Saturday, 30 January 2010

Not our dead, but our allies’ dead

There was an unusual article in The New York Times earlier this week. It reported on a ceremony to honour the Afghan policemen who fought Taliban attackers in Kabul on January 18th.

What I found unusual was seeing the names of Afghan National Police casualties in print, in a Western newspaper. UK papers rightly give proper coverage to individual British dead, and the US papers report US dead, but Afghan police and military who die alongside them normally remain anonymous to us.

There is a problem here, not just of giving proper respect to fallen allies, but of understanding the scale of commitment and sacrifice by Afghans in this fight. An anonymous death does not register in the same way as seeing a named individual, pictured, accompanied by an account of a bereaved family. And so it becomes too easy to feel that it’s just Western forces in the fight, that the only Afghans fighting are the Taliban enemy, that we are alone in a hopeless struggle, in a hostile land.

I recently engaged in a dialogue with illustrator Steve Brodner on his blog. In response to my pointing to this year’s BBC poll of public opinion in Afghanistan showing, amongst other things, increased support for US troops, he wrote: “All of the history in this suggests this is a fool’s errand. We need to get the Afghan forces to show up for work and then be willing to lay down their lives for their country. This poll may suggest that there are areas of support for anti-Taliban forces. But we don't see this on the ground.”

ANA and ANP casualties are not widely published, but here’s what I found for Steve, to counter this image of them as work-shy and unpatriotic:
Afghan National Army killed in action
in 2007: 278
In 2008: 259
In the first 6 months of 2009: 114

source: (PDF)

US killed in action
in 2007: 111
in 2008: 153
in the first 6 months of 2009: 84

Source: Wikipedia
On Afghan National Police casualties, from the UN Report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan and on the achievements of technical assistance in the field of human rights, 21 February 2008:

“The Ministry of Interior registered around 900 insurgency-related deaths of police officers in the last nine months of 2007, which is significantly higher than the number of Afghan army casualties in the same period.”

Source: (PDF)
And now to add to that, the NYT article that initiated this post gives a figure of 646 ANP officers killed last year.

Building up Afghanistan’s army and police is at the core of the ISAF strategy for Afghanistan. A post by British infantry commander Lieutenant Colonel Nick Ilic for The Helmand Blog gives some idea of the scale of effort. But numbers are not enough to give a strong impression. We need to learn about individuals. Here then, from The New York Times, two policemen killed fighting the Taliban:
One young policeman from Nangarhar, Hafizullah, who like many Afghans uses only one name, was killed. He was 21 years old, married and had three children. The family breadwinner because his father had died, he left behind an extended family of 13.

Mr. Nangahari, as well as Hafizullah’s uncle and his 18-year old brother, Asadullah, came to the ceremony from the family’s home near the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad. His brother described the slain policeman as a tall, natural volleyball player who loved to read, a rarity in a force where the vast majority of officers are illiterate.

“My mother is very sad,” he said. “But she is full of courage now and she will let her other sons join the police.”

The families of the two policemen who died received a death payment totaling $3,600 and food. In addition, a Kabul trader and businessmen anonymously donated an additional $1,000 to each of the families of the policemen who were killed.

The other officer honored for his death during the fighting was Shir Agha, 27, a first lieutenant from a family of policemen in Parwan, a province northeast of Kabul. He had gone to officer school and was serving in Kabul. His father, Mohammed Rajed, a tall, thin man and a former member of the mujahedeen who fought the Russians during the Soviet occupation, stood very straight when his son’s name was read; nearby stood three of his nephews, also police officers, their faces somber.

“We are mainly interested in serving our country and the only organ that is honestly serving the people is the police,” said Mr. Rajed.

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