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ISAF casualties and the battle to come…

February 15, 2013

By Tim Foxley

Summary: The decline in ISAF casualties demonstrates many things, but not necessarily that the war has been won.

ANSF soldierThe Los Angeles Times reports the trail off of US military casualties this year.

LA Times, 14 Feb 2013:  Over the last 25 days, something unusual has happened in Afghanistan: Not one U.S. service member has been killed. The lion’s share of the fighting — and dying — is now being done by Afghans.

The last American troop death, from injuries suffered in a December roadside bombing, occurred Jan. 20, marking the longest stretch without a fatality since 2008 and offering a glimmer of evidence that the United States’ 11-year war is in its twilight. Deaths among U.S. troops in Afghanistan last year reached a four-year low as commanders hailed a tipping point in a conflict that has claimed more than 2,100 American lives.

The icasualties.org website still gives a very thorough read-out of all ISAF military casualties (by date, by place, by type, by nation, etc).  The drop from the 2010 casualty peak to where ISAF is now is striking.

But it would be a surprise now, if significant ISAF casualties were taking place – although a mass-casualty incident (a lucky strike by the insurgents or the crash of a troop transport aircraft) would change this in an instant.  The prospects for the long-term capabilities and sustainability of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) notwithstanding, it is a reasonably safe judgement to make that Afghans are now the front line, with international military forces providing other advice and support (air strikes still remain problematic) as necessary.

LAT: American forces continue to carry out ground operations and provide crucial air power, but U.S. and Afghan officials say Afghans now lead well over 80% of combat operations and control areas where more than three-quarters of the population resides. Experts cite other reasons for the reduced U.S. casualties, as well, including new measures to prevent insider attacks, the possibility that insurgents are curtailing attacks during the withdrawal and the usual reduction in fighting during the winter.

But it is also clear that the last American has not yet died in Afghanistan, and analysts caution that fewer fatalities doesn’t necessarily indicate that the U.S. and its allies are even winning.

So this drop in ISAF casualties certainly doesn’t contribute usefully to the “winning/losing” the war debate – even if this is still a viable discussion.  It merely confirms the transition process (without judging the effectiveness) and the fact that the battle has been picked up by others.  Data on Afghan battle casualties (ANSF, insurgent and civilian), very difficult to establish in the past, will become even more unreliable as Western intelligence and media sources dry up and move on.  There is still likely a very significant counter-insurgency battle to come, after 2014, between insurgents led-by the Taliban and the international-backed Afghan government.  Without regular and reliable information, it will be much harder to understand and assess.

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