Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Afghanistan, War Crimes and the Agony of a Futile Conflict

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Afghanistan, War Crimes and the Agony of a Futile Conflict

Article excerpt

The deaths of more than 300 British soldiers in Afghanistan since 2001 are etched on the national consciousness. Each death is gravely announced on television by a newsreader; a day or so later, we learn name and rank; later still, the coffin returns home and passes through Wootton Bassett, where crowds and TV cameras line the streets. It is right to mourn and honour our own, many of whom joined the armed forces not because they yearned to wage war, but because they lacked other opportunities for employment.

But the 90,000 leaked US reports of the war, posted online by WikiLeaks, remind us of other, forgotten casualties, often unacknowledged by officialdom and unreported in western media. They record as many as 140 hitherto unknown occasions where Afghan civilians, including children, were killed in air strikes, special forces operations and what the military call "escalation of force" incidents in which coalition soldiers fired on suspected suicide bombers. The leaked records stop at the end of 2009, but the carnage continues: only a few days ago, some 45 civilians died in a rocket attack in Helmand.

It can be said that most of such deaths were accidental--in the sense that the coalition forces did not target civilians--and that the Taliban killed at least 7,000 civilians in five years through IEDs (improvised explosive devices) alone. But that is beside the point. Afghans did not invite invasion and occupation, nor did they wish for war. They may believe, rightly or wrongly, that the west bears responsibility for all deaths.

The leaks will strengthen calls for a prompt withdrawal of British troops and talks with the Taliban, which the NS has consistently supported. Unlike the Pentagon Papers, leaked during the Vietnam war, these reports contain nothing dramatically new. We knew of botched attacks and civilian casualties, Pakistani links with the Taliban and popular anger against coalition forces. But as John Kerry, chairman of the US Senate foreign relations committee, argues, the records are "so significant in their magnitude and scope that arguments about their content are almost secondary". …

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