On the conduct of military “contractors” in Afghanistan: In the words of Paula Loyd (1.7)

Paula Loyd, June, 2006

Paula Loyd, June, 2006

Since Paula Loyd (36 years old) was set on fire by an Afghan Taliban man, Abdul Salam, on November 4, 2008, there has been a considerable outpouring of messages of grief and condolences for Loyd online, in the United States particularly. Another member of the U.S. Army Human Terrain Team to which Loyd belonged, a military contractor named Don Michael Ayala of New Orleans, executed Salam by firing a gun into his head, once he had already been captured, subdued and restrained. According to an indictment filed in a U.S. court (Ayala was removed from Afghanistan and is now out on bail), the execution happened about 10 minutes after the attack on Loyd, once Ayala heard that she had suffered severe burns to most of her body. Once that news came to light, condolences and prayers for Loyd were joined in multiple online forums by extreme expressions of hatred and revenge from commentators, most of whom were far removed from the situation. At present, among the things we do not know are:

  • the actual content of the exchange between Loyd and Salam;
  • Ayala’s reasons for taking the law into his own hands;
  • and, of course, Salam’s side of the story.

Nonetheless, when surveying opinions expressed on Wired’s Danger Room (see here, here, and here), the four most common themes that are apparent are:

  1. Ayala is a hero, and a defense fund should be set up to help him with his legal battle;
  2. Loyd’s attacker is a representative of the savages that populate Afghanistan;
  3. Perhaps the root of the problem lies in the Muslim religion, given that the “attacker” was a man, the “attacked” a woman, and there were rumours spread in the media that she may have been “immodest” in appearance; and,
  4. Afghans are worse than mere savages, they are animals, and they invite invasion, domination, and perhaps outright extermination;

The last theme is a fundamentally racist one — these are not humans, they are inferior — and it promotes genocide. This is an image of Western opinion that favours the arguments of Osama Bin Laden the most. The third theme is an ethnocentric one, but one that also leaves out the central mediating factor between Loyd and Salam — the invasion and occupation: the problem is with his religion, something ethereal, abstract and metaphysical, appropriate to a defective and unbalanced mind, and not related to the fact that Loyd is a foreigner working on behalf of foreign domination of people like Salam.  Moreover, Salam was inherently incapable of understanding his own domination, and thus was left only to express extreme indignation against a woman…because his religion supposedly told him to act that way. The second theme is an ethnocentric and evolutionist one — and thus far we have a fairly predictable and representative range of imperialist opinion that manifests in virtually all such situations over the past five centuries of (Greater) European expansion. The first theme is very interesting as well. What is not entirely predictable is the response to it, and the source of the response, as we shall see in a moment.

The first theme is the good guys and bad guys theme, familiar to anyone exposed to American “cowboys and Indians” movies. Ayala is the avenger in white, Loyd an innocent white female, and Salam the dastardly Indian scalper. One blog framed her this way: “Taliban set woman on fire for crime of social science research,” afterwards adding, “Am I the only one that wants to give Don Ayala a medal?” (see comments on those posts here and here). Ayala is thus cast as performing an honourable service to his nation, and Loyd is cast as a meek woman who only wanted to study. She is the victim, the female victim.

Who is Paula Loyd?

According to an introduction to her at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in June of 2006, Paula Loyd was then a Civil Military Officer at the UN mission to Afghanistan. Staff Sergeant Paula Loyd also served in the U.S. Army Reserve. (Suddenly, the dividing line between civilian and military becomes rather blurred.) In fact, Loyd had been in Afghanistan years before the Human Terrain System was even instituted. In her words, there was some confusion on the part of locals as to whether she was a man or a woman, and local norms were not applied to her as an outsider (countering the notion that she was attacked, according to the stereotyping accounts, for being a woman who dared to step out of line with tradition):

”Sometimes I’ll be talking to the men in a village and they’ll turn to the interpreter and say, ‘Is that a man or a woman?’ But I haven’t had any problems with them. They’ve all been very nice,” Loyd said….Loyd said Afghans do not expect their societal norms to apply to her because she is not from their culture. ”So the fact that I’m a woman doesn’t mean I need to be in a burka and they can’t deal with me. They take me for who I am, they accept me for who I am. And they’re willing to work with me,” she said. (source)

About contractors

What is especially interesting, and now timely, are Loyd’s comments on military contractors (these were simply called mercenaries until 2003), people such as Don Ayala, her alleged avenger. We do not know what she might think of them at present, but in 2006 she had some especially sober remarks to make in a presentation that was otherwise very positive and optimistic about that the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan.

In case the reader could not access the video, this a transcript of the exchange:

— that the PRTs [Provincial Reconstruction Teams] in Iraq, the Pentagon has just reluctantly agreed, as I understand it, to provide security for them. There still is a lot of question feeling, as I also understand that a lot of that, however, may fall to contractors who also do a lot of other security jobs in Iraq. My question is how do they fit in the equation. You talk about the sensitivity, particularly of different kinds of military units. How do contractors fit into that equation, which were playing, as I understand, an enormous role? Thanks very much.

Paula Loyd:
Well, that’s actually a very good question, because you’re right, that’s another very large component that we can’t ignore. A lot of my complaints also come about contractors. You know, sometimes there are certain contractors that are providing security for different projects, who are rearming previously disarmed militias. You know, there are contractors who have terrible reputations for driving worse than the military forces. So I think that if we also don’t address the issue of contractors and what they’re doing, and hold them accountable for some of their actions, then again, it’s not going to help us win the war, at least in Afghanistan.

While some are appalled by the arrest and trial of Don Ayala, it is interesting to hear what Loyd had to say about the excesses of contractors (mercenaries) and how they impact on the U.S. campaign — not that the success of that campaign is in any way a goal valued by this blog. It does not sound as if she was ready to recommend medals for contractors or ask fellow citizens to set up defense funds on their behalf. In the meantime, Ayala has been indicted under the “Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act” — the meaning that is lost by such a masking is that this was an extrajudicial execution of a civilian prisoner, by all means a war crime, and far more than a mere jurisdictional matter.


Afghan President Hamid Karzai today criticized the U.S.’ “Provincial Reconstruction Teams” (PRTs) as constituting what is effectively a parallel government, a minimalist statement of the situation. Karzai also complained about “private security forces” forming a parallel structure to Afghan security forces. Thousands of Afghans with criminal backgrounds have been employed by these foreign mercenary agencies. A “senior NATO official” told the Associated Press that there are 40,000 such mercenaries in Afghanistan today, larger than the number of U.S. uniformed troops. (source)


For more current articles on the Human Terrain System, see:

“Human Terrain System: Murder Charges, Paranoia, General Sacked,” by John Stanton, The Seoul Times, Thursday, November 27, 2008

and a slightly differing version with added information,

“Human Terrain System: Murder Charges, Espionage, Paranoia, General Sacked,” by John Stanton.

Past articles by John Stanton can be found on this blog, on cryptome.info, on Pravda, and The Seoul Times. The above constitute the seventh in a series of articles by Stanton.


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9 thoughts on “On the conduct of military “contractors” in Afghanistan: In the words of Paula Loyd (1.7)

  1. Keltorttruth

    I happen to agree w/ bullet point one and completely disagree w/ the other 3 bullet points, as I know Paula would have. She loved the Afghan people and wanted desperately to help them. In the military, she was a civil engineer charged w/ rebuilding services for the local people. She grew to love Afghanistan and its people.

    The reason Ayala is a hero to me is because he did the right thing. There is no way you or anyone can sit there and say that salam didn’t know what he was doing was wrong and if he didn’t then that’s even worse. No sane or moral person can sit calmly through an interview with another person that they barely know and a hold a peaceful conversation for 20 minutes all the while just waiting for the body guard to leave the room so you can douse this person with fuel and set them on fire. He knew he would likely be killed for what he did and he was. It’s no fun to be the butcher, but most of us love hamburgers. This guy needed to be killed because that kind of depravity (in this lone individual), whatever the cause, can not be repaired. He was broken and needed to be stopped and Ayala did it. Was it temporary insanity, was it post-war traumatic stress syndrom? I don’t know, but I know it was ultimately the right thing to do.

  2. Maximilian Forte

    I am not sure that I follow you when you refer to my bullet points — the two that you say you disagree with are:

    # Ayala’s reasons for taking the law into his own hands;
    # and, of course, Salam’s side of the story.

    That would mean that you disagree that Ayala had reasons for his action, and that Salam had a side to the story. I said that we do not know either, which for now remains a fact (in Salam’s case, a permanent fact), and I do not see what there is to disagree with.

    Leaving that aside, I did not say that Salam did not know what he was doing — you did, in claiming he was insane. I am saying we do not know what he was thinking, and that remains a fact.

    The comments about his lack of sanity, lack of morality, and his depravity, are facile. The rest of the commentary can easily be turned on itself as a justification for butchering foreign invaders who have no right in Afghanistan and deserve every bit of punishment they get. In other words, your logic cuts both ways, and by adopting that logic you provide a means for celebrating the attack on Loyd.

    I am sure that Loyd has all the great characteristics you describe. She should have applied them at home, in New Orleans for example. She had no business being in Afghanistan, it is not her country. As for Ayala, he executed a prisoner, who had been restrained. You say that is the right thing to have done — good, but remember that next time American prisoners of war are executed, and do not then choose to suddenly rediscover the value of the Geneva conventions when they suit you alone, the way Bush did in the first days of the Iraq invasion when four U.S. troops were shown on Iraqi television and there was no end to the howling from the White House and the Pentagon.

  3. Keltorttruth

    With regard to the bullet points, I was refering to the numbered ones; I should have made that more clear.

    How on earth is an argument that someone who could ignite another human being (literally incinerate them, not at the end of a gun barrel, or from 10k’ above, but by hand) is insane or morally depraved facile? It is that simple. Sane people do not do that. Their anger at the foreign invaders (which, btw, represents a small portion of the population, trust me, none of the women are pro-taliban, which is about half the population, and a fair deal of the men are not as well) could understandably be manifest into attacking and fighting and attempting to kill foreign combatants. However, burning alive a non-combatant, unarmed woman who was actually there to attempting to learn more about the Afghan people in order to teach Americans so that they do not do culturally offensive things to them, that is not a sane act. There are a million other things he could have done to get himself martyred (again, he had to have known or at least believed there was an extremely high likelyhood he would be killed because of his actions; there were armed soldiers/contractors about). I am trying to make a distinction between shooting/shooting at an armed enemy and burning someone alive with your own two hands; that is beyond cruel and unusual and goes way into sadistic and insane.

    If any of our soldiers were to capture a taliban woman and poor an accelerant on her and then ignite her, I would reach the same conclusion as to what should happen to him. You seem to be applying broad generalities to a very specific, egregious act. Conversely, if we captured soldiers on the battle field who had been fighting against our soldiers and they were mistreated or killed, that would be very non-heroic and punishable. Do you see the difference? Burning alive a non-combatant (even if he believed she was a past or potential combatant, she certainly was not at that time) vs hurting captured combatants.

    To reiterate, because I take great offense to some of what you wrote, I, in no way whatsoever, “celebrate” an attack like what happened to Paula on anyone. I think this specific act carried out by this sadist is dispicable and he deserved what he got and he knew it.

    Also, you wrote, “She had no business being in Afghanistan, it is not her country.” What? That is a very revealing comment about yourself. For your education, the govenor of the province in which she was operating in Afghanistan was/is a huge supporter of Paula’s and vowed to track down the people who put salam up to this. He certainly wanted her there, believed she had “business being” there, because he knew how much good she was doing. Again, you seem to reveal that you lean towards the taliban, rather than the true Afghani people.

  4. Maximilian Forte

    Unfortunately, now your commentary is verging on shrill, and angrily demanding acceptance of your invasion, and Canada’s invasion for that matter, and you simply will not get that here. As for the snide suggestion that I lean towards the Taliban, that is just plainly foolish and it gets dismissed out of hand.

    Paula Loyd was not an innocent non-combatant. She was working for the U.S. Army to assist it in better dominating and pacifying another people. If you cannot see that basic point — and you clearly cannot — then it is no wonder that you can write what you did here.

    You seem to know what the “sane” reaction is to foreign invasion and domination. How so? Have you been invaded? Is your home being occupied at gunpoint?

    You also seem to know that all Afghan women are anti-Taliban, a magical inference to be certain, since it is simply not true.

    And if the accusation is of applying broad generalities, well then that makes TWO of us: you seem to be applying some universal standard of human homogeneity that is simply false and misguided. You imply that all human beings are to be measured by your own personal character, and to the extent that they differ, they are insane. In the meantime, Canada and the U.S. invaded and attacked a country that attacked neither of them, to overthrow a government that attacked neither of them, and tortured and killed many of their people. Talk to me about sanity, please, because I can tell the notion is a stranger to you.

    But don’t talk to me about how some Governor welcomed Loyd, not with the plethora of reports of corrupt governors who are former/current warlords, drug barons, and sadistic torturers in their own right. You really messed up your assertions with your generous pass to governors, because now you have indicted Loyd.

    As for being offended, then be offended. I am not here to please. But next time get beyond your emotion and your nationalism, and your awfully one-sided imperial understandings of the world. You may think I lean toward the Taliban, but you do much worse: you validate their accusations.

  5. Maximilian Forte

    P.S.: Good that you disagreed with the other three numbered points, that’s three points we can agree on, but I don’t think you have really pondered the implications of your disagreement or it would have shown in your writing.

  6. Keltorttruth

    Where is the emotion and nationalism expressed in any of my arguments? I agree that an occupied people may want to lash out and understand that. I just don’t agree in the way in which this person did. Perhaps we’re arguing somewhat over semantics; maybe “insane” is the wrong word. You choose your own word for what to call someone who could light another human being on fire. I don’t believe that is a sane reaction to any situation, ever; maybe you do. And if so, if you believe you are truly capable of that, where do you draw the line? So, by your logic, it may have been perfectly normal for salam to do this b/c someone invaded his country, etc. etc. Well, what if by someone else’s logic it’s perfectly normal for someone to set another human being on fire for cutting them off in traffic? Each individual may draw his own line, but the law decides which societal norms are acceptable to the society as a whole and which aren’t. I assure you, in Afghanistan this behavior by salam was not acceptable and he would have been captured and likely executed, if he had not been shot at the scene.

    You have made some very specious arguments. For example, you seem to imply that because I am for one individual, Paula, being in Afghanistan, that I am for the US or Canada being there at all. Where exactly was it that I wrote that the US and/or Canada shoud be in either Iraq or Afghanistan?

    Again, let’s consider who is using emotion to cloud their eyes here. You think that because I think that what this one individual, salam, did to another human being is attrocious, that somehow I think it is good that other people, were tortured and killed by the US and thus the notion of sanity is “a stranger to me”. What? Where could that have come from other than your emotion? It certainly didn’t come from anything I’ve written.

    Also, help me understand how a govenor in Afghanistan thinking that Paula was helping his people is an indictment of her? You don’t even know which govenor it is and yet you’ve lept to the conclussion that he must be a war lord, drug baron and or sadistic torturer. 2 points; 1) are you saying there are no governors in AG that are not criminals and 2) are you also saying that there are no criminal governors who actually do care about their people? As a cynic, it would seem that only a taliban would feel that way about the current AG government.

    What exactly are the accusations of the taliban that I’ve validated and how specifically have I done so? Is it there assumption that Americans don’t like people who are willing to burn other people alive? Then yes, they got me. Other than that, I’m a little lost. Remember, it is you that have made wild (and false) assumptions about my feelings about a US/Canadian presence in AG.

    Oh, and one last point that continues to lend credence to my incessant name calling. I can’t imagine anyone other than a taliban or taliban-sympathizer believing that women, voluntarily would want to be 3rd class citizens, subjugated by anyone who happens to be male. Oh yeah, lot’s of women jumped on that ship because they wanted to.

  7. Maximilian Forte

    There is far too much of this dichotomization in American public discourse that suggests that if you are not with the U.S. mission, then you must be with the Taliban. And this is something that you engage in, repeatedly, and it is inexcusable. It also leads me to conclude all of the things that I said about nationalism and emotion, because that dichotomous framework either stems from those, reinforces those, or is supported by those. Now if you say that is not what you believe, very well, but all I have is your writing in front of me.

    Incidentally, to claim that any of your opponents must be Taliban, Taliban-leaning, or Taliban sympathizers (Joe McCarthy in the house), really makes the world nice and simple for you, doesn’t it. It makes it sound like you have only a handful of enemies, enemies you think you know, and it narrows the range. Surprise, surprise, the world is much more complicated than that. There are a thousand different positions and millions of people who reject you. You should only be so lucky if your enemies were only the Taliban.

    I do think that you are not in a position to pontificate on what is sane, normal, natural, decent, or lawful when speaking of a war like this one, especially when you are not one of the targets of the military occupation. This problem is reinforced by the fact that neither you, nor I, will ever know what Salam was thinking precisely because he was *unlawfully* executed. He is not here to speak for himself, so you decide to speak for him, another act of misappropriation of someone else’s reality. Speaking for Salam was bad enough, but you also go on to speaking for all Afghan people, who in your mind, mostly oppose the Taliban and mostly side with the many notorious thugs who captured governorships.

    As for Salam, he could have had relatives who were torched in a US air strike on a wedding party, relatives or friends tortured by US forces at Bagram, friends detained for no reason and sent to Guantanamo to be tortured, or treated like a piece of shit in his own country. You nor I were present at the conversation he had with Loyd, and so neither of us will ever know if she said anything to provoke him or remind him of what he might have suffered unjustly. In that case, while you are speculating, you should also speculate along these lines, and knowing the extreme over reaction of your country to 9/11, then you should be better positioned to appreciate his “sanity” and understand his emotion. Paula Loyd was not the only human victim here, and Salam was killed on his home turf by foreign invaders.

    Also it seemed early on that you did not know that murdering a prisoner is a war crime — which is also an insane thing to do, by your own standards (except you refuse to recognize any symmetry at all, appropriating humanity only for your own kind). For that, Don Ayala is out on bail. Excuse me, by the way, but how many of your other murderers are out on bail in the U.S.?

    As for your not believing that women would voluntarily would want to be third class citizens (what happened to the second class?), you have only your own society to look for evidence of that. OK? Not all your women are “mavericks”, and even those who claim to be sometimes uphold some very “old fashioned” ideas about the rightful place of women. All of this also ignores the heavy influence of culture, tradition, and socialization, so that women can come to accept a given order as normal, even natural, and do not question it. You *will* remember that some of the leading fanatics in favour of veiling in Iran, and who assaulted and sometimes mutilated the faces of women wearing lipstick, or short skirts, were other women themselves. So please don’t make any specious comments of your own, about all Afghan women being on board with the U.S. mission and against the Taliban. If even 10% of that were factual, you would have won this war already. Instead, prominent NATO commanders have asserted that it is already a massive failure.

    This leads me to how suddenly the U.S. establishment is dressing itself up in a pompous womens’ rights discourse, when it suits it — i.e., abroad.

    What is produced is an ironic subtext in your comments, a kind of fairy tale that reinforces male chauvinism while denying it: the innocent, lonely, curious maiden/liberated woman (Paula Loyd) — let’s forget that she was in the company of a military unit and one mercenary, or that she was an army officer — assaulted by this evil dark villain/woman hater, who appropriately is a dark-skinned foreigner, and then rescued/avenged by a knight in shining armour, Don Ayala.

    I find this story familiar, and maybe laughable too if it wasn’t for the pain suffered. However, it is a classic colonial rendition of this kind of encounter, the kind that has been written a thousand times before Paula Loyd. To cast this as a gender issue — we are all feminists now, or at least when in Afghanistan — is deceitful, and it is a whitewash for an imperial mission, which you seem to take for granted, as if it is perfectly normal for you to stomp around wherever you want in someone else’s home.

    Your earlier comments suggested something else to me, in the way you trojan horsed Loyd, thrusting her forward, ahead of the troops as an innocent victim of an unprovoked attack. Was she being used as a bait? Was she nothing more than chum dipped into the water to lure the sharks? If this is even remotely true, she should sue the living day lights out of the Pentagon.

    I think the most profound comment you made, and quite a radical one actually was: “It’s no fun to be the butcher, but most of us love hamburgers.” This is very true. It encapsulates a ton of meaning within itself.


    Now onto a related but separate topic. Over the past three days there has been this sudden, large, spike in the number of people reading this article, and the ones related to it. Suddenly, several weeks after this post was published, “Paula Loyd” has become the leading search term used on this blog. A great many visits are coming from people clicking a link in their email, and this corresponds with the sudden dramatic increase in interest in this “old” story. That also suggests the possibility of circulation, and the added possibility of coordination.

    I don’t know if it is “Paula Loyd Awareness Week” on some military base, or if the military is doing what it advertises and sending out people to counteract “negative” images of the U.S. mission, or if Paula Loyd is about to be released from hospital and make a public appearance and some want to soften her landing (as if I or anyone else was waiting to make her life more miserable). But something must be motivating this sudden upsurge in traffic here. [and as I discovered later…my answer at the bottom of this message]

    I am suspicious. It is also a distraction from far more important current issues about events happening right now, in Gaza, and I don’t know if the distraction was meant to be deliberate, but I won’t indulge it any further. There are issues much larger than Paula Loyd’s story.

    I am therefore closing comments on this story as of now. In the meantime, I thank you for your interest and for taking the time to contribute your thoughts and share your views. Readers, as is always the case, will come to their own many different conclusions despite/in spite of anything you or I have said here.



    The Unreported Death of Staff Sgt. Paula Loyd of the Human Terrain System: Third Researcher to Die



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