Only a week after the President stood before the nation to proclaim the successes of the war in Afghanistan under his guardianship, the Obama strategy is set to reap one of its most grisly rewards: within the next few days, 1,000 U.S. troops will have died in Afghanistan since President Obama took office, according to iCasualties.org and our counter, “U.S. Deaths in Afghanistan: Obama vs. Bush” (right). By comparison, 575 U.S. soldiers died in Afghanistan under President Bush. In other words, after managing the war for a mere quarter of its duration, Obama is responsible for nearly two-thirds of U.S. casualties in Afghanistan.
What is that I hear? Ah, it’s a groan coming from up in the balcony. I believe they’re saying, “of course more troops were going to die under President Obama’s Afghanistan strategy than President Bush’s. More troops means more deaths. It was only because Bush ignored Afghanistan that Obama had to expand the U.S.’s troop commitment in the country. And now you’re blaming him for it?”
I think that there are a number of things wrong with this argument, the primary one being that President Obama didn’t have to escalate the war in Afghanistan; he chose to do so. There is no law of nature that describes the necessity of a President’s expanding a flailing war whenever he encounters one. President Obama was beseeched by numerous Members of Congress, think tanks, organizations, and individuals (the linked materials being illustrative, not extensive) not to pursue a long-term, open-ended counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, not to engage in nation-building. He was warned of the futility, of the inevitable waste in both money and lives. But the President chose, knowing full well the likely consequences, and knowing full well the maxim we hear echoing from the balcony—that more troops means more deaths—to commit a total of 70,000 troops to Afghanistan in not one but two “surges”. He could have chosen otherwise: to narrow the mission from rooting out the Taliban and propping up an unpopular, corrupt puppet government, to dismantling al Qaeda in Afghanistan. He did not. And it is telling that it is only the latter mission that can remotely be deemed successful, although what success there has been has not been due to the large troop presence in Afghanistan.
The second issue I take with the argument above is with the invocation of the maxim that more troops means more deaths. Sure, more troops in harms way seems, intuitively, to lead to more troops dying. What’s surprising here, however, is not merely the number of troops that have died under Obama; rather, it’s how quickly the casualties have piled up.
The war in Afghanistan was waged for roughly seven years and three months under President Bush, but President Obama has only been overseeing the war for two years and five months. In those two years and five months, the total number of U.S. deaths in Afghanistan has increased by 274%. More troops means more deaths, but it also means more deaths much more quickly.
Let’s keep in mind this maxim of “more troops means more deaths” but shift our discussion from the present to the future.
Last week, President Obama announced his plan for a drawdown from Afghanistan: 5,000 troops now, 5,000 more by the end of the year, and another 23,000 by the end of next summer, which will leave roughly 68,000 troops in the country in September 2012. There were only 34,000 troops in Afghanistan when Obama took office. So even at the end of his proposed drawdown, there will be twice the number of troops in the country than when he took office. And, as we know, more troops means more deaths.
The kicker is that the U.S. doesn’t need so many troops in Afghanistan to fight al Qaeda, seeing as how there are fewer than 100 of them left in the country. As for the Taliban, only a political settlement will end that conflict, as the President himself recognized in his speech last week. Consequently, if President Obama adopted a more significant and speedy drawdown strategy, as, among others, the Afghanistan Working Group, the Center for American Progress, the CATO Institute, numerous U.S. Congressmen and national editorial boards, as well as 27 U.S. Senators, endorsed, troop levels in Afghanistan would have diminished drastically by the end of this year. May I propose the counter-maxim, “less troops means less deaths,” as the one to live by?
How much longer will we keep such an enormous amount of our citizens in harms way? Unfortunately, the President wasn’t so clear on how—or when—those remaining 68,000 troops will leave Afghanistan. He said that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan will transition from combat to “support” by 2014, but what he didn’t say is how many troops this “support” mission will require. If it’s anything like the support mission in Iraq—where, nearly a year after the transition was completed, 50,000 troops remain—we may need to mark many more grim milestones before the end comes.
One final note: those of you who have been paying attention to the news and whose arithmetic skills are not lying dormant will have noticed that the total number of deaths that I’m reporting here, 1,575, is less than the number that some organizations and news sources have been reporting recently, which is over 1,600. Allow me a moment to clarify this ambiguity that’s been pervading coverage of U.S. deaths in Afghanistan.
There are two figures that are often reported interchangeably, deriving from two different sets of data. One of these sets is data for the war in Afghanistan. The other, larger figure is for Operation Enduring Freedom, which not only includes the war in Afghanistan, but U.S. military activities in Yemen, the Horn of Africa, the Philippines, and other locations. Oh, you didn’t know that we had U.S. troops dying in Yemen, the Horn of Africa, or the Philipines, or that it was part of Operation Enduring Freedom? Well, don’t you learn something disturbing everyday!