During March, the US forces suffered thirty casualties in the Afghanistan War, according to the casualty database of the Defense Department. This amount of casualties is a third higher than February, when there were twenty casualties. In addition to this monthly increase in casualties, the amount of soldiers wounded in action grew in March, with a total of 318 compared to 187 in February.
Despite these monthly increases, the amount of casualties and wounded soldiers in March were close to the same amount last year. In March 2010, the US forces suffered 26 casualties and 324 wounded soldiers. According to these statistics, the current level of violence in Afghanistan is slightly worse than this point in 2010.
However, keep in mind the current level of US troops in Afghanistan is at its highest point of the entire Afghanistan War, which began in October of 2001. There are currently 90,000 US troops stationed in Afghanistan. With an increased amount of troops, as well as the fact that US troops are “clearing areas that have never been cleared before,” we can assume these factors would cause an acceleration in the amount of casualties.
Though, the large acceleration in the amount of troops, as well as more rural fighting, has not correlated with a large acceleration in casualties. Albeit with a sense of optimism, this fact suggests the current level of violence in Afghanistan could be better than last year.
A quarterly comparison similarly suggests a slight improvement in the level of violence during 2011. Throughout the first three months of 2011, the US forces suffered 75 casualties. Comparably, there were 87 casualties in the first three months of 2010, which was also the deadliest year of the war with a total of 499 casualties. Therefore, the lower amount of casualties in the first quarter of 2011 compared to the first quarter of 2010 also suggests the current level of violence in Afghanistan could be better than the same point in 2010.
Meanwhile, President Obama confirmed a drawdown of US troops from Afghanistan [.pdf] beginning in December, but the size and scope of this drawdown is undetermined. As mentioned in the past, both Defense Secretary Gates and Vice President Biden have confirmed a US presence in Afghanistan at least until 2014, which suggests a quite modest drawdown in 2011.
Aside from the level of violence in Afghanistan influencing President Obama’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, the President will also consider the security capacity of the Afghan forces. A major goal of the Afghan operations is to train security officers in Afghanistan. In doing so, the Afghanistan National Security Forces could police the country, rather than US and NATO troops. For instance, Afghan forces currently have lead responsibility for security in the Kabul province.
In 2010, both the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police met their annual recruitment goals. The current recruitment goals are for the ANA to reach a total size of 171,600 and for the ANP to reach a total of 134,000 officers by the end of October 2011, according to a quarterly release from NATO [.pdf]. As of February, the ANA totaled 152,000 officers, whereas the ANP totaled 118,000 officers. In September of 2010 [.pdf], the ANA totaled 138,200 officers and the ANP totaled 120,500 officers.
Therefore, the ANA grew 14,200 troops in the past four months and will likely reach its annual goal for the second consecutive year, but the ANP may not reach its 2011 goal, as illustrated with the decrease of 2,500 officers from the ANA in the past four months. This decline of officers from the ANA also hints at a deeper problem with the recruitment of Afghan forces – attrition.
While NATO does not provide the attrition rate for the ANA, the attrition rate for the ANP was 24% in November 2010. In other words, 1 out of 4 officers were not sustained in the ANP. In addition to a high attrition rate complicating the recruitment process, another issue within Afghanistan is literacy. In 2009, 86% of new recruits were illiterate. Even though 1,200 instructors were recruited to address this issue, NATO currently estimates all Afghan forces will have a first grade level of literacy rate by the end of 2011.
Regardless of the challenges to the recruitment process, the six branches of the Afghan forces now total 270,000 officers. The current goal for October 2011 is to reach a total of 305,600 officers. Even though it appears the Afghan forces as a whole will meet their quantitative goals in 2011, the remaining question for President Obama is whether the quality of the Afghan forces allows for a withdrawal of US troops.
With the inclusion of the casualties in March, the total amount of US casualties in the Afghanistan War totals 1,510.