Rising US death toll in Afghanistan: lessons from history

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August 2011 has been the deadliest month for U.S. forces in Afghanistan since the conflict began nearly 10 years ago, with 66 US troops dead this month.  This includes the deadliest attack on US forces since the beginning of the conflict, when 30 US service members, including 17 Navy SEALS, were killed when Taliban forces shot down their helicopter.

It is worth recalling that Afghanistan has proved intractable for millennia.  Reviewing Peter Tomsen’s excellent new book, “The Wars of Afghanistan: Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts, and the Failures of Great Powers” , Jonas Blank writes in Foreign Policy Magazine:

” [Tomsen]  summarizes 3000 years of Afghan history, during which the Greeks, the Romans, the White and the Black Huns, the Mongols, the Moguls, the Persians, and the Turkmens all tried to dominate the land.  Every campaign eventually came to naught, either because the invader paid insufficient attention to local culture or because he sought to impose centralized control on ferociously independent tribes and clans.  The pattern was basically the same each time: a brutally competent conqueror sweeps through Afghanistan, wreaking enough carnage to terrify all his enemies into submission, but he soon finds himself mired in a swamp of tribal customs and feuds that he does not begin to comprehend. When he loses enough in men and gold, he retreats — not infrequently with fewer limbs than he had when he arrived”.

The escalating carnage of the past few months, which has included attacks on senior government officials, NATO troops, Afghan police and security forces, and civilians,  should raise serious questions about the US strategy in the country.   The surge in U.S. deaths comes as NATO is drawing down and handing over security control to national forces, and some 10,000 U.S. troops are scheduled to depart by year’s end.  But  U.S. military personnel are scheduled to remain in Afghanistan through the end of 2014. To date, the US “surge” in Afghanistan does not appear to have reduced violence or assisted in securing the country.   If we leave 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan for the next three years, what can we hope to achieve?  Or do we risk falling into the same quagmire that has ensnared empires for the past 3000 years?