Thoughts on the Hysteria About Afghanistan

by Victor Davis Hanson

NRO’s The Corner

Afghanistan is a messy war, but so far it has been conducted with a minimum loss of American life while achieving some important goals. We can argue about current strategies, fault what’s been done in the past, deplore the length of the war, lament its cost, or blame each other for its inconclusiveness, but the facts remain that we removed the Taliban, weakened al Qaeda in the region, fostered a consensual government in the most unlikely of places, and helped to prevent another catastrophic attack on our nation originating from that part of the world — and did all this with a degree of skill that is reflected in losses that by historical standards are quite moderate.

After the initial invasion, the Afghan front was largely inactive for years. U.S. annual fatalities from 2001 through 2007 (12, 49, 48, 52, 99, 98, 117) averaged about 68. In comparison, the murder total in Chicago for 2007 was 509. Some parts of Chicago were far more dangerous than the Hindu Kush. The decisive first three months of the war (October to December 2001) accounted for a little over 1 percent of American military deaths that year, one in which there were no other major combat operations.

Indeed, in 2002 Afghanistan accounted for about 4 percent of all military personnel lost while on duty. For the first two years of the war, an American soldier was far more likely to die of illness while stationed outside of Afghanistan than to be killed inside Afghanistan. By 2006, the fatality rate in Afghanistan was 6 percent of all military deaths, including those lost to accidents, illnesses, and the war in Iraq.

We are rightly alarmed about the spike in fatalities over the last few months, but even at these highest monthly death rates of the entire war, we have lost 153 over roughly the last 100 days of combat — an average of about 1.5 per day. For much of the 1990s, we lost well over 3 American soldiers per day to accidents, illnesses, and suicides, a military fatality rate far higher than the rate of combat losses in both Iraq and Afghanistan during the last three months. (In comparison, Iraq’s fatalities over those same 100 days were 27 American deaths, or less than one loss every three days).

Afghanistan is a tough, nasty war, but so far, by the standard of past American “police actions,” its monthly toll is light. In some 97 consecutive months of warring, we have lost 869 dead, or not quite 9 a month. In comparison, 909 Americans were killed on average each month in Korea over 37 months, and 469 Americans were killed on average each month in Vietnam over 101 months of conflict. So far, Afghanistan is costing about a hundredth of the monthly fatalities in Korea, and a fiftieth of those in Vietnam.

The key is to remain flexible and adaptable. What worked in 2001 to rout the Taliban with a minimum of human and material losses may not work in 2009 to keep insurgents from attacking the fragile democracy. Often counterinsurgency is not at odds with, but complementary to, ongoing counterterrorism operations. And despite the demagoguery, our efforts in Iraq may not have been antithetical to those in Afghanistan but oddly synergistic, as thousands of jihadists flocked to the “main theater,” where it was much easier for the American military to deal with them — as the enormous jihadist losses in Iraq, and the relative quiet there now, attest.

So now Afghanistan is flaring up, perhaps because Islamists, like U.S. forces, have turned their attention to the original focus after the decision in Iraq. It seems that al-Qaeda’s leaders, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden, suddenly are no longer calling for the devout to travel to Anbar to kill the infidel, but instead to come to Waziristan and help the Taliban with the real struggle. And why not, after suffering thousands killed and failing to stop Nouri al-Maliki’s constitutional effort in Iraq?

How odd that America and its allies, the winning side in Iraq, would be demoralized by their progress, while the losing side would be reenergized to try its luck again in Afghanistan.

By historical standards (cf. McClellan, MacArthur, the 1949 “revolt of the admirals,” or the 2006 “revolt of the generals”), General McChrystal’s remarks have been relatively mild. In short, our generalship, our combat operations, and our efforts to create some sort of civil society were not misplaced or misguided, however great the current partisan hysteria. By past American military standards, the mission in Afghanistan is singularly difficult and ambitious, but the way we have fought it has been unusually economical in lives lost.

©2009 Victor Davis Hanson

Share This