Attrition: Contrasting Iraq And Afghanistan

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April 5, 2009:  So far this year, over 70 percent of the casualties in Afghanistan have been caused by suicide and roadside bombs. That's 52 dead and over 200 wounded among the 70,000 U.S. and NATO troops there, in the last three months. In Iraq, roadside bombs never accounted for more than 60 percent of losses. Moreover, Afghanistan remains a less dangerous place than Iraq ever was.

In the last two years, foreign troops in Afghanistan lost about 300-400 dead per 100,000 troops. 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 two years ago, the U.S. death rate in Iraq has dropped to less than 200 dead per 100,000 troops per year. Meanwhile, the rate in Afghanistan is headed for 400 dead per 100,000 troops this year. For Afghan troops and police, the death rate is about 800 dead per 100,000, and this year is headed for 800 or more. 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.

About a hundred times a week, U.S. and NATO troops are attacked in Afghanistan, and most of the time the weapon is a roadside bombs. Most of these attacks fail, but many of those that do could be neutralized if the troops were riding in MRAP armored vehicles. The widespread use of these vehicles  reduced roadside bomb casualties by over half in Iraq. There are 1,800 MRAPs in Afghanistan now (versus over 10,000 in Iraq), and about twice as many are needed. This would cut U.S. and NATO casualties 20-30 percent.

The fighting is mostly over keeping government control out of heroin producing areas. The drug gangs are the main source of income for the Taliban, and without that cash, the Taliban warlords cannot maintain large numbers of gunmen in their employ. There aren't many tribesmen willing to fight the foreign troops for free, since it's generally acknowledged that if you fight the foreigners, you usually lose. Better to use remotely controlled roadside bombs, or talk some pious foreigner into being a suicide bomber.

Last year, NATO and U.S. forces killed about a hundred civilians in the course of fighting (along with about 3,000 Taliban, and other hostiles like al Qaeda and drug gangs). The Taliban killed nearly a thousand civilians, and about as many Afghan soldiers and police (who killed about as many Taliban). Last year, 294 foreign troops died in combat. In the first three months of the years, 78 American and NATO troops were killed in Afghanistan. Over two hundred Afghan police and soldiers died as well, along with nearly a thousand Taliban and terrorist fighters. There are currently 150,000 Afghan police and soldiers in action. There are up to 50,000 men serving full or part time for the warlords, tribal militias and outfits like the Taliban (who account for about a third of these). The Taliban and drug gangs recruit from a population of about ten million Pushtun tribesmen on both sides of the border. Thus the 3-4,000 Taliban and drug gang gunmen killed each year, can easily be replaced. As long as the money is available to pay the Taliban fighters (who make 2-3 times what Afghan police or soldiers get), all this can go on indefinitely.

 


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