Attrition: The Lands Of The Dead


July 26, 2012: The fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan was different, and this can be seen in the pattern of casualties (to the end of June, 2012). The fighting in Afghanistan has been going on for eleven years and has left 1,919 American troops and 1,173 civilian contractors dead. In Iraq the fighting lasted from early 2003 to the end of 2011. That left 4,409 troops and 1,569 civilian contractors dead.

Enemy losses in Iraq and Afghanistan were counted by NATO and the United States but kept secret. It's widely believed that enemy deaths were 5-6 times U.S. combat losses. Both Iraq and Afghanistan were reluctant to release complete data on losses by their security forces. But enough data has gotten out to indicate that those losses were at about twice that of foreign (mostly U.S.) troops. This includes pro-government militias. Thus the Iraqi terrorists and anti-government forces in general lost about 30,000 men (and a few women and children used for suicide bombers) while Iraqi police and army lost over 6,000 dead. About 114,000 Iraqi civilians were killed, mainly by Sunni and Shia terrorist groups. There was not that kind of religious killing in Afghanistan, where only about 12,000 Afghan civilians have been killed, mostly by the Taliban (as part of an effort to coerce cooperation). In turn the Taliban have taken higher losses (over 40,000) than Islamic radicals suffered in Iraq.

Even without the Islamic radicals in Iraq and Afghanistan, the local murder rate is several times higher than found in the West. These are both very violent places. For example, the murder rate in the Western hemisphere (about 8 per 100,000 people a year) is much higher than in Europe, where it is about 3-4. That is another example of the "frontier culture" effect which you still see in places like Afghanistan and much of Africa. Middle Eastern nations have rates of between 5 and 10. The United States rate is about 6 per 100,000. There are other parts of the world that are more violent. Iraq has a murder rate in the 20s. That's not a lot higher than it was under Saddam (10-20 a year) but less than a third of what it was five years ago. In Africa, especially Congo, Sudan, and South Africa, you find similar murder rates. Only South Africa has a sufficiently effective government to actually keep accurate track of the murder rate, mostly from crime, but it's over 50 per 100,000. It's worse in places like Congo and Sudan, but the numbers there are only estimates by peacekeepers and relief workers. In southern Thailand a terror campaign by Islamic radicals has caused a peak death rate of over 80 per 100,000. Historians have been able to find similar patterns of deadly violence in Medieval Europe (in those places where large quantities of church records, that track births and deaths, survived).

Afghanistan is a violent place and always has been. The problem is that the continual violence makes it difficult to put the current fighting against the Taliban into context. The country has long been awash in weapons and men eager to use them. Afghans have been known as good recruits for local conquerors for thousands of years. The several major invasions of India over the last thousand years saw lots of Afghans in the ranks of the conquering armies. In some cases there were so many Afghans that Indian records simply record the invaders (usually Turks or Persians) as "Afghans."

When not invading neighbors, Afghans practice on each other. Not a lot of accurate record keeping out there in the bush but public health stats indicates an average life span in the 40s. There's a lot of disease, accidents, and not much modern medicine. But there's also much talk of murder. There are tribal feuds, lots of banditry, and even within families there are murders and executions. The problem with tribal cultures is the difficulty controlling this kind of violence. In much of Afghanistan it isn't being controlled and, as always, the resulting deaths are not being reported either. Thus the civilian murder rate, excluding the Taliban, is probably over 10 per 100,000 year. Many of the Taliban related deaths would have occurred anyway because the Taliban are basically a tribal rebellion by some of the Pushtun tribes that want to run the country (in the name of God, of course, as it has long been good PR to commit your atrocities while invoking a higher power). 


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