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 But the US military has not announced which troops are being sent home, or whether they will be withdrawn from any of the most violent areas in the south and east.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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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.