Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Ten years of war

There was a lot happening ten years ago. First came the hideous nightmare that was 9/11 then, a mere 26 days later, a second started... and it's still going on. This Friday we'll have been waging war in Afghanistan for an entire decade. The tragedy of it all beggars belief.

2996 people died as a result of the 911 attacks. This last month has seen plenty of reruns of that day, and the horror of it still confounds me.

There have been a deal less reruns in the lead-up to this Friday's anniversary. I guess the footage is a whole lot less spectacular, although the tragedy is worse, at least by the numbers. But people aren't getting excited about it: there's a numbness which has descended on the British population with regards to Afghanistan. We don't talk about it, we don't curse it, very few of us organise against it. Unlike the war on Iraq which was routinely pilloried and condemned, Afghanistan just keeps going and going and going, while we look away.

And yet it's a tragedy on the scale of Iraq, and with as little point. As I write there have been 2676 Coalition deaths through the duration of the American-led war (first called Operation Infinite Justice and now Operation Enduring Freedom), also including the NATO operation known as the International Security Assistance Force. What is more the trend is ever upwards - pretty much every year is worse than those that came before it, with 2010 the worst so far. Who knows how 2011 will end?

Calculating casualties on the Afghan side (civilian and military) is a whole lot harder of course. People who do counts on these things generally preface all their numbers with the caveat that they are probably underestimating. The main source of the figures that follow, Prof. Marc Herold, has described the figures he came up with as an absolute minimum and probably a vast underestimate.

And yet the numbers are still appalling: 6000-9000 civilians killed directly (violently) by the Coalition, roughly the same number killed directly by the other side. A further 3000 - 20000 (that's quite a range) dead as an indirect result of the conflict. By any measure this is a momentous tragedy. Now imagine scaling it up to account for all the dead that no one counted. And then add in the untold numbers of Afghans and others who died fighting the coalition invasion; we call them the bad guys but they still bleed red.

We should also note that the same upward trend applies to these figures too: every year is worse than the last. In 2010, for instance, some 2777 Afghan civilians were killed, a jump of 15% over the previous year.

And I haven't even mentioned the wounded.

The numbers are appalling, but they're still only numbers. Do they measure how bad a war has to get before we think we should end it? What's the maximum number of casualties that we can collectively stomach? How many mothers and fathers need to wake up screaming each morning before it's no longer OK to keep killing their children?

What the hell are we doing in Afghanistan? What hell are we making there?

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