There was a time when some pundits liked to call Afghanistan “America’s next Vietnam.” The thought was that the superpower was going to be bogged down for years in a foreign land, suffering mounting casualties and mission creep with no end in sight. Now that the US combat mission in Afghanistan has officially ended, it is the Afghans who are doing the fighting.
How are they doing? The Special Inspector-General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has been looking into that question recently. The answers are contained in a report (PDF) that talks about an alarming loss of territory and men (Reuters coverage here).
NATO’s military mission in Afghanistan stopped publishing Afghan troops’ casualty figures in 2013. The Afghan ministry of defense followed suit soon after, citing troop morale. Implicit in these decisions was the idea that the casualty figures were too high for comfort, a point that was sometimes even conceded publicly.
NATO’s decision not to publish the figures didn’t mean it would also stop compiling them. This was how SIGAR dug into the statistics and found that in the first 10 months of 2016, Afghan forces lost a staggering 6,785 soldiers (army and police), with another 11,777 wounded. These fatalities are about three times the number of American troop deaths in Afghanistan throughout the entire war (2,392, according to iCasualties.org tracking website).
The figures are alarming for the human tragedy that they represent. But they’re also concerning in another way. The last time an Afghan government fought an insurgency and suffered similarly high casualties, it ultimately faced defeat. Reliable figures are lost in the mist of history, but various sources cite the number of Afghan communist soldier deaths to be at about 18,000 in the fighting between 1979-89 when the Soviets withdrew. In other words, the current government’s fatalities in 10 months are one-third of what the Afghan communist regime suffered in ten years. And these figures don’t include the casualties suffered by the irregular pro-government forces such as the Afghan Local Police, citizen defense forces and local uprising forces.
Does this mean that the anti-American Taliban are deadlier on the battlefield than their anti-Soviet Mujahideen predecessors were?
Of course, this comparison of raw numbers is crude on many levels. Some of the deadliest fighting between the Mujahideen and the communist forces actually happened after the Soviet withdrawal of ’89. The Mujahideen became better organized, better trained and better equipped in the subsequent years, enjoying the support and camaraderie of a greater contingent of Arab fellow holy warriors flocking from across the Middle East.
Compared to their Mujahideen predecessors, however, Taliban insurgents have built upon the old guerilla tactics with their decades of additional experience, employing more modern tools and tactics such as IEDs and suicide attacks against an army that, unlike the communist army, doesn’t even have a proper air force.
But the comparison, however crude, does offer a valuable insight. The last time government forces suffered such high casualty levels, desertions rose, defections became legendary and the government lost — and that was a government with universal conscription. (Gen. Dostum, former communist general and current vice president; Shahnawaz Tanai, former army chief; and Juma Achak, former general, were some of the renowned defectors who helped tilt the balance of the war).
This is not to say that the Taliban, who are suffering casualties and political problems of their own, will necessarily prevail. But the current Afghan casualty levels are difficult to sustain, with or without conscription.