I was listening to a podcast of the Pritzker Military Library with Sebastian Junger yesterday. Junger was talking about his book War and the film Restrepo which he made with the late Tim Hetherington. He made a claim about casualties in Afghanistan which boggled my mind. If it is true, it puts for me a whole new light on the Afghan war and ought to influence our debate and understanding about the war.
He claimed that the 1980s saw 1.5 million Afghan civilians killed in the Soviet war. The 1990s saw 400,000 civilians killed in the Afghan civil war and killed by the Taliban. The decade since 2001, the time in which the US, NATO, et al, have been there, “occupying” the country, as many people in the world see it, has seen 30,000 dead civilians of whom two thirds were killed by the Taliban.
Junger has made the claim before but is it true? Well, estimates for the war against the Soviets in the 1980s from other sources seem to range from ~900,000+ to 1.5 million. The 400,000 dead in the 1990s number also seems to be out there. Estimates for the 1990s The Guardian, which is reliably anti-American gives casualties figures for Afghanistan 2007-2010 that are broadly consistent with this Junger’s claim for the last ten years: roughly 10,000.
Given that Junger’s numbers seem to be plausible, why aren’t these numbers one of the central organizing facts of the way we think about the story? Melissa Roddy frames the issue this way: by being in Afghanistan we have prevented something on the order of the Rwandan genocide. Remember that President Clinton famously apologized for America’s failure to stop that catastrophe. The explanation, I think is, at least in part, that human beings have a hard time thinking about the significance of things that didn’t happen. That’s why we think that Sherlock Holmes was being remarkably smart in this famous exchange from the story “Silver Blaze:”
“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?” “
To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time.” “
That was the curious incident.”