Over the past two years, casualties in Afghanistan have approached those of the worst years in Iraq. There were 961 coalition deaths in Iraq in 2007, the highest single-year total of the war. Afghanistan had 711 last year, and 521 the year previous. The casualty percentage is actually slightly worse than those statistics, because there have been less troops in Afghanistan between 2008-2010 then there were in Iraq between 2005-2007.
Admiral Mike Mullen, whom I will always be fond of for being the first head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to recommend repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, recently released a statement saying they expect even more casualties this year. The Marine offensive in Helmand Province, while successful in the tactical sense, has turned the southern part of the country into a terribly dangerous place.
Media coverage has been sparse, to say the least, at least compared to the continuous stream of sobering statistics we were getting in 2006 and 2007 about Iraq. We’ve probably hit our saturation point for “8 Soldiers Dead in Baghdad” headlines. After 10 years, fatigue’s set in.
My opinion on insurgencies stays the same–if an insurgent force has widespread popular support and an extraordinary level of perseverance, they will win. But what happened in Sri Lanka last year seems to be an exception. In May of 2009, the Sri Lankan government won a brutal victory over the Tamil Tigers, ending a terrible 26-year old civil war. The measures taken by the government to put down the revolt were blood-curdling–it was predetermined they would have to basically wipe out the insurgency, with negotiation off the table. They designated “no-fire” zones, told civilians to go there, then purposefully shelled the zones. The government now claims to be the first nation in modern times to have defeated domestic terrorism.
The situation isn’t really comparable to the Middle East. If Al Qaeda and the Taliban had half the resolve the Tamil Tigers did, we would be in deep trouble. And the U.S. is certainly not willing to go to the lengths the Sri Lankan government did to win. But it does illustrate, in a sense, how lucky we have been in the Middle East. And it also demonstrates that the concept of ‘nation-building,’ even if we find it ludicrous (I sort of do), is not really imperialism. Actual imperialism would look much, much worse.