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|03/28/02 at 07:16:40|
|Burying US casualties |
How can the media tell how many troops have really died in the Afghan war, asks Faisal Bodi
Monday January 7, 2002
There are lies, damned lies, and there are casualty statistics. Since the US-led assault on al-Qaida and the Taliban began on October 7, news of US dead or wounded has been as scarce as sightings of Osama bin Laden.
The figures to date appear consistent with the "cowards' war" being waged by the US, using proxies and high-altitude bombers: the latest from the Pentagon is a cost-effective eight dead and about 50 injured. However, reports emanating from the pro-Taliban Afghan Islamic Press, and its apparently related Pakistani daily, Islam News, paint a different picture, one of mounting US losses.
Most of the figures wind up on the website, www.azzam.com, named after Bin Laden's mentor, the Palestinian warrior-cleric, Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, who was blown up by a roadside bomb in 1989 while fighting the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan.
Azzam.com is a spin-off from www.qoqaz.net which since 1999 has been producing reports on the war in Chechnya. Both sites have assumed the status of jihad noticeboards where Muslims can catch up on the mojahedin's gains and losses.
By western standards of news gathering and production, azzam.com's content is primitive. Indeed Azzam's sources make no pretence of impartiality; news stories are signed off with prayers for the "mojahedin". Some of its news is original, some cannibalised, and some just hearsay. And given some of its wilder reports - one story had US helicopters returning to the scene of guerrilla attacks to incinerate the evidence of their own dead - western editors have usually cast a dismissive eye over its output.
While their scepticism may be justified, western journalists have hardly done anything to burnish their credentials as independent news sources. As in other recent wars involving the US, most of them have relied heavily on briefings from the Pentagon.
The sight of experienced journalists packing the Pentagon's press rooms to be fed the official line is a disturbing one. How should we treat news coming from an interested party, when we know it might be selective and tendentious?
The major news agencies and publications have no satisfactory answer to this question. British desk editors I spoke to were keen to point out the impossibility of falsifying or concealing information in democratic societies, while Reuters told me it relies on the expertise and integrity of individual journalists to verify their sources.
Clearly there are disincentives to accountable officials falsifying figures, the main one being a backlash from the families of those who have been injured or killed while serving their country. And it is true that, while the US did seek to suppress news of atrocities in Vietnam, it did not systematically attempt to under-report casualties. Nor is it believed to have sought to understate them in more recent failed campaigns, such as the 1993 debacle in Somalia.
But this does not mean that it cannot happen, or is not happening. Nobody is suggesting that Russian levels of transparency approach those of the west, but the experience of its soldiers in Chechnya does indicate the lengths to which states can go to hide uncomfortable truths.
The Soldiers' Mothers' Committee, which campaigns for news on missing Russian servicemen, believes that the real casualty figure is up to four times the 3,500 admitted by the authorities. It accuses the Kremlin of burying the rest in the "missing in action" category. Their fears are corroborated by the experience of Russian journalist Andrei Babitsky. His investigations into Moscow's dirty war in the Caucasus, in particular its attempt to cover up the increasing casualties in a war that politicians promised would be over in weeks, have got him kidnapped and then placed under house arrest.
It all emphasises the need for independent insights. Unfortunately these have been few and far between. Last month, the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting reported an Uzbek orderly at the US airbase in Khanabad as saying that in the week November 25 to December 2, a critical time in the land war when pro-Taliban sources were claiming to have inflicted heavy US casualties, he saw four to five US helicopters arriving each day laden with 10-15 American casualties.
A reporter who managed to enter the airbase said that one floor of a building and four large canvas tents were full of US soldiers suffering from shrapnel and bullet wounds. Another Uzbek soldier said that after October 15 he had helped US servicemen load 20 bodybags onto American transport planes, although he could not confirm whether they were dead US soldiers.
For this editor of a shoestring Muslim website, sifting out the truth is an impossible undertaking. To the many readers who write in querying sources for the regular reports of heavy US casualties, I can simply hold up my hands and admit my site's shortcomings. I cannot verify the claims of AIP or Islam News, but nor can I disprove them.
Is it irresponsible to publish news that sounds exaggerated or even made-up? All things being equal, yes. But when the alternative is to regurgitate Pentagon press statements, the answer, for the sake of balance, is a resounding no.
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