By Robert Karniol
A couple of months back I rang the Pentagon press office with a few questions centred on a basic theme: How do the Taliban deal with their combat casualties?
Many years ago I spent some time in the field with Cambodian guerrillas fighting to end the Vietnamese occupation, in the process learning something of their medical services. Our group of about a hundred fighters had two field medics, peasant boys with some three months of training supplemented by a bit of time at the civilian hospital in a border refugee camp.
As we had taken several casualties in an encounter with Vietnamese forces soon after entering the country from Thailand, I saw them work and they couldn’t have been more professional.
A few weeks later I met a Khmer Rouge doctor sent to treat my Australian colleague, who was shot in the side during this initial encounter. The doctor had been trained in China for seven or eight years, I learned through an interpreter, and he ran a six-bed field hospital situated somewhere in the jungles of Battambang province.
More serious casualties, I already knew, were evacuated to hospitals in Thailand.
Does the Taliban operate with field medics, I asked the Pentagon press officer? And, if they do, how are these trained? Do they have their own hospitals in Afghanistan or can they gain access to government hospitals? Do they receive treatment in Pakistan?
Monitoring the hospitals could provide some pretty useful intelligence, I offered tentatively.
I never received a reply from Washington, never had a response of any sort to my follow-up emails. Pakistan’s High Commission in Ottawa was equally circumspect. And Canada’s Department of National Defence essentially told me they hadn’t a clue.
The International Committee of the Red Cross was somewhat more forthcoming.
“As you know, the ICRC's neutral and impartial approach involves confidential dialogue with all parties to the conflict -- particularly relating the protection of wounded and sick. Although ICRC may be unable to shed light on the details of the internal organisation of the medical services of fighting groups, ICRC provides for the medical needs of war-wounded and war-sick, civilians or fighters, in several ways that reflect the needs on the ground,” the organisation’s Robert Whelan wrote in an electronic message from Kabul.
“For example, a network of First Aid Posts is supported by ICRC, particularly in rural areas of Afghanistan. Second, ICRC provides basic medical dressing kits to appropriately qualified medical persons. Third, ICRC provides trainings in First Aid and trainings in more advanced war surgery and related topics for appropriately qualified medical personnel from all parties to the conflict. Fourth, ICRC provides more substantial 'structural support' to two major hospitals run by the Afghan Ministry of Public Health: Sheberghan Hospital in Jawzjan, and Mirwais Regional Hospital in Kandahar.
“In the latter facility, 18 ICRC expatriate doctors, nurses, medical specialists and administrators offer expertise, training and assistance to the hospital staff treating patients affected by the conflict. The ICRC provides the hospital with medical materials, equipment and supplies. In addition, the ICRC operates six physical and orthopaedic rehabilitation centres in Afghanistan.
“Mandated through International Humanitarian Law, the ICRC endeavours to treat the sick and wounded in an impartial way, including civilians and fighters who are hors de combat and needing medical assistance, regardless of their race, religion, political views or affiliations. ICRC's work nevertheless does not impede efforts by law enforcement authorities to capture or arrest persons who may be involved in conflict, provided that any medical needs they may have should be met in accordance with the provisions of IHL.”
Well that’s a start, then.
Robert Karniol is a veteran military affairs journalist and was Asia-Pacific Editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly from 1988-2007. He is now a columnist for the Singapore Straits Times.