Mounting Fatalities in Afghanistan

Casualties are mounting in Afghanistan for US and NATO forces.  So far this year, 295 NATO soldiers have been killed, surpassing last year’s total of 294.  July and August have been the bloodiest months since the start of the war, with 76 and 63 fatalities, respectively.  In 2001, when coalition forces invaded Afghanistan, only 12 soldiers died in combat.  Over the next three years, the number of casualties hovered between 57 and 69 per year.  But since 2004, fatalities have increased rapidly.  They more than doubled in 2005 relative to the previous year (131 vs. 59), and the number of NATO soldiers killed in 2008 was more than twice the number killed in 2005 (294 vs. 131).  Since 2001, 1340 NATO troops have been killed in Afghanistan, 802 of which were American and 206 were British. 

Military commanders attribute the rise in casualties to improvements in tactical skills by the Taliban and the new counterinsurgency strategy adopted by NATO forces, which requires soldiers to spend more time outside secure military bases in towns and villages in order to better protect the civilian population from militants.

It is unclear how much longer US and NATO forces will remain in Afghanistan.  There is increasing pressure on NATO governments to withdraw because there has been a major decline in popular support for the war effort.  But the US and some European governments, most notably the British, believe that preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for Al Qaeda is vital for the national security of their countries.  If NATO remains committed to the mission, it is possible that the number of coalition fatalities in Afghanistan could eventually exceed those sustained in Iraq. 

Since the Iraq War began in 2003, 4,652 coalition soldiers have been killed, 4,334 of which were American and 179 were British.  During the Afghanistan War, 1340 NATO troops have been killed, 802 of which were American and 206 were British.  The number of British deaths in Afghanistan has already exceeded those suffered in Iraq.  If the number of monthly fatalities remains at the current level, NATO will lose approximately 800 troops per year, of which roughly 500 will be American.  At that rate, total coalition deaths in Afghanistan will exceed those in Iraq (assuming US troops are withdraw from Iraq by the scheduled date in 2011) by 2015, and the number of American soldiers killed in Afghanistan will pass the same milestone by 2017.

The scenario described above will obviously not develop if US and NATO forces withdraw from Afghanistan in the next few years, but if they stay and the insurgency is not significantly weakened, there is a significant chance that the conflict in Afghanistan will turn out bloodier for the West than the one in Iraq, a turn of events which seemed unbelievable just two years ago.

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