Foreign military deaths of 2,002 in Afghan war trail civilian casualties

FROM IRISH TIMES - 16 AUGUST 2010

KABUL – Total foreign military deaths in Afghanistan have exceeded 2,000 since the war began in late 2001, unofficial tallies showed yesterday, more than 60 per cent of them Americans but still far behind ever-growing civilian casualties.

The deaths of at least one more US service member, an Australian and a Briton announced in the past two days have pushed the total to 2,002 since the Taliban were ousted in late 2001 by US-backed Afghan forces.

The total is less than half that suffered during the seven years of the Iraq war but is a significant milestone nonetheless, with NATO allies like the Netherlands pulling out of the alliance and others reviewing their future roles.

It will also likely to be an unwelcome figure for US President Barack Obama, who has promised a strategy review in December after mid-term elections a month earlier in which his Democrat Party faces a backlash from an increasingly sceptical public.

Disputes over the Afghan war have already brought down a Dutch government in February and a German president in May and, facing growing public doubts about the war at home, US leaders have sought to lower expectations of what can be achieved.

According to www.iCasualties.org, an independent website that monitors foreign troop deaths, 2002 troops have been killed since 2001, 1,226 of them Americans. British losses total 331, with the remaining 445 shared among the other 44 Nato partners in the International Security Assistance Force.

Many more foreign soldiers have been wounded in a conflict Mr Obama has described as a war of “necessity”.

US, British and other Nato commanders have warned that the battle would only get tougher this year as foreign troops push ahead with plans to take control of Taliban strongholds in the south and confront other insurgents such as the al-Qaeda linked Haqqani network in the east.

This June was the bloodiest month of the war, with 102 killed as foreign forces pushed ahead with operations in southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces.

A further 88 were killed in July, with the total for the year so far standing at 434, according to iCasualties, fast approaching 2009’s 521. The increasing death toll comes as the number of foreign troops in Afghanistan grows towards 150,000 after Mr Obama committed another 30,000 to the fight this year.

The losses in Afghanistan are less than half of those in the Iraq war, where at least 4,723 foreign troops have been killed since 2003, 4,405 of them American.

But, with Washington dramatically cutting troop numbers in Iraq before the formal end of combat operations on August 31st, attention is certain to be refocused on the Afghan conflict.

Just as was the case in Iraq, civilians are bearing the brunt of the conflict in Afghanistan.

A report released by the United Nations last week showed civilian casualties had risen by 31 per cent over the first six months of 2010, compared with the same period last year, and that 1,271 had been killed.

Civilian casualties caused by US and other foreign forces have long been a source of friction between the Afghan government and its Western backers and led to a major falling-out between the two sides last year.

It also resulted in the tightening of tactical directives by the commanders of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan in the past year, limiting the use of aerial strikes and house searches.

The US commander in Afghanistan said he sees “areas of progress” in the war but it was still unclear if Mr Obama’s goal of starting to pull out troops in July 2011 could be met.

Army Gen David Petraeus said in an interview aired yesterday on NBC’s Meet the Press that the battle against the Taliban insurgency was an “up and down process” and that it was too early to determine its success.

“What we have are areas of progress. We’ve got to link those together, extend them,” Gen Petraeus said.

He said he would give his “best professional military advice” to Mr Obama about the July 2011 target for starting withdrawals and leave the politics of the war to the president, who will be up for re-election in 2012.

“I think the president has been quite clear in explaining that it’s a process, not an event, and that it’s conditions based,” Gen Petraeus, who replaced Gen Stanley McChrystal as Afghan commander less than two months ago, said of the target date for starting withdrawals.