Afghan con­flict could be dead­lier than Syria

War is on track to in­flict 20,000 battle deaths in 2018, ex­perts say

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - WORLD -

KABUL — The Afghan con­flict could over­take Syria as the dead­li­est con­flict in the world this year, an­a­lysts said, as vi­o­lence surges 17 years af­ter the United States-led in­va­sion.

The grim assess­ment con­trasts sharply with the con­sis­tently up­beat pub­lic view of the con­flict from NATO’s Res­o­lute Sup­port mis­sion in Kabul, and un­der­scores the grow­ing sense of hope­less­ness in the war-torn coun­try.

It sug­gests that US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s much­vaunted strat­egy for Afghanistan is, like those of his pre­de­ces­sors, fail­ing to move the nee­dle on the bat­tle­field, ob­servers said, as a gen­er­a­tion of US cit­i­zens born af­ter 9/11 be­come old enough to en­list.

“The soar­ing ca­su­al­ties in Afghanistan and the po­ten­tial endgame in sight in Syria ... could leave Afghanistan as the world’s dead­li­est con­flict,” said Johnny Walsh, an Afghanistan ex­pert at the United States In­sti­tute of Peace.

“Most years have be­come the new ‘most vi­o­lent year’. This is con­tin­u­ally get­ting worse.”

The Syr­ian con­flict — which be­gan a decade af­ter Afghanistan’s — has claimed the lives of more than 15,000 peo­ple so far this year, ob­servers said.

Graeme Smith, a con­sul­tant for the In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group, said some in­di­ca­tions “sug­gest the Afghan war is on track to in­flict more than 20,000 battle deaths in 2018” — in­clud­ing civil­ians and com­bat­ants.

“That could ex­ceed the toll of any other con­flict, pos­si­bly even the war in Syria,” he added.

It would be a record high for Afghanistan, ac­cord­ing to the Upp­sala Con­flict Data Pro­gram, or UCDP, in Sweden, which put the to­tal num­ber of deaths on all sides of the con­flict at 19,694 in 2017.

Afghan civil­ian deaths have al­ready hit a record 1,692 in the first six months of 2018, a re­cent UN re­port showed.

Afghan In­te­rior Min­istry deputy spokesman Nas­rat Rahimi es­ti­mated 300-400 “en­emy fight­ers” were killed ev­ery week, but would not pro­vide fig­ures for civil­ians or gov­ern­ment forces.

Data for ca­su­al­ties suf­fered by Afghan se­cu­rity forces are not avail­able to the pub­lic af­ter Wash­ing­ton last year agreed to Kabul’s re­quest to clas­sify the num­bers.

Be­fore the black­out, ac­cord­ing to fig­ures pub­lished by the US Spe­cial In­spec­tor Gen­eral for Afghanistan Re­con­struc­tion, or SIGAR, there were more than 5,000 each year.

Most an­a­lysts be­lieve that num­ber un­der­states the re­al­ity on the ground. This year’s death toll for gov­ern­ment forces could be “hor­rific”, Smith said.

Tal­iban gains

The to­tal death toll has been ris­ing steeply since 2014, UCDP fig­ures show, the year NATO com­bat troops pulled out, leav­ing Afghan forces with the re­spon­si­bil­ity for hold­ing back the resur­gent Tal­iban.

This year, the vi­o­lence has been fanned by long-de­layed par­lia­men­tary elec­tions sched­uled for Oct 20 and re­newed ef­forts to en­gage the Tal­iban, Afghanistan’s largest mil­i­tant group, in peace talks.

The Tal­iban have made sig­nif­i­cant bat­tle­field gains, and the smaller Is­lamic State group, which first emerged in the re­gion in 2014, has also ramped up at­tacks.

De­spite the blood­shed, Gen­eral John Ni­chol­son, who un­til re­cently was the top US and NATO com­man­der in the coun­try, in­sisted last month that Trump’s strat­egy, which in­cludes the de­ploy­ment of thou­sands of ad­di­tional US forces and in­creased airstrikes, was work­ing.

More troops means more fight­ing and there­fore more ca­su­al­ties, said US Forces spokesman Lieu­tenant Colonel Pete Lupo, but oth­er­wise the mil­i­tary sit­u­a­tion “re­mains gen­er­ally a stale­mate”.

SIGAR data also sug­gests Trump’s plan has made lit­tle progress on the bat­tle­field.

The Tal­iban and other insurgents con­trol or in­flu­ence 14 per­cent of Afghanistan’s 407 dis­tricts, the watch­dog said in July — un­changed from last year, when Trump un­veiled his strat­egy.

The gov­ern­ment, mean­while, con­trols or in­flu­ences 56 per­cent — down from 57 per­cent in Au­gust 2017.

The rest of the coun­try is con­sid­ered “con­tested”.

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