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Wagging the dog in Afghanistan

A dog captured by the Taliban is bigger news than human suffering. How have Afghanistan's people become so amorphous?
Last modified: 8 Feb 2014 11:40
Almost 3,000 civilians were killed in fighting in 2013 [AFP]

On Saturday, the United Nations released its annual report on the protection of civilians in the Afghan conflict.

At just under more than 8,000 people killed or injured, this year’s civilian casualty rate was on par with 2009, the worst year since the US invasion in 2001.

On Friday, Afghan security officials reported the capture of a suicide bomber believed to be associated with the Haqqani Network in the eastern province of Paktia. Officials in Helmand, Jowzjan and Farah provinces reported the deaths of 22 people from the winter’s cold.

But you probably didn’t hear about those.

What you probably did hear about was the purported capture of a dog said to belong to the US military by the Taliban. It was covered by many media networks – Fox News, the BBC, the Guardian, the New York Daily News, CNN, Slate, Sky, NPR and the Daily Mirror.

Perhaps a couple of dozen people dead from the cold or a man captured before he could detonate his explosives may not be pressing issues for editors at a time when the Syrian city of Homs just escaped a 600-day military siege, thousands in the Central African Republic are caught up in a conflict with religious undertones and the Ukraine enters yet another month of protests and unrest.

Those of us in it, know the news business is harsh. Especially at a time when media outlets are competing for clicks and eyeballs.

But one has to wonder how at a time when a presidential election could pave the way for the first peaceful, democratic transition of power in contemporary Afghan history and another potentially bad policy judgment could again imperil women’s rights, how international media deem a captured dog worthy enough for its own story.

Even a recent story on the Taliban  attack on a Lebanese restaurant in Kabul last month, the New York Times named Jeff, the owner’s “feisty dog” as a casualty, before listing Haji Amin and his wife Wazhma, who were married only four months prior.

This leaves one to wonder - have the Afghan people been lost in the media shuffle?

Have they become so dehumanised, so amorphous, that dogs now make for better headlines than a family crushed to death after their home collapsed due to there being so much snow?

At a time when another failed US war in Asia is poised to end, reports of a captured dog bring to mind a scene in the Vietnam war documentary, “Hearts and Minds”.

In it, General William Westmoreland, the US commander in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, stands in front of the camera to say “the Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient." 

The footage of stoic Westmoreland, which was in fact the third take, was juxtaposed with a grieving Vietnamese woman climbing into the grave of her son.