Why are we bombing clinics?

The wrong way to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan

This magazine has called for the government to set a date for withdrawal of British troops from Helmand, and has questioned whether the Afghan conflict is "winnable".

But supporters of the war point to polls which suggest that most ordinary Afghans still welcome our military presence even though, eight years into the fighting, "the danger and insecurity facing millions of Afghans continues and in fact is higher now than ever".

Counter-insurgency experts also wax lyrical about the need to win hearts and minds, but I wonder how we'll pull that off while coalition forces continue to bomb civilian targets and destroy Afghanistan's already crumbling infrastructure. Here is a report from yesterday's Toronto Globe and Mail of how US and Afghan forces, backed by a US Apache helicopter, targeted a medical clinic in Paktika Province for attack:

US and Afghan forces attacked a clinic in eastern Afghanistan after a wounded Taliban commander sought treatment, and a US helicopter gunship fired on the medical centre after militants put up resistance, officials said Thursday.

Reports of the militant death toll from Wednesday's firefight varied widely. The spokesman for the governor of Paktika Province said 12 militants died, while police said two were killed. The US military did not report any deaths. It wasn't clear why the tolls differed.

A US military statement claimed that the medical centre "was cleared of civilians" but, whether or not that statement turns out to be true (and countless other such statements have later turned out not to be worth the paper they were written on), this misses the point. To bomb a clinic or hospital is a de facto war crime, even if wounded militants have sought shelter there: in such a scenario, the clinic or hospital does not lose "its protected status", to quote the absurd formulation of words employed by a Nato spokesperson.

Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific director, Sam Zarifi, agrees with me:

"If the Taliban used the clinic as a shelter to fire from, they've committed a serious violation," said Zarifi.

But if they were using the clinic for health care, Nato forces had no business firing on the clinic, even if they had cleared out civilians from the facility.

The bottom line in this incident is that another clinic in Afghanistan is now not working -- a tragedy for a country that already suffers from horrifically low rates of access to health care.

Whether the Taliban or Nato or both have violated the laws of war, it is Afghan civilians who pay the price.

It is a rather obvious point that seems lost on our political and military leaders, not to mention the armchair generals of the British commentariat.

 

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Photo: Getty
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The Liverpool protest was about finding a place for local support in a global game

Fans of other clubs should learn from Anfield's collective action.

One of the oldest songs associated with Liverpool Football Club is Poor Scouser Tommy, a characteristically emotional tale about a Liverpool fan whose last words as he lies dying on a WWII battlefield are an exhalation of pride in his football team.

In November 2014, at the start of a game against Stoke City, Liverpool fans unfurled a banner across the front of the Kop stand, daubed with the first line of that song: “Let me tell you a story of a poor boy”. But the poor boy wasn’t Tommy this time; it was any one of the fans holding the banner – a reference to escalating ticket prices at Anfield. The average matchday ticket in 1990 cost £4. Now a general admission ticket can cost as much as £59.

Last Saturday’s protest was more forthright. Liverpool had announced a new pricing structure from next season, which was to raise the price of the most expensive ticket to £77. Furious Liverpool fans said this represented a tipping point. So, in the 77th minute of Saturday’s match with Sunderland, an estimated 15,000 of the 44,000 fans present walked out. As they walked out, they chanted at the club’s owners: “You greedy bastards, enough is enough”.

The protest was triggered by the proposed price increase for next season, but the context stretches back over 20 years. In 1992, the top 22 clubs from the 92-club Football League broke away, establishing commercial independence. This enabled English football’s elite clubs to sign their own lucrative deal licensing television rights to Rupert Murdoch’s struggling satellite broadcaster, Sky.

The original TV deal gave the Premier League £191 million over five years. Last year, Sky and BT agreed to pay a combined total of £5.14 billion for just three more years of domestic coverage. The league is also televised in 212 territories worldwide, with a total audience of 4.7 billion. English football, not so long ago a pariah sport in polite society, is now a globalised mega-industry. Fanbases are enormous: Liverpool may only crowd 45,000 fans into its stadium on matchday, but it boasts nearly 600 million fans across the globe.

The matchgoing football fan has benefited from much of this boom. Higher revenues have meant that English teams have played host to many of the best players from all over the world. But the transformation of local institutions with geographic support into global commercial powerhouses with dizzying arrays of sponsorship partners (Manchester United has an ‘Official Global Noodle Partner’) has encouraged clubs to hike up prices for stadium admission as revenues have increased.

Many hoped that the scale of the most recent television deal would offer propitious circumstances for clubs to reduce prices for general admission to the stadium while only sacrificing a negligible portion of their overall revenues. Over a 13-month consultation period on the new ticket prices, supporter representatives put this case to Liverpool’s executives. They were ignored.

Ignored until Saturday, that is. Liverpool’s owners, a Boston-based consortium who have generally been popular on Merseyside after they won a legal battle to prize the club from its previous American owners, backed down last night in supplicatory language: they apologised for the “distress” caused by the new pricing plan, and extolled the “unique and sacred relationship between Liverpool Football Club and its supporters”.

The conflict in Liverpool between fans and club administrators has ended, at least for now, but the wail of discontent at Anfield last week was not just about prices. It was another symptom of the broader struggle to find a place for the local fan base in a globalised mega-industry.The lazy canard that football has become a business is only half-true. For the oligarchs and financiers who buy and sell top clubs, football is clearly business. But an ordinary business has free and rational consumers. Football fans are anything but rational. Once the romantic bond between fan and team has been forged, it does not vanish. If the prices rise too high, a Liverpool fan does not decide to support Everton instead.

Yet the success of the protest shows that fans retain some power. Football’s metamorphosis from a game to be played into a product to be sold is irreversible, but the fans are part of that product. When English football enthusiasts wake in the small hours in Melbourne to watch a match, part of the package on their screen is a stadium full of raucous supporters. And anyone who has ever met someone on another continent who has never travelled to the UK but is a diehard supporter of their team knows that fans in other countries see themselves as an extension of the local support, not its replacement.

English football fans should harness what power they have remaining and unite to secure a better deal for match goers. When Liverpool fans walked out on Saturday, too many supporters of other teams took it as an opportunity for partisan mockery. In football, collective action works not just on the pitch but off it too. Liverpool fans have realised that. Football fandom as a whole should take a leaf out of their book.