Recent media coverage of the deaths of British soldiers in Afghanistan obscures an uncomfortable reality: that US/NATO forces are responsible for much – perhaps most – of the killing in Afghanistan today.
On 9-10 July, eight British soldiers were killed in Afghanistan. In their front-page headline the next day, the Guardian branded it “The bloodiest day”, while the Sunday Telegraph called it “the bloodiest 24 hours in Afghanistan.”
Only, of course, it wasn’t.
Indeed, it wasn’t even the bloodiest day in Helmand – where the eight soldiers were killed and where most British soldiers are based – or the bloodiest day involving British forces.
On 22 June 2007, twenty-five civilians – including nine women and three young children – were killed by NATO airstrikes called in by British forces in the Gereskh district of Helmand. More civilians died in this single incident than the total number of British soldiers killed in the whole of July 2009 (22), but it generated no front-page headlines or heart-searching columns in the press.
Or take the 18 November 2007. According to eyewitnesses, eighteen civilians were killed during a night-time raid by a mixed force of foreign and Afghan troops helicoptered into the village of Toube, also in Helmand.
A month later, the Daily Telegraph reported that the British army was “taking seriously” claims that children were shot and several adult villagers had their throats cut. To my knowledge, this was the only report on the raid ever to appear in the British press.
And these aren’t isolated incidents. Writing in favour of the war in the wake of the eight soldiers’ deaths, Tim Collins – the former Army Colonel, best-known for his “inspirational” speech to British troops on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq – observed that, during its escalation in Afghanistan in 2006, the British conducted “a remote, faceless war” in which “[b]ombing by aircraft, artillery and drones was the order of the day at the least sign of what could be enemy”. Collins coyly noted that this “went down badly with the civilian population.” Others have been more forthcoming.
In a December 2006 report, the pro-war Senlis Council (now renamed) noted that, based on their interviews in the field, as many as 2,000-3,000 Afghan civilians might have been killed by US/NATO air strikes in southern Afghanistan during 2006, and that “famine” was widespread there, “directly triggered by the international community’s policies in the region” – in particular, “the devastation of Afghan villagers’ livelihoods by intense bombing campaigns and… poppy eradication”. Despite Senlis’ establishment credentials, these conclusions were met by a deafening media silence.
Not ancient history
Nor is this just a matter of ancient history. The MoD recently admitted paying compensation to the families of 104 civilians killed during battles between the British and the Taliban during the 18-month period January 2008-June 2009 – and these figures probably represent only a small fraction of the number of Afghan civilians killed and injured by British forces in Afghanistan (claims relating to another 113 deaths were rejected).
Not just civilians
Pro-government forces (the US, UK, NATO and their Afghan proxies) were responsible for at least 30.5% of the civilian deaths logged by the UN during the period 1 January-30 June 2009, and if we count not just civilians but members of the Taliban, then US-led forces may well be responsible for the majority of the killing.
Military sources have claimed that between mid-2006 and April 2008, British forces in Afghanistan killed 7,000 “Taliban”. Moreover, between August 2006 and April 2009, these forces fired more than 12 million bullets – including more than 150,000 rounds fired by attack helicopters – and one recent report mentioned in passing that a team of British snipers had “killed 18 Afghans in one afternoon”.
As in Iraq, because of the way in which the media has framed the war, most members of the public are probably unaware of either the scale of the carnage that has been wrought by US/UK airstrikes, or the fact that the US has been running what are, in effect, death squads. The reasons for this are not hard to discern. That British soldiers are brave heroes and that “we” support them in their (necessarily) noble endeavours, are unquestionable presuppositions of almost all media coverage.
Therefore, anything that conflicts with these assumptions must be sidelined or ignored. Until the record is set straight, further British deaths are as likely to be used to boost calls for further escalation (more troops, more equipment and so on) as they are to boost calls for withdrawal.