Research assistance by Grace Kiser
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How dangerous is it to be a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan? Until last year, headlines were dominated by the horrific violence in Iraq with gruesome tales of IED explosions and sniper fire cutting down American troops. In comparison, Afghanistan's Operation Enduring Freedom seemed relatively quiet from 2002 to mid-2008.
But the truth is that Afghanistan has always been a dangerous place to serve, even before the recent surge in lethal attacks on American forces, as demonstrated by a Huffington Post analysis of the ratio of troop deaths in both wars. To calculate our ratio, we took the number of soldier fatalities in a month divided by the boots-on-the-ground troop levels for that month and multiplied by 100,000.
The following charts clearly demonstrate the stark reversal that has taken place in both countries over the last three years. In August 2009, a soldier in Afghanistan was more than 16 times as likely to get killed as a soldier in Iraq. So far this year, 242 soldiers have died in Afghanistan compared to 128 in Iraq though there are just over half as many troops on the ground in Afghanistan.
In fact, Afghanistan is overall the more lethal conflict for soldiers on the ground, according to the analysis of the ratio of troop deaths from 2002 to September 2009, with an average monthly ratio of more than 42 deaths per 100,000 troops compared to 39 in Iraq. Though many more troops have died in Iraq -- 4349 compared to 873 in Afghanistan as of Monday -- the ratio remains higher in Afghanistan due to the far-smaller U.S. troop levels in that country. (The ratio still pales in comparison to previous wars -- by some estimates, the Vietnam War ratio of deaths per 100,000 was more than 10 times higher: 667.)
UPDATE: In October 2009, the war in Afghanistan became even more dangerous for American soldiers and the discrepancy between the two wars widened even further, based on the number of deaths per boots-on-the-ground troop levels. The death ratio per 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan was about 88, compared to a death ratio of 7 in Iraq. Thus, a soldier was over 12 times as likely to be killed in Afghanistan as in Iraq.
Overall in 2009, the war in Afghanistan has been almost 6 times as lethal as the war in Afghanistan (the death ratio in Afghanistan this year is 56 compared to 10 in Iraq). See the chart below:
The recent upsurge in violence and the continuing challenges faced by U.S. forces in Afghanistan have some current and former members of the military beginning to question the U.S. presence in that country. A recent story by Brandon Friedman on VetVoice, a popular Website for veterans, states that "Afghanistan is now deadlier than Iraq ever was," adding that the fatality rate in that country from June through August would be equivalent to 353 deaths in Iraq -- "a rate not even seen during the bloody crescendo of 2007."
"When you see your friends getting blown up, it makes you question the war," Jose Vasquez, executive director of Iraq Veterans Against The War, which has also mobilized vets against the war in Afghanistan, tells The Huffington Post. "Absolutely, there is growing opposition to this conflict."
Still, most current and former military officials support the war in Afghanistan, unlike the 2007 "revolt of the generals" inspired by the Iraq War in which 20 retired U.S. generals broke ranks to express their criticism of the Bush administration for its handling of that conflict. Anthony Zinni, a former head of US Central Command, was highly critical of the Iraq war but supports Gen. Stanley McChrystal's counterinsurgency plan for Afghanistan, which reportedly involves an increase of at least 40,000 troops.
Amid increasing public disenchantment with the war, a growing chorus of conservatives is expressing its opposition.
In addition to pundits George Will and Tony Blankley, former Army officer Andrew Bacevich, who currently teaches history and international relations at Boston University, has been outspoken in his doubts about our engagement in the country.
"To continue and expand this war will unquestionably cost several hundred billion dollars, not to mention several hundreds lives. Is this the best way to spend that hundred billion dollars?" Bacevich tells The Huffington Post, explaining that outside powers who "impose their will in Afghanistan have not fared well."
But he remains skeptical that the administration is going to make the right decision. "I don't think there is any serious likelihood that this administration is going to recognize that the Afghanistan war is completely unnecessary and misguided. The president has already gone pretty far down the road and the political cost would be very high to reverse that course."
Earlier this year, hawkish commentator and retired Army lieutenant colonel Ralph Peters called for U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan, calling it "the wrong war in the wrong place a the wrong time. Instead of concentrating on the critical mission of keeping Islamist terrorists on the defensive, we've mired ourselves by attempting to modernize a society that doesn't want to be -- and cannot be -- transformed."
And Michael Savage, the right-wing talk radio star, lived up to his surname with his criticism of the Obama administration for continuing the war. On a recent broadcast, he barked: "[Obama's] cure for the war in Iraq was to amp up the war in Afghanistan by doubling the number of troops... but the bigger question is: Why are we there? What are we fighting for? You have any idea why men are dying and losing their legs?"
The following charts depict the monthly troop death ratios in each conflict from 2007-2009 and the three-month troop death ratios from 2003-2009:
Due to missing troop level numbers, the death ratios for October and November 2008 were not calculated though a rough estimate of the ratio is consistent with the overall trend.