Equality: not even in death

 
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By Khaled Diab

Tragic as the deaths of young British soldiers in Afghanistan are, why is the media not mourning Afghan civilian casualties?

13 July 2009

Every human life is precious. But there is something disturbing about the UK media’s obsession with the rising death toll of British troops in Afghanistan. Last Friday’s reports of the death of 15 soldiers in ten days has been generating a continuous stream of headlines for days.

It is sad that young men, many barely teenagers, should lose their lives in distant lands. But these are professional soldiers who signed up for a job which they knew carried with it a risk of death. But the campaign in Afghanistan has claimed a far larger number of victims who had taken no calculated decision to be there – Afghan civilians.

But was there any mention of these hapless victims? Hardly a peep. For example, in an entire BBC news report last week, I learnt about the number of British soldiers killed in the bloodiest incident since the war began, and the grand total of 184 who had died since 2001.

But in the coverage, I looked in vain for any indication of how many Afghans, particularly civilians, have been killed as a result of the recent fighting. For example, all the Beeb had to say on the matter, in a tone with disturbingly bellicose undertones, was that far more Taliban had died than British soldiers, and nothing at all about the civilian death toll. So much for the BBC’s reputation for balance – but the fog of war has a way of distorting truth.

At one level, it is not surprising that a society notices its own losses the most and sees them through a dispersive prism scattering the entire spectrum of grief across people’s conscience. But at another more troubling level, it reflects the relative value of human life: each dead British soldier has a name, a face and an inconsolable family, while dead Afghans are usually little more than a faceless footnote.

In fact, no one is actually keeping an official tab and Afghan civilian deaths have to be aggregated from individual reports. According to aggregated figures, as many as 28,000 civilians have died as a direct result of US-led military action since 2001, while more than 4,000 others were killed by insurgents. This makes the death of 184 professional soldiers seem relatively modest. The contrast is even more pronounced in Iraq.

Moreover, the fuss surrounding the number of British casualties does not stand up to historical comparisons. The First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842) claimed the lives of more than 5,000 soldiers of the British Empire and killed more than 12,000 British civilians – the number of Afghans who died, as you’d expect, is unknown.  More contrastingly still, of the 16 million who died in World War I, nearly 900,000 were British, and of the 73 million deaths in World War II, more than 400,000 were British.

It is a good thing that Britain and many other parts of the world have lost their tolerance for this kind of mindless and senseless carnage. However, the side effect of this has been a consistently high civilian death toll due to airstrikes undertaken to avoid body bags coming home. It is time the British public strove for more equality in the death stakes and mourned the deaths of Afghan civilians, too.

It is a shame that the British government has not learnt from their country’s historical mistakes. Despite Britain having got its fingers burned more than once in Afghanistan and the country’s reputation as the ‘graveyard of empires’, Tony Blair nevertheless decided to join George W Bush on this ill-conceived military folly.

As nearly two centuries of foreign intervention have proven, there is no military solution to the problems of Afghanistan – as has been known since the First Afghan War, Afghans resent the presence of foreign troops with a vengeance. It is about time that Gordon Brown and Barack Obama pulled out of the mess created by their predecessors.

If Britain, the United States and NATO want to help, they can put their money where their guns are and invest the billions spent on occupying the country in development instead. Before that, the UN can sponsor a peace process between the countries main ethnic groups to help them find a way to live together or to agree to dissolve the country.

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