Attrition: Afghanistan Explained


September27, 2008:  So far this year, about 4,200 people have died in Afghanistan. Sounds awful, doesn't it? That's an annual rate of about 6,000 dead. Or, about 24 dead per 100,000 population, as such things are measured by crime statisticians. 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. Middle Eastern nations have rates of between 5-10. The United States rate is about six per 100,000. There are other parts of the world that are more violent. Iraq has a murder rate of 26. That's not a lot higher than it was under Saddam (10-20 a year), but less than a third of what it was a year 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 death rate of over 80 per 100,000.

In Afghanistan, the death rate for civilians, mostly from Taliban violence, has been 6-7 dead per 100,000 people, in the last two years. Most of the dead in Afghanistan are among Afghan soldiers and police (about 1,500 a year for the last two years), foreign troops (200-300 a year) and the Taliban (over 4,000 a year). That brings the rate up to 24 per 100,000. But what is not counted is the deaths from banditry and tribal feuds throughout the country.

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 has been known as good recruiting grounds 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 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 indicate 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.)

The Taliban, according to their public announcements, feel that they could quickly overcome the other tribes and take control, were it not for the 70,000 foreign troops in the country. That's in recognition that most of the Taliban losses are at the hands of foreign troops. But it also implies that the Taliban feel they have access to plenty of people who know how to kill and, if not interfered with, can butcher enough Afghans to gain control of a nation of 25 million people.





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