43 American Soldiers Killed in First Month of Surge, 1,000 More Deaths Projected by Summer 2011
Forty-three American soldiers were killed in July, the first month of the surge in southern Afghanistan, one-third of the year's toll of 128 thus far. With Pentagon strategists forecasting 18-24 months of hard fighting in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, the current mortality rate would mean an additional one thousand American deaths by summer 2011. The total number of Americans killed in Afghanistan since 2002 is now 756.
Even with the Afghan war crowded out of media coverage by the economic crisis, March 2009 polling showed that 42 percent of Americans think the Afghanistan venture is a mistake, up from 30 percent in February. Those trend lines will continue as American casualties rise. "It is what we expected", a Pentagon official told the Los Angeles Times [7/07/09]
Meanwhile, a leading military strategist, Stephen Biddle, writes that a new antiwar movement will be harder for President Obama to overcome than the opposition to the Bush Administration wars. [see The American Interest, July/August 2009]. According to Biddle,
[Obama] heads a Democratic Party that is already divided on the Afghan war and likely to grow more so over time...Obama could face a situation in which a bipartisan antiwar coalition threatens the majority he will need to maintain funding for an increasingly unpopular war [since] votes on many budgets over several years will be needed to bring this war to a successful conclusion.
The war is a "hard sell", Biddle emphasizes, because "the strongest part of the Administration's case for war, the link between Afghanistan and al-Qaeda, is ultimately indirect." Beltway wags already are pointing out that the 9/11 attacks were launched from a safe haven in Hamburg, Germany, not from a cave in the Hindu Kush. With no al-Qaeda visible in Afghanistan, the US military strategy is focused on fighting the Taliban and other insurgents, which is tipping the conflict into "a popular revolt in some parts of southern Afghanistan", where "villagers in some districts have taken up arms against foreign troops to protect their homes or in anger after losing relatives in airstrikes", according to the NY Times' Carlotta Gall. [7/03/09]
By many accounts, the generals in Afghanistan soon will be asking for an escalation of more US troops for this fight against the popular revolt.
In Pakistan, where al-Qaeda and more than one Taliban exist, the US-supported offensive in the Swat Valley has sputtered towards a dangerous quagmire. The wealthy landowning class is unwilling to return, causing a "significant blow to the Pakistani military's campaign to restore Swat as a stable, prosperous part of Pakistan." [NYT, 7/29/09]. Ironically, American aid officials have been "almost completely neutered" in their efforts to win the hearts and minds of uprooted Pakistanis in refugee camps where, instead, Islamist and jihadist groups "openly work the camps", according to the Times' eyewitness account.
Meanwhile, the US is between Iraq and a hard place, as plans creep forward to withdraw 80,000 US troops in the coming year, and all 130,000 by 2011. Violence has been sharply reduced as a result of the 2007-2008 troop surge, subsidized payments to 90,000 Sunni insurgents paid not to shoot at American troops, and a strategic decision by the governing Shi'a coalition to play to nationalist opinion favoring the end to occupation. As American troops leave in the next years, underlying conflicts could expand violently, creating an unpredictable political embarrassment for the Pentagon and the Obama presidency.
This week a leaked Pentagon memo advised the US to "declare victory and go home." [NYT, 7/31/09]. Such a projection is a superpower fantasy, since there is unlikely to be any "victory" at all in Iraq. With American troops indeed going home or transitioning rapidly to Afghanistan, what troops will Obama deploy if there is a meltdown in Iraq? Or will those who caused the Iraq war exploit the opportunity to lay the blame for "losing Iraq" on Obama?
The Congressional Budget Office has projected the additional war costs for the next decade [FY 2009-FY 2018] as high as $865 billion, ten years being the projected length of a counterinsurgency campaign. The budgetary cost of Iraq, Afghanistan and the so-called Global War on Terror was projected by the CBO to be as high as $1.7 trillion in direct costs alone by 2018.