Counting the Dead & Cannonfodder

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by Joshua Foust on 7/30/2012 · 4 comments

The AFP reports that Afghan soldiers are dying five times faster than their ISAF counterparts:

Afghan security forces are dying at five times the rate of NATO soldiers as Taliban insurgents step up attacks ahead of the withdrawal of foreign troops in 2014, the latest figures show.

While deaths among NATO’s troops are regularly chronicled in the 50 countries that contribute soldiers to the war, the daily casualties among the Afghans they are fighting alongside rarely make headlines.

A total of 853 Afghan soldiers and police were killed in the past four months, government figures show, compared with 165 NATO troops, according to a tally kept by the website President Hamid Karzai warned in May that the Afghan death toll would increase as the US-led troops start withdrawing and hand increasing responsibility for security to Afghan forces. Both NATO’s ISAF and Afghanistan’s interior ministry have noted a surge in attacks in recent months since the start of the Taliban’s annual summer offensive.

That sounds bad. But it’s also a bit misleading. I wrote in the Atlantic last week that the way we count the dead also carries huge importance — and most people dramatically undercount how many dead there are.

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.

This implies that, while the AFP’s numbers are probably correct for how many ANSF have been killed this year, the ratio is actually a bit “better” — substantially more ISAF personnel are being killed than is commonly understood. Notice how the AFP does not report how many contractors have been killed this year, though the data suggests at least a hundred have been.

If there’s any big lessons to be learned from this it’s that we do ourselves a disservice by under-counting the dead. One advantage of relying on so many civilian contractors — over a hundred thousand are still in Afghanistan, far more than soldiers at this point — is that they rarely get counted among the official war dead. That’s why you normally hear that Afghanistan has killed 3,000 Americans, instead of the more accurate 6,000 when contractors are included.

Using contractors like this allows policymakers to prolong wars, expand them, and maintain them because half the cost, and half the dead, are simply not acknowledged publicly. Especially now, as we try to understand the dramatically higher casualty rates for the Afghans we’re using more or less as cannon fodder for the insurgency, I think it’s time for that to stop.

IMAGE: An explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) team confers with an Afghan interpreter in Kapisa province, 2009 (Photo by Joshua Foust).

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Bakhrom July 30, 2012 at 7:36 am

It seems operation “Enduring Freedom” is facing fiasco…unfortunately. Death rate of Afghan forces is a really bad indicator, Central Asian states seem to be concerned about US and NATO troops withdrawal in 2014, what will be further development of situation in Afghanistan, negotiations with the Taliban? hmm……

Boris Sizemore August 2, 2012 at 12:13 pm

The ANSF numbers are way off, and higher than are reported.

I have personally seen the casualty reports go in. There is an undercount. If the ANSF soldier is not Medevacd to a Main Care Facility- they do not get reported. So if it is a leg injury, hand, foot, torso minor and they can be cared for at a Local facility or better yet sent home, semi ambulatory- they are not recorded.

This serves two purposes. First, it keeps the totals down. ISAF loves that.

Second by not reporting the paymaster can go into “Ghost Soldier” mode. The Soldier gets to go home and recuperate (preferred to any Military Related Facility) and the “Unit” keeps his pay which is then distributed among the “Staff” as extra pay on top of the pay for other “Missing” Ghost Soldiers.

Thus the units are always understaffed. Some by real “Ghosts”(on the list, but never at the Unit or Deserted and Not Reported) and others “Injured Ghosts” those that are “missing and injured. ”

Unless you speak Farshi or Pashtun and sit around a whole lot and check the paper work you would never know. This is a “hush hush, wink wink” thing. You don’t want to jump up and down, but you can “recommend” that this should not happen. Lots of luck with that.

Of course, I have mentioned this several times up the ISAF chain and the ANSF chain.. But never a word comes back on this….and if you ask again…”They are checking on it. Wait Out.

Wonder if anyone really cares????

It is NOT an Election Year thing, sorry….oh Devotees of Caldwell that still haunt the hallways at the Warfighting HQ away from the War….

Back to the Front.
We still do need to fight.

anan August 5, 2012 at 12:43 pm

Boris, it seems to me that the ANA is mostly a Farsi organization. I wonder how easy it is for officers and NCOs who speak Pushtu and don’t speak Farsi to get promoted through the ranks. Imagine it doesn’t help. [With the provisos that financial inducements can matter. 😉 ]

How do the officers skim off ghost soldiers who get auto deposit?

anan August 5, 2012 at 10:21 am

Boris Sizemore, what is your current e-mail address? Boris, you and everyone else talks about the ghost soldiers. There are some ANA combat manouver battalions that have over 1300 soldiers on the roles. [including the ghosts.]

Afghan MoD and Afghan MoI don’t have accurate numbers on how many of their service members are getting killed. Including for the reasons Boris cites and for other reasons too. 853 ANSF killed in 4 months is the best estimate out there.

Anecdotally, ANSF vs. Taliban violence is rising across many hot zones. With some notable exceptions such as the North. Only 2% of all violent attacks in Afghanistan are now in the 9 Northern provinces. But this isn’t as good as it looks. The NDS and 303 Zone ANP Corps have unleashed neo Northern Alliance militias throughout the North. Undoing much of the hard work done to disarm them 2001-2008.

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