Monday, August 20, 2007

Media ‘shock’ at British Casualties in Afghanistan

The Observer published yesterday on the incidence of injuries to British troops in Afghanistan, expressing its shock at the toll of “British Injured in Afghan War

From information cleaned from in the field briefings they reveal that figures show almost half of frontline troops have required significant medical treatment during this summer's fighting.

“In a graphic illustration of the intensity of the conflict in Helmand province, more than 700 battlefield soldiers have needed treatment since April - nearly half of the 1,500 on the front line. The figures, obtained from senior military sources, have never been released by the government, which has faced criticism that it has covered up the true extent of injuries sustained during the conflict.”

But how much of this is new and how do these new figures compare to the official MOD data?

From our regular monitoring on this site we know that the official figure for total casualties since the start of 2007 approximates 860. This figure includes field hospital admissions, fatalities and medical evacuations and includes both frontline and non-frontline personnel. What the MOD have not released is figures for light injuries, that is those that do not require admission to a medical facility. This is what the Observer claims to has now added to the picture.

They contrast the figure of 700 injuries in frontline troops with official statistics.

“An army spokesman said official casualty figures between April and the start of August stood at 204, with about half stemming from the battlefield.”

However, it is hard to see which particular permutation of data the army spokesman used to derive his “official casualty figure”. In fact, the published data from the MOD indicates that, in Afghanistan, between the start of April and end of July there were 16 fatalities, 392 field hospital admissions (of which 101 were wounded in action), and 237 medical evacuations.

It appears that the spokesman was either quoted out of context or got his facts wrong?

Regarding the general approach adopted by the British of not officially reporting light injuries, this is in marked contrast to that of our American allies. The US military does include light injuries in its official statistics, which they classify as those returning to duty with 72 hours. Total casualty figures for US troops therefore tend to be proportionately higher and are, therefore, never fully comparable to official total casualties for British troops.

In defence of the British approach it can be argued that the operational significance of someone being lightly injured, and being patched up ready for work the following day, is very different to losing personnel for weeks, months, or permanently, due to serious injuries.

Likewise, the human cost is radically different. In conclusion, its a hat tip to the Observer for raising the profile of the under reported human cost of the Afghanistan war, but several serious questions remain about the accuracy and completeness of the figures they quote in their article.