Attrition: Afghanistan Less Deadly Than Iraq


September 27, 2011: The war in Afghanistan is far less deadly than the one in Iraq. In Afghanistan, war related deaths are still running at the rate of 40 per 100,000 Afghans (about 12,000 dead a year). At its peak, four years ago, that rate in Iraq was three times that and most of the dead were civilians killed by Iraqi terrorists. Fewer of the Afghan dead are innocent civilians. About sixty percent of the dead have been Taliban. About a 16 percent were civilians (80 percent of them killed by the Taliban), and the remaining 24 percent security forces. Afghan casualties are unchanged, if you leave out Taliban losses, over the last few years. The NATO effort to keep civilian losses down has had an impact here. The economy continues to grow, as does the number of Afghan refugees returning from Pakistan. This is partly because of the growing violence across the border, as the Pakistani Army goes after their local Taliban. Some Pakistani Taliban groups have set up bases in Afghanistan, in territory of tribesmen they are related to in southeastern Afghanistan.

The 140,000 foreign troops appear headed for 600 dead this year, a 14 percent decline from last year. In 2007-8, foreign troops in Afghanistan lost about 300-400 dead per 100,000 troops. That went up to nearly 500 in the last two years and will be about 420 per 100,000 this year. In Iraq, from 2004-7, the deaths among foreign troops ran at 500-600 per 100,000 per year. Since al Qaeda admitted defeat there three years ago, the U.S. death rate in Iraq has dropped to less than 100 dead per 100,000 troops per year. Afghanistan and Iraq have about the same size population.

For Afghan troops and police, the death rate is 700-800 dead per 100,000. The Afghan troops are not as well trained, disciplined and led as the foreign troops. Still, they are doing better than the Taliban, and the foreign troops in 20th century wars. The death rate for U.S. troops during Vietnam, Korea and World War II, was over 1,500. Better body armor, tactics, training, weapons and medical care have all contributed to a sharp reduction in fatal losses. Last year, IED (improvised explosive devices) accounted for over 60 percent of foreign troop deaths, but this year that is under 60 percent and falling. In the last year, the Taliban have doubled the number of IEDs employed, but have not been able to overcome better countermeasures.

The hammering the Taliban are receiving (over 7,000 dead this year) is largely due to more foreign (especially American) troops, and the movement of air recon and intel resources from Iraq to Afghanistan. Recon sorties (by manned and unmanned aircraft) over Afghanistan have greatly increased over the last two years. There have always been more than enough aircraft up there with smart bombs, but the recon missions are the ones that find and track the enemy for you. The Taliban have struggled to come up with new tactics to avoid observation from the air (as did their Iraqi counterparts), but without much success.

The commanders of U.S. forces in Afghanistan openly proclaim that the Taliban are being beaten. But the real problem in the country is the corruption and the drug gangs. For the last two years, foreign troops have gone after the drug gangs, but the corruption requires more effort from U.S. diplomats in Afghanistan and officials back in the United States.

Illiteracy (about 80 percent of the population cannot read) and tribalism (everyone belongs to one) are making it very difficult to recruit and train effective soldiers and police. Afghanistan is the poorest area in Eurasia, and the population has adapted by sticking close to family and distrusting strangers (anyone not from their clan or tribe). Illiteracy makes it difficult to use the very effective screening tests Western governments have developed to determine which young men are suitable for the military or police work. Verbal interview techniques have been developed, but these are time consuming, and less accurate (because of the large range of cultural differences). The end result is that the Afghans have to recruit and try to train three men, for each one that actually succeeds. This takes more time, and money. Moreover, the quality of the troops, and especially the police, is still low. The troops aren't too bad, because fighting (as warriors not soldiers) is an old Afghan tradition. But "police" is an alien concept, and Afghans are having a hard time getting their heads around it.



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