The War in Afghanistan as Human Interest Story

This morning an article in the New York Times chronicles the history of American casualties in Afghanistan, opening with an anecdote:

Not long after Staff Sgt. Matthew D. Blaskowski was killed by a sniper’s bullet last Sept. 23 in eastern Afghanistan, his mother received an e-mail message with a link to a video on the Internet. A television reporter happened to have been filming a story at Sergeant Blaskowski’s small mountain outpost when it came under fire and the sergeant was shot.

continuing with a year-by-year breakdown, so many killed in 2003, so many killed in 2004, and so on.

In all, 95 Americans died in Afghanistan in 2005, up from 51 in 2004, and for the first time in the war, hostile deaths in Operation Enduring Freedom outpaced nonhostile deaths. The year 2005 also saw a leap in the Taliban’s use of homemade bombs — improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.s, in military parlance — most often buried in dirt roads. They were no less deadly than they were proving to be in Iraq.

The piece concludes by returning to their opening story of one family’s grief:

The images have provided Ms. Blaskowski with “some peace,” she said, yet in the same breath she admitted to a hope that her son would come back someday.

“I think it isn’t true, and he will call in the middle of the night like he used to,” she said. “We would sleep lightly to listen for that blessed phone call.”

“Now,” she added, “we don’t sleep well at all.”

The story is almost context-free. There’s very little indication of why our forces are in Afghanistan, what their objectives are, or even of the wishes and beliefs of the soldiers who died. Things just happen for no reason. You just tally the deaths. Life has meaning only insofar as you’re valued by your loved ones and death is completely meaningless.

Honestly, I don’t envy the position that the New York Times finds itself in. They’ve supported increased troop commitments to Afghanistan and criticized the Bush Administration for its lack of attention to that front. But the Times’s editors, like Sen. Obama, have been largely silent on what the strategic objectives in Afghanistan are, how they can be achieved without widening the war into Pakistan, and the cost in time, lives, and money of achieving victory there.

The additional problem is that their preferred narrative, that lack of attention by the Bush Administration, has resulted in an increasingly dangerous situation in Afghanistan, doesn’t fit the actual facts particularly well. Here are the historical statistics of U. S. deployments and fatalities in Afghanistan:

Year Deployment Fatalities Fatalities per 100K
2001 1,300 12 923
2002 10,000 49 490
2003 11,000 48 436
2004 17,900 52 291
2005 25,000 99 396
2006 25,000 98 392
2007 25,500 117 458
2008 34,000 93 273

Sources: Deployment: Global Security, U. S. military sources, Christian Science Monitor, others. Casualties: iCasualties.org

Note that 2008 is year-to-date. Presumably, the total number of deaths in 2008 will at least be at 2007 levels. Note also that the casualty rates per 100,000 for all NATO forces are considerably higher than for U. S. forces alone. For example, the fatalities per 100,000 in 2007 were 566. That’s roughly what the casualty rate in Iraq was (it’s now significantly lower than that). As usual if you’ve got better numbers, trot ’em out and I’ll update my post.

Do these figures fit the prevailing narrative, “Afghanistan becoming more deadly” or my preferred interpretation: the more troops we have in Afghanistan, the more get killed? It’s not as though Afghanistan used to be a safe place and it’s suddenly become dangerous. The casualty rates have always been high there and, as our troop levels rise, they’re becoming higher.

5 comments… add one
  • The casualty rates have always been high there and, as our troop levels rise, they’re becoming higher.

    The narrative has also been shaped by the fact that the Taliban is carrying out more suicide attacks, and have pulled off spectacular attacks like freeing hundreds of Taliban prisoners from an Afghan jail, or over-running an American outpost and killing 9 American soldiers in the process. Also, there’s no denying that life is getting easier for the Taliban in Pakistan, in turn making it easier for them to cross in and out of Aghanistan and avoid retaliation for their attacks. To point to casualty figures and try to extrapolate those as having come merely from increased troop levels ignores the impact of these other developments, both on the narrative and on the strategic situation in Afghanistan. You accuse proponents of action in Afghanistan of having no strategic objectives (which for one isn’t true, and which has also long been a criticism of the thinking of Iraq advocates) but I see no explanation here of how “increased troop levels = more casualties” is a sign of success in Afghanistan such that we can maintain the status quo.

  • I’d appreciate references to the strategic objectives in Afghanistan, Xanthippas. I note that, although you say they are some, you provide no references.

    I opposed both the invasion of Afghanistan and that of Iraq so this

    which has also long been a criticism of the thinking of Iraq advocates

    would appear to be a non sequitur.

    I see no explanation here of how “increased troop levels = more casualties” is a sign of success in Afghanistan such that we can maintain the status quo.

    I’ve made my position pretty clear here in the past and, if you’d taken the trouble to look around, you’d have seen it. I don’t think that given the constraints anything resembling what most Americans would recognize as victory in Afghanistan is possible. I think that the most we can achieve there is denying the territory to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, that’s a worthwhile objective itself, and we probably already have enough troops in Afghanistan to do that.

  • PD Shaw

    Maybe we should start talking about what to do about Pashtunistan. Or is that too provocative?

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