Afghanistan’s War Dogs: the good, the bad and the ugly

Photo courtesy of UK Forces Afghanistan

Lately, there have been a few stories about dogs in Afghanistan. One of the most touching has been that of British IED-detection dog Theo (pictured right) who allegedly died of a broken heart after his master, Lance Corporal Liam Tasker was shot in action this week. Animals are a welcome inclusion in the narrative of the Afghanistan conflict. Even sad stories such as Theo’s illustrate the selflessness, stoicism and loyalty of dogs on duty. Dogs can be a good news story that lift (or distract) public sentiment about a conflict.

Yet sometimes, the good tends to overshadow the reality of a dog’s life in war zones. In this post, I wanted to explore not only the good, but also the bad and ugly of life for man’s best friend in Afghanistan.

Photo courtesy of Department of Defence

The Bad. First, there are obvious physical risks to dogs deployed to combat zones, and many, like Theo, do not come home. Some die not just from wounds sustained in explosions—one of the vicissitudes of their line of work—but also from heat stroke, friendly fire, being run over, or, in the case of one US hero, being accidentally put down. Australia’s most recent canine casualty was Herbie (whose mates are pictured left, attending the memorial service of their fallen comrade in Uruzgan), killed alongside his handler Sapper Darren Smith in Afghanistan last year.

Second, the danger is ever increasing; now it appears the Taliban are offering bounties to snipers for killing dogs and their handlers, leaving their patrols vulnerable to explosives and no doubt, diminishing morale in the process and scoring a PR win.

Once their deployment(s) is over, these dogs are cared for in hospitals (examples include the Defence Animal Centre in the UK and Holland Military Working Dog Hospital in the US) or, if they are lucky, adopted.

Photo by Lorenzo Tugnoli, TIME

And the Ugly. The plight of ordinary Afghan dogs, relative to their military counterparts, is a secondary consideration; a foreign media curiosity at best, a problem too hard to solve at worst. Sure, they’re not actively protecting soldiers and dismantling insurgent threats but they too are caught up in a post-9/11 Afghanistan.

Despite being banned under the Taliban, the practice of dogfighting in recent times seems to have flourished (incidentally, their ability to draw crowds has made them a popular target for recent bomb attacks). Although not supported by all parts of Afghan society, owners defend the practice, arguing that the dogs are well fed and, unlike in other countries, the dogs are pulled apart and not fought to the death.

What does the case of Afghanistan tell us about how we value these animals? Military or “civilian”, the case of dogs in Afghanistan shows that, at the end of the day, dogs are a cog in the machinery of man’s life. Sometimes they pay the ultimate sacrifice whether we wage war or win wagers. Their further make their contribution as a part of the propaganda campaign of conflicts: the timing of announcing Sarbi’s return with then Australian PM Kevin Rudd’s visit to Afghanistan was not lost on the Australian media. Given the dearth of information on Afghanistan, why not a good news story about a long lost canine?

While womens’ rights are currently being compromised to further peace talks in Afghanistan, I am pessimistic about animals’, particularly dogs’, rights there. In any case, we should take a moment to respect the lives and contributions of war dogs everywhere. After all, for many, it truly is a dog’s life.

Post script: More more on war dogs, please see War Dog of the Week on Tom Ricks’ blog. For further information on Military Working Dogs in the ADF, please see the Australian Defence Force Trackers and War Dogs Association. For further information on animal welfare groups in Afghanistan, please see Nowzad Dogs.

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