US combat deaths in Afghanistan have reached 2,312 on the day that marks the 25th anniversary of the Russian withdrawal from the troubled country.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan would last 9 years, see tens of thousands of young Soviet conscripts die, and almost one and a half million Afghans dead. The civil infrastructure of Afghanistan was utterly destroyed in the Soviet war, and whereas young women walking to university in flower power dresses could be seen in the late seventies, today that is unthinkable.
The Russian intervention came when the communist leaning dictatorship of Nur Muhammad Taraki started to crumble, because the deeply conservative country started seeing his rule as unislamic. Before Taraki, a long tradition of monarchy had existed in Afghanistan, before being abolished by a cousin of the king, who himself would later be executed by Taraki.
The US invasion occurred after the Sept. 11th attacks, when it became evident the leadership of al Qaeda was present in Afghanistan, and running a network of training camps. Whereas US combat deaths have not begun to approach the level of Soviet losses, which were never fully revealed, the cost to the US in lives and injuries has been significant.
Despite strong initial US gains in Afghanistan, that drove leading al Qaeda and Taliban figures out of the country and into Pakistan (allegedly airlifted by the Pakistani air force), after 2006 progress slowed dramatically. Indeed in 2006 when ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force, entered southern Afghanistan close to Pakistan, the resurgent Taliban made a fight of it. The southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand have seen the greatest fighting, and more US and coalition casualties than much of the rest of the country combined. Of 3,400 coalition casualties, 1,500 have been in Kandahar and Helmand.
US combat deaths in 2013 were less than a third of of 2010 peak, and this is due to the handover of responsibility to the ANA (Afghan National Army) and ANP (Afghan National Police). However, ANA and ANP deaths have exceeded 10,000 during the conflict and continue to rise.
The hope of a stable and peaceful Afghanistan lies with the ANA and ANP, however, the Taliban remain confident that they can match those forces when the US and the rest of the coalition withdraws this year. A Taliban spokesman described the US as “fleeing” the country.
However, negotiations are continuing between Washington and Kabul for a deal that will see 10,000 US troops remain in Afghanistan for training and counter terrorist operations. A looming issue in Afghanistan is that Hamid Karzai, who has been president since 2001, cannot run for a third term in office. Therefore there will be a very wide competition when elections take place again in April this year.
The Russians will mark their remembrance of their Afghan war with ceremonies all over the country. Although the government of Vladimir Putin has tried to rehabilitate the war in the eyes of Russians, the vast majority still see it as a disaster, and even a criminal exercise.
With the US withdrawal from Afghanistan being potentially incomplete, the fate of Bowe Bergdahl, the 27-year-old American soldier held as a POW by the Taliban, is uncertain. Bergdahl has been held for almost five years by the Taliban, and his release may not be possible while US troops remain in Afghanistan in significant numbers. It also means that US combat deaths will continue to creep up.