Afghan Death Toll Rises; Media Interest Declines

The war is more deadly than ever, so why does Obama get a free pass?

The war in Afghanistan gets little attention by the mainstream media these days. But the loss of American lives continues to mount. Just last week, seven U.S. troops were killed by a powerful bomb which had exploded in a field where they were patrolling on foot. At least twenty-eight Americans have been killed in May, 2011 alone, according to the Associated Press.

To date, the Department of Defense has identified 1582 American service members who have died as part of the Afghanistan war and related operations, the majority of whom were killed since President Obama took office. During the Obama administration, more American service members have died in Afghanistan than during all the prior years since the Afghanistan war began in 2001.

For the U.S. military, 2010 was the deadliest year of the Afghanistan war so far. 499 service members died. Additionally, there were 5,182 US forces wounded in 2010. This represents more than half of all U.S. forces wounded in the entire Afghanistan war, which totaled 9,957 at the end of 2010.

The total U.S. military deaths compiled by the Defense Department for Operation Enduring Freedom for the years 2001 through 2010 are as follows:

Total Number of Military Deaths by Year

2001  2002   2003  2004  2005   2006   2007   2008   2009   2010

11       49       45       52      98       83      106     155     311     499

Two factors have contributed to the increase in American fatalities during the Obama administration. The first reason is President Obama's decision in December 2009 to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. This Obama "surge" represented a major escalation of America's military presence there, putting more of our soldiers in harm's way.

The second factor contributing to the increase in American fatalities since President Obama took office has been the more restrictive rules of engagement that the Obama administration has put in place to reduce the likelihood of civilian casualties. These rules, although loosened somewhat under General Petraeus, have restricted the use of air power and heavy weaponry in populated areas and prohibited our troops from shooting at the enemy unless fired upon first. This has the effect of shifting more of the risk of engagement from the Taliban and its allies to our own troops.

While statistics of civilian casualties resulting directly from NATO and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) military action have shown a decline during the last two years as stricter rules of engagement have been implemented to protect civilians from harm, civilians are still losing their lives from NATO attacks.

In the most recent example, on May 30, 2011 a NATO airstrike killed at least nine civilians in Afghanistan, including several women and children.

This latest incident occurred less than three months after NATO helicopter gunners had killed nine boys collecting firewood to heat their homes in the eastern Afghanistan mountains, mistaking them for Taliban insurgents. The killing of the nine boys, in turn, occurred less than two weeks after tribal elders in the Pech valley area of Kunar province had claimed NATO forces killed more than fifty civilians in air and ground strikes, a claim denied by NATO.

These are not isolated incidents. NATO airstrikes, including on houses where Taliban insurgents are believed to be hiding, have inflicted a heavy toll on Afghan civilians. Angered by the latest civilian deaths, President Hamid Karzai said on May 31st he will no longer allow NATO airstrikes on houses.

"If this is repeated," Karzai warned, "Afghanistan has a lot of ways of stopping it, but we don't want to go there." He said that NATO forces risk being seen as an "occupying force," utilizing one of the Taliban insurgents' key talking points.

NATO officials apologized for the latest incident, but responded to Karzai's threat that airstrikes on houses are essential and will continue.

Moreover, despite more U.S. troops committed to fighting the anti-government terrorist forces and providing more security to civilians, the number of civilian deaths at the hands of the terrorist forces has actually increased during the first two years of the Obama administration.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) issues annual reports with statistics, which constitute the most reliable source available for data on civilian casualties.

The following describes the data on civilian deaths in Afghanistan from UNAMA reports for the first two years of the Obama administration, with some comparisons to prior year figures during the Bush administration:

2007: Total = 1523;  2008: Total = 2118;  2009: Total = 2412;  2010: Total = 2777

UNAMA recorded a total of 2,412 civilian deaths during 2009. This figure represented an increase of 14% on the 2118 civilian deaths recorded in 2008. Of the 2,412 deaths reported in 2009, 1,630 (67%) were attributed to the Taliban and other terrorist insurgents and 596 (25%) to NATO, ISAF and other pro-government forces. The remainder of reported civilian deaths could not be clearly attributed to any particular side.

According to UNAMA's report on 2009 civilian casualties, "At least 5,978 civilians were killed and injured in Afghanistan during 2009, the highest number of civilian casualties recorded since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001... The conflict has intensified and spread into areas that previously were considered relatively secure. This has resulted in increasing numbers of civilian dead and injured and with corresponding devastation and destruction of property and civilian infrastructure."

For 2010, UNAMA recorded a total of 2,777 civilians killed. 2,080 deaths (75 per cent of total civilian deaths) were attributed to Taliban and other terrorist insurgents forces, while 440 deaths or 16 per cent of total civilian deaths were attributed to NATO, ISAF and other pro-government forces. Nine per cent of civilian deaths in 2010 could not be attributed to any particular side.

While civilian deaths caused by NATO, ISAF and other pro-government forces did go down in 2010 when compared with 2009, overall civilian deaths increased because of the Taliban and their allies. And aerial attacks by NATO and other international forces supporting the Afghan government continued to cause significant civilian losses.

Thus, during the Obama administration, American military fatalities are way up, compared with previous years, while the civilian population in Afghanistan is less secure from terrorist attacks. Despite this murky record, the Obama administration is trying to put a positive spin on the course of the war in Afghanistan.

In a cautiously optimistic year-end 2010 report, the Obama administration said:

Specific components of our strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan are working well and there are notable operational gains... The accelerated deployment of U.S. and international military and civilian resources to the region that began in July 2009 and continued after the President’s policy review last fall has enabled progress and heightened the sense of purpose within the United States Government, among our coalition partners, and in the region. As a result, our strategy in Afghanistan is setting the conditions to begin the responsible reduction of U.S. forces in July 2011.

The target for completing transition responsibility for Afghanistan security to the Afghans is 2014. But as the Obama administration report indicates, America's commitment as defined by the Obama administration will not end in 2014: "Beyond these targets, and even after we draw down our combat forces, the U.S. will continue to support Afghanistan’s development and security as a strategic partner."

How many troops would begin to come out this year and what conditions on the ground would affect the pace of withdrawal, the report did not say. Nor did the report mention the increased number of American military casualties or the overall increase in civilian casualties since Obama's surge began.

In fact, the administration's Afghanistan progress report grossly distorted the security situation in declaring: "The surge in coalition military and civilian resources, along with an expanded special operations forces targeting campaign and expanded local security measures at the village level, has reduced overall Taliban influence and arrested the momentum they had achieved in recent years in key parts of the country."

The UN data on civilian casualties cited above, documenting a significant rise in insurgent-caused deaths during 2010, give the lie to the Obama administration's rosy claim that its surge has "reduced overall Taliban influence." More American soldiers are dying while the Afghan civilian population is less safe.

The New York Times and other left-wing media outlets would have been all over the Bush administration for much less spin than the Obama administration's blatant distortion of the facts on the ground. But they give the Obama administration a free pass. The New York Times has gone so far as to defend Obama's Afghan surge decision, which has yet to bring us closer to victory, in contrast to its incessant drumbeat against George W. Bush's Iraq surge decision, which turned out to be a great success.

Unlike during the height of the Iraq War, when The New York Times and other mainstream media treated both civilian casualties and American military casualties as front page news, the mounting civilian and American military death toll during President Obama's escalation of the Afghanistan war is treated as little more than a sidebar.

As the 2012 presidential campaign approaches, we can expect more attempts by the mainstream media to downplay or obscure the human toll of the Afghanistan war and the quagmire it has become under President Obama.

Joseph Klein is the author of a recent book entitled Lethal Engagement: Barack Hussein Obama, the United Nations and Radical Islam.