Counting Afghanistan's Dead

Addressing the war's failings means talking about policy, but before we do that, a reminder of why it matters.

Afghan police.jpg
An Afghan policeman stands guard after an street battle in Kabul last April. (Reuters).

For all that's been written about Afghanistan and the U.S.-led war, there's one big question that still looms: how did we get where we are today? As part of an effort to think this through, I have a new paper at the American Security Project. Its premise is to, as I write in the introduction, "establish a framework for understanding why the Afghanistan war is in the state it is in, and how policymakers can avoid making similar missteps in the future." But there's one important thing to stress, above what we got wrong or how fix, but why it's so important to address. And the answer is: lives.

The overwhelming number of articles about how "costly" the war in Afghanistan have been focus on money, which is fine as far as it goes, because we've spent so much money in Afghanistan and received very little for it.

But there is another cost that matters even more: lives. The go-to source for understanding how many have died in Afghanistan is, where the count on coalition soldiers killed stands at just over 3,000 right now. But iCasualties only counts soldiers -- thousands of others have died in service to the war in Afghanistan.

When we include contractor deaths -- 2,800, according to a July 12 report in Bloomberg Government by Barry McGarry -- the number of coalition dead soars to almost 6,000.

Notably, no one compiles a comprehensive dataset of how many Afghan soldiers and policemen have been killed during the last 10 years. Wikipedia comes close, though their counting is only current as of last summer. According to this obsolete number, more than 10,000 Afghan soldiers and policemen have been killed since 2003.

By most rough estimates, about 30,000 Coalition soldiers and civilian contractors have been wounded during this same period of time. An unknown number of Afghan soldiers and policemen have been wounded as well, though we can safely assume it is in the thousands (the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction estimates about 3,000 were wounded between 2007 and 2011).

As for civilians, The Guardian recently estimated just over 8,000 Afghan civilians were killed in combat between 2006 and 2011. The UN estimates more than 3,000 died in 2011 alone. There are no reliable counts before then, and afterward, the U.S.-led coalition force and the UN present widely different estimates. There are no overall estimates of civilian wounded.

This framing of cost is critical to understanding why we need to explore what else has gone wrong. There is an argument to be made that 16,000 or more dead is an acceptable amount of loss over ten years of war; and that almost 10,000 dead civilians is also relatively low by historic standards. But such an argument would miss the point: while the number of dead matter (and is high no matter how you examine it) the fact that the dead keep coming, month over month, year over year, matters on its own.

This doesn't immediately help us understand what's gone wrong, but it does help us frame the discussion and get a sense of the scale of the problem. That's not a policy guideline like the sort of think you'll find in my report, if you care to read it, but it is the reason that I wrote it in the first place.