Last month was bloodiest yet for US in Afghanistan with 66 troops killed, but death rate in Iraq fell to zero
America’s contrasting fortunes in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are highlighted in casualty figures recording no US deaths in Iraq in August but the highest death toll in Afghanistan in the last 10 years.
Military analysts in the US say the high death toll in Afghanistan raises questions about whether there is a contradiction between the picture painted by American generals, who have been offering an upbeat assessment of the war all year, and the reality on the ground.
In spite of generals claiming the US coalition forces and the Afghan army have made huge tactical gains in areas previously controlled by the Taliban, 66 US troops were killed in August, the deadliest single month since the war began in 2001.
The figures are at odds with comments by senior US officers such as Marine General John Allen, the top coalition commander in Afghanistan, who, in an interview with USA Today published on Thursday, spoke about the sinking morale of Taliban insurgents. He claimed Taliban fighters felt abandoned by their leaders sheltering in the safety of Pakistan, saying “now is the moment” to convince them to renounce violence and return to village life.
But Tony Shaffer, a lieutenant-colonel in the US army who wrote a book about the war, Operation Dark Heart, partially censored by the Pentagon, said: “What August tells us in there is a huge disconnect between the Pentagon and troops on the ground. The bottom line is we need a reckoning of propaganda coming out of the Pentagon and the reality of what is going on in Afghanistan.”
Shaffer, who thinks the US is pursuing the same failed strategy as the Russians, said: “The Taliban have been very effective.”
The August figures include 30 US troops killed when the Taliban brought down a Chinook helicopter that included a team of SEAL special forces. US casualties have been mounting since Barack Obama became president in January 2009 and switched priorities from Iraq to Afghanistan.
Michael O’Hanlon, one of America’s leading military analysts, based at the Brookings Institution, noted that about half the fatalities in August were down to the helicopter crash. “Afghanistan is somewhat better but is not improving fast enough,” he said. “I do feel that it’s been only a moderately encouraging year there.”
In 2008, the US death toll in Afghanistan was 155, doubling to 317 in 2009, 499 last year and 308 this year so far. The US figures are only a small proportion of the overall deaths in Afghanistan, in which civilians make up the biggest percentage.
The Afghan army and police are also suffering, with the Washington Post reporting yesterday that 1,555 Afghan policemen were killed over the past year, more than double the number of Afghan soldiers who died within the same period.
Almost 10 years after 9/11, war fatigue has a secure grip on America, with neither Afghanistan nor Iraq featuring much in television news, squeezed out by domestic concerns about unemployment and the faltering economy. Both wars are seldom raised by Obama or by his potential Republican opponents in next year’s race for the White House.
The absence of US fatalities in Iraq, even though the carnage among Iraqi civilians and Iraqi forces is still high, reflects a decision by the Pentagon to keep almost all the 43,000 US troops in the country confined to their garrisons and away from the frontline.
All US troops are scheduled to leave Iraq by the end of December, though negotiations are continuing between the US government and Iraqi leader, Nouri al-Maliki about maintaining a small US military presence beyond that date.
US military commanders warn that they expect to come under sustained attack over the next few months as they pull out, with various Iraqi groups wanting to be able to claim credit for forcing America out of the country.
According to the Pentagon, 1,733 US service members have been killed in Afghanistan and more than 4,400 in Iraq.
Reuters, in an assessment based on US and Iraqi figures, estimates at least 2,600 Iraq civilians, police and soldiers have been killed since the US formally declared an end to combat operations on 31 August last year. James Buchanan, the senior US military spokesman in Iraq, told the agency the country remained dangerous. But he added: “Broad trend-wise, I do think Iraq is making progress in the security side. Broad trend-wise we’ve seen an overall reduction in the number of attacks, a reduction in the lethality of the attacks, how many casualties are they causing.”