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A British patrol in Helmand1 <em>Picture: US Army</em>

A British patrol in Helmand Picture: US Army

By Stuart Crawford

It sometimes seems that hardly a day goes past without news of another military death in Afghanistan. So much so that we have become, I suspect, almost inured to it. But the families and relatives who are affected directly are not inured, that’s for sure.

Every death must be a blow to the soul, not only for the latest victim’s loved ones, but also for those who have suffered previously and who need no more reminders of their own losses.

The British military death toll in Afghanistan now stands at 357 (although it should be noted that casualty figures do not always add to an agreed total figure owing to differences is reporting procedures and other anomalies). The statistics say that 309 have been killed in action, with 42 dying from “other causes”. That seems to leave six deceased unaccounted for – but, whatever the circumstances, the ever-increasing total makes grim reading.

It wasn’t long ago that we reached 100 dead, and now the 500 milestone looms. I fear it won’t be long in coming unless we see sense and get out of there soon.

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Closer examination of the butcher’s bill reveals some other information. Some 290 of the total were killed by hostile action, five by “friendly fire”. As anyone who has been in the military will tell you, there is no such thing as friendly fire: all fire is unfriendly and can kill you. The Americans call it fratricide, which is more accurate, or “blue on blue” – friendly forces are habitually marked on the map in blue, the enemy in red. But it is heartbreaking however you label it. Killed by your own side is really hard to take.

The ages of the dead make for sobering reading. “Only” 15 were aged 40 or over. The vast majority were in their prime, aged 20–29, while 31 were aged 19 and under, barely out of childhood. This indicates that – surprise, surprise – most of those killed in the line of duty were in the front line, as it were, where the enthusiasm and fitness of youth – and perhaps the innocence, too – is at a premium. Nowhere is really safe for the troops in Afghanistan, with IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and suicide bombers unrestrained by any recognizable conventional combat zone. But it is the boys and girls at the sharp end who bear the brunt.

Worth mentioning in passing is that the death rate for officers is proportionally higher than that for NCOs and soldiers. A total of 30 officers have been killed in theatre, compared to 323 other ranks. This is twice as many as one would expect had deaths been proportionate across the ranks. It is a very British statistic. Not only is the proportion of officers to men (and women) high in the British army compared to European equivalents, at approximately one in every 20, but it also reflects the British tradition of leading from the front.

Nobody can accuse the British “officer class” of shirking its duties – quite the opposite. At Sandhurst, we were taught never to ask one’s men to do anything one wouldn’t do oneself. The lesson obviously still sticks.

Interestingly, the gender of those killed is out of kilter with the makeup of the army at least. Some 10 per cent or thereabouts of the army is now female, yet there has been just one female soldier killed in Afghanistan. One is too many, but it may reflect the fact that, even in these modern times, traditionalists keep women out of the combat areas. Do feminist activists see this is a good or bad thing? Would true equality include a proportionate number of casualties?

Not surprisingly, it is the army which has borne the brunt of those killed in action, some 289 so far. But what is noticeable is that the Royal Marines, part of the Royal Navy, seem to have suffered the highest proportional casualties of all. Forty-nine Marines killed out of a total corps strength of just over 8,000 is a rate roughly three times higher than the army equivalent, based on total numbers in both cases. Possibly this is because the Marines, like the Parachute Regiment, are elite troops and are always to be found where the action is hottest.

Finally, we should look closer to home. Of all military deaths in the current conflict, some 24, or 6.7 per cent, have been Scots. Given that Scotland comprises roughly 8.6 per cent of the UK population, and that traditionally Scots have provided a disproportionately larger part of the British armed services, this seems to indicate that, for once, we have been spared the very worst of the casualty toll to date. Compared with the first world war, when 557,000 Scots served and one in four was killed – a death rate of 26 per cent compared to 11 per cent for Britain as a whole – we have, thankfully, got off lightly.

But not lightly for those who have suffered the grievous loss of a son, brother, husband, partner or friend. I wish I could believe that their deaths have not been in vain.

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<em>Picture: Vlad Genie</em>

Picture: Vlad Genie

Where have all the balaclavas gone? Back in the 1970s, sledging without a balaclava was almost unheard of.

I must admit, I had a red one with a bobble on the top and, not only was it distinctly uncool, it provided a far-too-visible target for snowballs. But all children had them then, or they seemed to have them anyway so I wasn’t that different from the rest.

Indeed, I can still remember the taste of damp wool and ice-balled snow from the bit which covered my mouth and the sense of security whenever a snowball hit the covering on back of my neck – because it would bounce off without troubling me in the least.

But then came the paramilitaries, the bank robbers and other assorted criminals and, suddenly, the balaclava was out of fashion: not necessarily with children themselves but certainly with their parents and then, latterly, with the authorities.

The persecution of the balaclava reached its nadir when, in August 2008, the police apparently confiscated a copy of the controversial War on Terror board game because, it was claimed, the balaclava it contained “could be used to conceal someone’s identity or could be used in the course of a criminal act”.

But given that we are currently enduring an unusually long stretch of cold weather and on the basis of predictions suggesting long cold winters may be something we shall have to get used to, isn’t it time to reclaim the balaclava?

They are still around. You can still buy them on the high street and online but I have been out sledging with my children for the past three weeks near our house and have yet to see anybody in a balaclava.

They are warm, they are comfortable, they keep your neck, chin, mouth and cheeks warm and they stop snowballs.

And although they started off in the Crimean War (named after the town of Balaklava), they are now used across a range of fields: some motorcyclists wear them, racing drivers wear them, special forces personnel wear them as do some snowboarders and skiers.

So why not give them to children? They are so warm, they can help the children stay out sledging for hours longer than they would do with a normal hat – and give them the chance to go on to raid the local post office when they’re done.

On second thoughts, maybe they aren’t such a good idea after all ….

Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden is apparently back from the dead, claiming responsibility for the failed Christmas Day plot to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight, and warning the US that it must stop supporting Israel or face more attacks.

Two interesting points arise from his reappearance. Firstly, bin Laden’s alleged statement comes two days after Britain raised the terrorism threat level from “substantial” to “severe”, which would suggest that either Britain already knew of the a new al-Qaeda statement, or knew that one was imminent. Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but why would MI5 have waited almost a month after the failed attack to raise the threat alert? In any case, the Washington-based IntelCenter, which monitors terror group communications, said the message was a possible indicator of an attack within the next 12 months – how they came to that conclusion is anybody’s guess.

Secondly, bin Laden’s alleged reappearance seems to have prompted the US media to ask, perhaps for the first time, whether al-Qaeda is using Israel’s oppression of Palestinians in Gaza in order to advance its own agenda.

It has been patently clear since the Iraq invasion began that the US political establishment and media have great difficulty in trying to see through the eyes of cultures that feel oppressed by US foreign and economic policies. Now, however, writing in Salon magazine, Glenn Greenwald, a former constitutional lawyer, says: “Though US policy towards Israel may not motivate bin Laden himself – and al-Qaeda would hardly cease to exist if the Israeli/Palestinian conflict were resolved – it most certainly motivates large numbers of people who perpetrate attacks (including suicide attacks) out of allegiance to al-Qaeda or who otherwise lend critical support to that group. The suffering in Gaza is as intense as anywhere on the globe.

“The connection between our conduct in the Middle East and the motivations for anti-American terrorism receives far too little attention in general, and … the role played by our steadfast support for Israel receives less attention still.”

Obvious though the above may be to many in Britain, it is good to see that the penny has dropped somewhere in the United States. Still, it has to be said that Greenwald is a liberal, and author of Great American Hyopcrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics in which he slags off the likes of John Wayne and Ronald Reagan.

We are still waiting for the penny to drop on Fox News and other neo conservative media outlets.

Many who believed the US president would bring about real change in the way American foreign policy is conducted could be forgiven for thinking that they’ve been led down the garden path to a brave new world of, well…  more of the same.

Is it a case of new packaging, same old product? In its decision making on Afghanistan and Latin America – the latter a region of strategic importance too often overlooked by the US – the Obama administration has mirrored some of the policy errors of previous US governments, even if the rhetoric is different.

Take Obama’s decision to authorise a “surge” of 30,000 extra troops in Afghanistan next year, in addition to the 17,000 troops he sent there in February. It is tailored after the Bush administration’s surge of 24,000 troops in Iraq, which US conservatives claim helped dramatically reduce violence there (though the hundreds killed or maimed by the December bombings in Baghdad would beg to differ). Both surges are the work of Robert Gates, President George W Bush’s defence secretary, who has stayed on in his post under Obama.

The “shock and awe” bully-boy rhetoric of the Rumsfeld era is gone and that is refreshing.  “It’s not the number of people you kill, it’s the number of people you convince,” General Stanley McChrystal, commander of the NATO International Security Assistance Force, likes to tell US soldiers these days. “It’s the number of people that don’t get killed. It’s the number of houses that are not destroyed. It’s the number of children that do get to go to school.” However, by his own admission, there is much in Afghanistan that McChrystal doesn’t fully understand.

He told the House Armed services Committee that while NATO troops have been fighting in Afghanistan for eight years, the Afghans have been fighting for 30. But Afghan history did not begin with the Soviet invasion, and even a cursory glance at a British history book – or a Soviet one – would enlighten McChrystal as to the enormity of the task ahead. US troops have already been in Afghanistan and Iraq for longer than US troops were involved in the First and Second World Wars combined, and though it is unfashionable today to make the Vietnam comparison, it is easy to see the growing parallels with the Soviet occupation. And we know how that ended: with the Soviet puppet Najibullah’s tortured and bullet riddled body hanging from a lamppost. Few doubt that Afghan President Karzai’s corrupt government would survive without the foreign protection force, but is that why our troops are there?

Britain likes to argue that British troops are in Afghanistan to help the Afghan people learn how to help themselves. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, however, sees it differently — a surge, if successful, will have prevented his perfect nightmare: nuclear weapons from Pakistan falling into terrorists’ hands. These are both powerful arguments for staying on, but they are reminiscent of the LBJ administration’s arguments for continuing the war in Vietnam.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch in Honduras…  the Obama administration blundered badly in the handling of a crisis sparked by the toppling of President Mel Zelaya, by first backing him, then hanging him out to dry. Small crisis, not many hurt, some might think. But what was at stake here was the fresh, friendly image Obama had been trying to give US policy in Latin America, and it had been widely welcomed throughout the region.

What went wrong? After joining the rest of Latin America and the EU in demanding Zelaya’s reinstatement, the administration reversed its decision and went along with the coup leaders’ drive to proceed with an election – without an elected president in place. Republican Senator Jim DeMint, who supported the coup, had been blocking the appointment of Arturo Valenzuela as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, and Thomas Shannon as ambassador to Brazil. The latter had been directly involved in trying to resolve the crisis in Tegucigalpa, and the State Department’s about-turn on Zelaya’s re-instatement broke the deadlock and – hey presto – both appointments went through.

What made the shift even murkier in the eyes of many Latin Americans was that Lanny Davis, a lawyer and former aide to Hillary Clinton, had been backing the cause of the coup leaders in Washington all along.

The US about-turn was a slap in the face for Brazil, the emerging regional power which had been sheltering Zelaya in its embassy and had led Latin America in calling for Zelaya’s reinstatement. “As President Lula of Brazil watched the United States botch the straightforward challenge of restoring constitutional order to Honduras, he publicly criticised President Obama for ignoring Latin America,” says Robert White of the Washington-based Center for International Policy. “Here Lula was not implying that Obama had turned his back on individual countries of the region, but that he had reneged on his pledge, made at the Summit of the Americas, to seek an ‘equal partnership’ with Latin America, one in which the United States did not dictate terms.”

Lula and other Latin American democratic leaders understood that “by equal partnership Obama meant a sharing of responsibility and joint action with other American states to safeguard the future of democracy in the hemisphere. Unfortunately, in the case of Honduras, our diplomats apparently did not get Obama’s message,” says White.