In Afghanistan, the death toll continues to rise, says Mehdi Hasan

The number of US military fatalities has remained virtually unchanged, year on year.

In this week's New Statesman, we take a look at the quagmire in Afghanistan, in the wake of President Obama's recent announcement of a "drawdown" in US forces from the so-called graveyard of empires. My own piece, not yet published online, asks why Obama, as well as David Cameron, is intent on keeping combat troops in action in Kabul, Kandahar, Lashkar Gah and the rest when the war is lost and negotiations with the Taliban have begun. Why not bring them home sooner? I remind the readers of John Kerry's famous 1971 statement regarding Vietnam in front of a congressional committee:

How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?

Four decades on, the same point applies to the war in Afghanistan.

According to a new report from Associated Press:

Despite US reports of progress on the battlefield, American troops were killed in the first half of this year at the same pace as in 2010 -- an indication that the war's toll on US forces has not eased as the Obama administration moves to shift the burden to the Afghans.

While the overall international death toll dropped by 14 per cent in the first half of the year, the number of Americans who died remained virtually unchanged, 197 this year compared with 195 in the first six months of last year, according to a tally by the Associated Press.

Americans have been involved in some of the fiercest fighting as the US administration sent more than 30,000 extra troops in a bid to pacify areas in the Taliban's southern heartland and other dangerous areas. US military officials have predicted more tough fighting through the summer as the Taliban try to regain territory they have lost.

President Barack Obama has begun to reverse the surge of American forces, ordering a reduction of 10,000 by the end of the year and another 23,000 by September 2012. But the US military has not announced which troops are being sent home, or whether they will be withdrawn from any of the most violent areas in the south and east.

. . . According to the AP tally, 271 international troops, including the Americans, were killed in the first half of the year -- down 14 per cent from the 316 killed in the first six months of last year.

With the American deaths virtually unchanged, the decline reflects a drop off in deaths of troops from other contributing nations. In the first half of the year, 74 of these troops -- from countries like Britain, France and Australia -- died compared with 121 in the first six months of last year.

In the most recent deaths, Nato said two coalition service members were killed in roadside bombings -- one Saturday in the west who was identified as an Italian, and another Friday in the south whose nationality was not available.

It is also worth noting that there is an obsession in the west with the number of deaths and injuries related to "our boys" -- and I suppose it could be argued that my own piece in this week's magazine is a part of this phenomenon -- while civilian casualties of the conflict -- Afghanistan's "unpeople", to quote historian Mark Curtis -- go unnoticed and largely unreported by western governments and the media, despite the number of civilian deaths being far higher than the number of military fatalities.

The AP report says:

[A] recent UN report found that May was the deadliest month for civilians since it began keeping track in 2007 and it said insurgents were to blame for 82 percent of the 368 deaths recorded. The UN does not usually release monthly civilian casualty figures but said it was compelled to do so in May because of the high number.

Before you get too excited: if the Taliban and their allies are responsible for four out of five innocent deaths in Afghanistan, that means "our side" is responsible for one in five of those deaths (18 per cent).

The sooner we stop killing people in Afghanistan, innocent or otherwise, the better.


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.

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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.