September 2, 2008
The August death toll of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan
reached 45 on Sunday—the equal highest monthly total of the
near seven-year war. A Romanian soldier providing protection to
a supply convoy was killed when the vehicle he was travelling
in drove over a mine that had been planted on the main highway
connecting the capital Kabul with the country’s eastern provinces.
Three other Romanian soldiers were seriously wounded.
Twenty-one of August’s fatalities were American troops.
In Iraq, where there are more than four times as many US personnel,
the death toll was 22. Given the typical ratio of five wounded
for each death, it is likely that over 100 American soldiers suffered
some degree of injury during August in the Afghan theatre.
France lost 10 dead and 23 were wounded when insurgents ambushed
a patrol to the east of Kabul on August 18. Five Canadian, three
Polish and two British soldiers died. Germany, Denmark and Latvia
lost one each. The total number of US and NATO deaths so far in
2008 now stands at 198.
There is no precise figure for the number of casualties suffered
by the Afghan government army and police but, according to figures
made public last month, an average of 150 police are being killed
The NATO-commanded International Security Assistance Force
(ISAF) currently has some 52,000 troops at its disposal and faces
a guerilla insurgency that is beginning to rival the most intense
stages of the resistance in Iraq during 2006 and 2007. Insurgents
loyal to the Taliban regime that was overthrown by the US invasion
in 2001 are extending their attacks on NATO targets from the ethnic
Pashtun provinces of southern Afghanistan to areas around Kabul.
A separate 19,000-strong American-commanded force operating
in the mountainous and difficult terrain along the eastern reaches
of the Afghan-Pakistan border faces well-organised opposition
directed by former Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Hekmatyar—a
favourite of the CIA during the guerilla war against the Soviet
occupation force in Afghanistan in the 1980s—is believed
to be operating from safe havens in the Federally Administrated
Tribal Agencies (FATA) of Pakistan.
The 71,000 foreign troops are reinforced by the 65,000-strong
Afghan government army. It is so poorly equipped, however, that
few of its units are capable of operating without US/NATO air
support, logistics and intelligence.
The number of fighters at the disposal of the Taliban and Hekmatyar
is the subject of wildly divergent estimates. The main Taliban
commander, Jalaluddin Haqqani, may be able to call upon the services
of 15,000 to 20,000 men. Hekmatyar, who has only returned to prominence
in Afghanistan over the past four years, most likely commands
a far smaller force. Despite suffering thousands of dead and wounded
each year from US air strikes or in one-sided clashes with far
better armed American and NATO forces, both wings of the insurgency
have been able to sustain their guerilla operations. Islamist
militants from other parts of the world are believed to be assisting
the native Afghan insurgents—as they did during the Soviet-Afghan
war. The estimates of how many range from 500 to as high as 8,000.
The ferocity of the fighting has transformed a British-operated
hospital at Camp Bastion in Helmand province into what a doctor
described as the "busiest trauma hospital in the world".
It treats over 100 patients a week, "more than half with
major trauma from explosions and requiring surgery," according
to a Reuters report on August 29. The casualties include US/NATO
troops, Afghan army and police personnel, Taliban fighters and
civilians. Among the wounded in the facility on the day that reporters
visited was an infant girl no older than 18 months who had been
hit by US fire in a "mistaken attack on civilians".
She was not expected to survive.
One of the major targets of the insurgents are US and NATO
supply convoys travelling from the Pakistani port city of Karachi
to Afghanistan via mountain passes in Pakistan’s FATA. According
to tribesmen in the Khyber Pass region interviewed last week by
the British Sunday Telegraph, an attack takes place against
convoys en route to Kabul virtually every day. "You see vehicles
destroyed by rockets on the side of the road," a local tribal
leader reported. "The wreckage isn’t there for long.
The [Pakistani] Army soon removes it to make it look as if they
are still in control of the road, but they are on the verge of
According to the Telegraph, US military equipment looted
from ambushed supply convoys is openly sold in various markets
in the Pakistani city of Peshawar. Their journalists reported
seeing helmets, uniforms, maps, entrenching tools, ration packs
and service medals.
Contractors, not military personnel, drive most of the supply
vehicles running goods into Afghanistan. Many are Afghans or Pakistanis
lured into this dangerous work by the promise of significant sums
of cash. While updated figures are not available, at least 80
contractors had been killed as of June 2007 and at least another
879 wounded. In the past several months alone, the deaths of dozens
more have been reported.
Afghan civilian deaths for the year climbed to near 1,000 last
month due to the massacre on August 22 of more than 90 men, women
and children in a US air strike on the village of Azizabad in
the western province of Herat. The Bush administration and the
US military are still denying the killings took place.
Last Thursday, German troops shot dead a woman and two children
who were in a car that allegedly did not slow down fast enough
as it approached a checkpoint in the northern city of Kunduz.
In apparent retaliation, a roadside bomb hit a German patrol on
the outskirts of the city on the weekend, though no casualties
Hundreds of Afghans took to the streets of Kabul yesterday
to protest over what they claim is the latest atrocity against
civilians by US/NATO troops. A man and his two infant children
were allegedly shot dead in their house during a raid by occupation
troops on the outskirts of Kabul. In the eastern province of Paktika,
ISAF has admitted that artillery fire called in yesterday to support
ground troops struck civilian dwellings and killed three children
and wounded at least seven other non-combatants.
Fighting is likely to intensify in Afghanistan, particularly
in the east, over the coming weeks due to developments over the
border in Pakistan. The Pakistani government on the weekend suspended
several military offensives against Taliban-linked militants in
the Bajaur agency of the FATA and the Swat Valley district of
North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
Initially, the ceasefire was justified on the grounds of allowing
hundreds of thousands of civilians who have fled the fighting
to return to their homes for the Muslim season of Ramadan. The
real motive is more likely the September 6 vote in the Pakistani
parliament to install a new president, following last month’s
resignation of former dictator Pervez Musharraf.
The candidate of the governing People Party of Pakistan (PPP),
Asif Ali Zardari, faces challenges from two other candidates.
The Islamist party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam and politicians from NWFP
have made ending the military offensives the price for supporting
Zardari. Many religious and ethnic Pashtun Pakistanis sympathise
with the resistance to the US/NATO occupation in Afghanistan and
view the anti-Taliban operations in the FATA as an unjustified
proxy war on behalf of the United States.
The month-long ceasefire will enable insurgent forces that
dispersed or went to ground to avoid air strikes to regroup and
cross back into Afghanistan. Hekmatyar is believed to operate
from Bajaur, under the protection of local Pakistani Taliban warlords.
There have been reports that a significant number of foreign Islamist
militants are also in the agency.
In July, an insurgent assault on a US outpost in the Konar
village of Wanat, just miles from the border with Bajaur, led
to a major battle and left nine American troops dead and 15 others
wounded out of a total garrison of 45. Last week, another small
US post in Konar came under attack but the assailants were driven