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 But the US military has not announced which troops are being sent home, or whether they will be withdrawn from any of the most violent areas in the south and east.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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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.