Memo to U.S. Media: Afghan Lives Matter, Too | Opinion

By now, most of us are aware of last Thursday's complex and devastating attack on Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan. What we are less aware of is the deaths of over 169 Afghans in the incident.

Since the assault in the Afghan capital, media outlets have focused on the thirteen U.S. servicemen and woman who were killed in the incident. President Joe Biden has held press conferences and released statements calling for revenge and vowing to "hunt" down those culpable. But the wall-to-wall coverage of the incident has focused on the widespread public outcry against the killing of U.S. military personnel, suggesting Afghan suffering is not worth mentioning.

Over the weekend, I received multiple breaking news notifications of headlines announcing that the American servicemen and women killed in action had been identified. Media outlets rushed to individually profile each of the U.S. personnel who had been killed. But each of these articles sadly failed to note any of the Afghans whose lives have been shattered, leaving them nameless.

Here are a few sample headlines: CNN told us about "A soon-to-be father, a beloved brother and a state champion among US service members killed in Kabul attack." Meanwhile, from Al Jazeera we learned that "13 US army personnel killed in attacks at airport." The Washington Post told us about "The 13 U.S. service members killed in the Kabul airport attack" while Reuters reported on the "Anger, grief for family members of 13 U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan." CBS's headline put it starkly: "13 US service members killed in Kabul airport attack."

These headlines are deeply offensive. Their neglect of the huge toll the attack took on Afghans erases the value of their lives, dehumanizing anyone who is not American. And when Afghan deaths are mentioned, instead of a body count, adjectives such as "scores" and "dozens" have been used. This lazy journalism negates the value of Afghan lives, giving the perception that their deaths are not even worthy of quantifying.

It's high-time we recognize the destructive impact Western policies have had on countries like Afghanistan. The Afghans who have died, not just in the Kabul attack last week but during the twenty-year failed U.S. war in Afghanistan, are also human. They, too, felt emotions. They, too, have brothers, sisters, husbands and wives who will continue to grieve their loss. Their deaths are not a statistic—or even less than a statistic.

Afghan Lives Matter, too
A girl stands next to a damaged car after multiple rockets were fired in Kabul on August 30, 2021. - Rockets flew across the Afghan capital on August 30 as the US raced to complete its withdrawal from Afghanistan, with the evacuation of civilians all but over and terror attack fears high. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

This isn't just because it's offensive to suggest one human life is worth more than another. Dehumanizing Afghan casualties makes it easier to swallow the news when indiscriminate B-52 bombers are sent across the country, killing innocent collateral Afghans, as the U.S. did in response to the terrorist attack on the airport.

Sadly, this penchant is nothing new. When I was reporting from Iraq, what perturbed me the most was that the deaths of Iraqis were treated as numbers on a page. And sometimes, not even that; some terror attacks never even made it to press. Articles were often written in passive, emotionless prose, as if brown and non-white people are supposed to die, which reinforces the problematic narrative that such violence is inherent and endemic to the region, when in reality, there was no history of suicide bombings in Iraq prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

After I witnessed a harrowing car bombing in Baghdad, Iraq in 2016, which killed over 250 civilians, I watched a whole community mourn in response. And it was devastating how little impact this episode had on the West. When compared with responses to terror attacks in Brussels and Paris, as hashtags trended on Twitter and Facebook profile pictures were draped in the respective country's flags, it became clear to me that in some instances, some lives are valued more than others.

But it's not just by omission that brown lives are devalued. After this year's January 6 Capitol insurrection, U.S. based journalists quickly looked to Iraq and Afghanistan as points of reference for the violence, casting the region as place intrinsically linked with violence. CNN's Wolf Blitzer tweeted a photograph of the U.S. National Guard in Washington with the caption: "I spotted these National Guard troops at a normal Washington street corner not even near the Capitol. So many streets have been closed. It reminds me of the war zones I saw in Baghdad or Mosul or Falluja. So sad."

It bothered me to see that comparison; it should go without saying that the more countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan are painted as violent war zones, the easier it is for us to accept the deaths of innocent civilians.

Had U.S. servicemen not been killed in Afghanistan last Thursday, it is more than likely that the news of an attack would never have made front page headlines. Just last month, there was a bombing in Kabul, but the news did not ripple into the U.S.; only Afghans were killed in the attack.

Western lives are by no means more valuable than those living elsewhere. It's time we stopped treating them as such. The Afghans that died are just as human as the Americans who did, and we should also be recognizing their deaths when we report on the heartbreak in Afghanistan.

Ahmed Twaij is a freelance journalist and filmmaker focusing mainly on U.S. politics, social justice and the Middle East. His Twitter is @twaiji.

The views in this article are the writer's own.