As Iraq collapsed into sectarian fratricide, the primary victims were Iraqis. As combat rises in Afghanistan, Americans and other allied personnel are the primary targets. And the casualty toll is rising.
More than 1,000 American troops have been wounded in battle over the past three months in Afghanistan, accounting for one-fourth of those injured in combat since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
The dramatic increase in amputees and other seriously injured service members comes as October marks the deadliest month for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Expanded military operations, a near-doubling of the number of troops since the beginning of the year and a Taliban offensive that has included a proliferation of roadside bombings have led to the great increase in casualties. U.S. troops in Afghanistan are suffering wounds at a higher rate than those who were serving in Iraq when violence spiraled during the military “surge” two years ago. In mid-2007, 600 U.S. troops were wounded in Iraq each month out of about 150,000 troops deployed there. In Afghanistan, about 68,000 troops are currently installed, with about 350 wounded each month recently.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell acknowledged that the casualties in Afghanistan have surpassed Iraq surge proportions and noted that the violence in Afghanistan is directed more against U.S. and other coalition forces, whereas it was heavily sectarian in Iraq. “It shows you how we are the targets and how effectively they are targeting us,” Morrell said.
President Obama should ponder well the rising costs as he considers U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. First, what is Washington hoping to achieve, and are the benefits worth ever more American deaths and injuries? Second, whatever he thinks is the best strategy, are the American people likely to support it over the long term? There would be nothing more foolish than to escalate and plan for years of war only to be forced into a speedy and unplanned withdrawal as the public demanded an end to what it saw as a useless conflict.
Defending America should be the administration’s top priority. That means a strategy of counter-terrorism rather than counter-insurgency. However much we might want to transform Afghan society and government, we are not likely to be able to do so at reasonable cost in reasonable time. We should step back from the brink rather than take the plunge into the potentially bottomless Afghan abyss.