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Useful website: icasualties.org

January 23, 2012

Useful website: icasualties.org

As we move into this year’s “fighting season”, I wanted to highlight this website as a useful analytical aid.  It was set up to document Coalition casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom).  It is independent and looks broadly reliable – seen as a key “go to” site for researchers, the media and analysts in the public domain.  It was one I made extensive use of while working at SIPRI.  If you are looking for “broad brush”, “flavour” or “trends”, then this site gives it – in easy to understand formats.  Here is a good sense of one key aspect of the international effort in Afghanistan – the battle against the insurgency.  You might also like to compare casualty totals and patterns with their data for the Iraq conflict as well, for an even broader sense of performance, progress and problems.

The site tracks Coalition casualties in Afghanistan and breaks the stats down in a number of helpful, if slightly depressing, formats.  Deaths by ISAF nationality, time, region of Afghanistan and the nature of the death are probably the most useful. Reflecting media and public interest, they produce data and a chart looking specifically at the percentage of deaths caused by IEDs.

It may interest you to note that IEDs have caused around half of ISAF deaths each year since 2007.  This may be because ISAF counter-IED evolution is being balanced out by the increasing Taliban emphasis on such a cheap and effective weapon.

But perhaps the most useful chart is ISAF casualties by month and year.  This gives a good sense of the ebb and flow of fighting – particularly the coming and going of fighting seasons, the peak in summer and the relative decline in winter, but also the inexorable rise in Taliban fighting capabilities.

You can see here how 2005 and 2006 demonstrated the real surge of Taliban capabilities – fuelled by the UK arrival in Helmand full-time in early 2006.  More recently, we can note just how hard the fighting was over the last two summers, compared to previous years – look at June 2010.  In 2011, with ISAF’s undeniable increase in pressure on the Taliban that began in 2009/2010, last year, for the first time since 2004, casualty figures were lower than the previous year.  At the moment, this looks like we have reached the top of the ISAF casualty “bell curve”.  At the risk of tempting fate, it is difficult to foresee ISAF casualties levels returning to the levels of 2009 and 2010 as we transition to ANSF lead.

Caveats:

But, even if we do accept that the data is reasonably accurate, it is of course not too hard to point out a couple of key limitations –

  • ISAF casualty stats will not tell us if ISAF is “winning” – and neither would a list of Taliban casualties presented in the same format (although matching two sets of broadly credible figures together would be fascinating).
  • Casualty increases and decreases could be due to many reasons.  It may be because of shifts in fighting levels – due just as much to proactive ISAF initiatives into Taliban strongholds as it could be down to a successful Taliban “Spring Offensive”.
  • Significantly absent – and arguably, increasingly more important – is data on Afghan army and police casualties.  They will increasingly be bearing the brunt of the counter-insurgency war.  It seems clear from media reporting of incidents and Taliban statements that the intention is very much to target these forces.  With the transition process very much underway, that tracking ANSF casualties and morale will become increasingly important.  In a conversation I had in ISAF HQ last year it was suggested that the ANSF will probably be as poor at reporting information regarding their own casualties as the Afghan Defence Ministry will be at recording and storing the data.  This is part of a theme I should probably return to over the coming months – as Transition continues apace, ISAF and the international community may slowly start to lose “situational awareness” – i.e. the level of understanding “on the ground” – that they have become accustomed to across the country.

Conclusion:

And this leads to my main point – or, more of a note of caution, really.  A superficially simple, but ultimately complex, piece of information like “ISAF casualties are lower this year than last year”, may lead to poorly informed and/or wilfully distorted assertions of progress that may not be there.

So we should perhaps be aware of – and occasionally glance at – this sort of information for three main reasons:

a) because it does give some very useful overview flavour,
b) it can stimulate our thinking (analytical ideas) and
c) because it can be a useful indicator as to what might be driving the media, the thinking of governments – the sort of issues and questions that may be thrown up.

I commend the site as a “force-multiplier” to your thinking processes…

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