the sermon was over, thousands of men had gathered outside the UN compound. In their impassioned state, they believed that a white and Western person had desecrated their faith, so the only white Westerners they could reach would have to pay.
Later in the afternoon, the gathering became ever more enraged and the cries for avenging the desecration became louder. Against the crowd of thousands of men, only sixty policeman had been deployed. These policemen appeared overwhelmed by the size of the crowd. Undoubtedly, the protesters saw this and began to press forward and storm the compound. When they did so, the first line of police officers inside the compound—there were only a dozen of them—simply put down their weapons and surrendered to the crowd, which scattered throughout the compound. Two policemen who were hiding behind a water tanker shot at the angry men. While one of the rioters was injured, another managed to disarm one of the policemen and take his Kalashnikov rifle.
Her death was needless, like so many others sacrificed in the path of a war whose goals remain unclear even after twenty years.
The protesters then made their way to a darkened bunker where Skare was hiding with some of her colleagues. When she saw them, she tried to escape. Some assailants saw her, and using the Kalashnikov that had been commandeered from the Afghan police officer they shot and killed her. She was among seven who were killed that day. I found out about her death from another friend who had been at the conference. It was devastating news, and all I could do was write about it, putting into words for a column in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn the ghastly unfairness of the vengeful cycles of war. Her death was needless, like so many others sacrificed in the path of a war whose goals remain unclear even after twenty years.
A decade passed. Then last week, I received an email that took me back to those days immediately after Lt. Col. Skare’s death. It was from her daughter, who had found the article I had written years ago about her mother. Now grown, she had been searching the internet, piecing together the bits and pieces of her mother that she could find, when she came upon it. Her letter broke my heart. Wars never end for those who have lost what is dearest to them. For them, they remain incomplete, forever wars of another kind.
I wonder whether America can look differently at the events that took place at the UN compound after the insurrection that took place in Washington, D.C., on January 6. The storming of the UN compound by a mob riled up by firebrand preachers, a crowd willing to do anything to avenge what they perceived as an unalterable wrong, should now be more familiar to Americans. So too should the difficulty of discerning complicity, of resolving questions such as whether the Capitol Hill police sympathized with the insurgents and let them in. Perhaps those Afghan policemen tasked with protecting the UN compound had similar sympathies toward the mob avenging the burning of the Quran? Crowds and mobs and faith are more complicated than the us-and-them distinctions of warfare would have one assume. For so long, too long, Americans have instructed other countries—Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, and Nigeria, to take just a few examples—on how to fight the enemy within. Those same exhortations seem to have been forgotten now that Americans look at their own terror within.
There is no solace and no closure for those lost in war, those killed because of the distant crimes of others elsewhere. The Alabama base where I met Lt. Colonel Skare is only a few hours’ drive from Gainesville, where the actions of a venomous and Islamophobic church leader indirectly ended up condemning a brave woman to death. That was one assailant; the other was the young man who took a stolen gun and used it to take the life of a woman who had only the greatest respect for his faith. What closure can there be for that woman’s daughter when neither of these assailants have been punished?
There is great effort in the aftermath of war to attach meaning to the deaths of those whose lives were the means of enacting some strategic goal, some vengeance. But if the right-wing violence taking place within the United States is any evidence, the War on Terror was futile and pointless, directed toward the wrong enemy. All this terror fighting was done while looking askance on the grandest scale, where an obsession with foreign enemies allowed home-grown enemies to nourish themselves with heady dregs of racial hatred.
The end of one war far away does not mean an end to war for Americans. At a time when calls for unity ring everywhere, Americans must reckon with the truth that American unity has, for at least twenty years, been constituted of a hatred of arbitrary foreign “others” too weak to argue with America. The other kind of unity, the sort that enables empathy, remains elusive. America is good at banishing the ghosts of wars past, shelving them away in boxes and archives. There is no counting up of all the children, American and Afghan and Norwegian, who have been left motherless and fatherless and who search in this or that corner of the internet for some recollection, some fragment, that gives back, in some shred, some memory, some truth. The desolate hope of the present moment, of the rekindled memory of a brave woman wrongly killed, is only that Americans can now understand the cruelty of war in a way that was impossible before.