Thursday, January 14, 2010

More Afghan civilians killed by insurgents than by international forces in 2009, says The New York Times. Is it such good news?

The New York Times has never made a secret of its support for US involvement in Afghanistan. Apart from a couple of welcome op-eds by Bob Herbert, the Times has often been rather biased in its reporting of the war as well as its consequences on both Afghanistan and the US. This article about a new UN report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan is no exception to the rule. To be fair, the report by UNAMA (UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan) does indeed highlight that insurgents, not American forces, have been responsible for the majority of civilian deaths in Afghanistan this past year. While Anti-Government elements (AGES) were responsible for 67% of civilian casualties in 2009, pro-Government Forces (PGF) were only responsible for 25% of them. For those who wonder how this adds up to 100%, it doesn’t. The remaining 8% were killed “as a result of cross-fire or (...) by unexploded ordinance.” Basically we're not entirely sure of who killed them. If there ever was a proof of the limits of reasoning based on statistics, that would be it. Still, The New York Times takes satisfaction in the fact that the number of people killed by Afghan government forces or international forces has decreased by 28% compared to 2008, and credits General McChrystal’s new strategy for it. Of course no one would deny that it is good news when less civilians are being killed by air strikes and raids.

According to the Times, "the most striking aspect of the report was the shift in responsibility for the deaths of Afghan civilians." Not quite the whole story. The article mentions only in passing that 2009 has been the worst year for civilians since the Taliban government fell in 2001. In 2009, 2 412 civilians were killed, compared to 2 118 in 2008 and 1 523 in 2007. Since the Times seems so fond of statistics, it might have pointed out that this represents - roughly - a 58% increase in civilian deaths in just over 2 years. This would have put things in perspective. The UN report further highlights that because of the intensification of the conflict, violence has spread to regions that were considered relatively secure before. An escalating conflict also means more insecurity for civilians - especially women, who can barely leave their home - more poverty, less access to health and education, and so on and so forth. Is the fact that American and international forces are killing less civilians the single most important development in Afghanistan? Hardly. 

The Times' bias in favor of the war blinds it to the rippling effect of increased military presence in Afghanistan. It brushes too quickly over the connection between rising violence from insurgents and the surge in American and international troops. True, the 30,000 troops Obama promised to send have not arrived yet. But, as TomDispatch - among others - reported in December 2009, “the U.S. military, along with its civilian and intelligence counterparts, has been in an almost constant state of surge since the last days of the Bush administration." And the US already sent 21,000 additional troops in March 2009.

This is not rocket science: as more foreign troops pour into Afghanistan, insurgents will become more aggressive, and the conflict will spread to more regions. Thinking only in terms of how many civilians American troops directly kill hardly covers the damage done in Afghanistan. It's time to come to terms with the fact that the presence of international troops by itself kills civilians everyday.

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