The U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan ended last week. Conditions in Afghanistan are mostly worse than before it began.
That conclusion doesn’t come from anti-war advocates. It relies on data recently released by the NATO command in Afghanistan, known as ISAF, and acquired by Danger Room. According to most of the yardsticks chosen by the military — but not all — the surge in Afghanistan fell short of its stated goal: stopping the Taliban’s momentum.
Of course, that’s not ISAF’s spin. The command notes that enemy attacks from January to August 2012 are slightly lower, by 5 percent, from that period last year; and that the past two Augusts show a reduction in attacks of 30 percent. But the more relevant comparison is to 2009, when Afghanistan looked like such a mess that President Obama substantially increased troop levels. And compared to 2009, Afghanistan does not look improved.
The chart above measures the various attacks the Taliban and associated insurgents launched against NATO forces, month by month. In August 2009, the peak of the fighting season and the height of the internal Obama administration debate over a troop surge, insurgents attacked U.S. and allied troops — using small-arms fire, homemade bombs, mortars and more — approximately 2,700 times. In August 2012, they attacked just shy of 3,000 times.
In August 2009, insurgents used just under 600 homemade bombs on U.S.-aligned forces. They used just over 600 homemade bombs on U.S.-aligned forces in August 2012.
The same trend holds for every other month in 2009 compared to every month in 2012 for which there is data: The insurgency launched more attacks this year. In some cases, substantially more: insurgents attacked about 2,000 times in July 2009 and a shade over 3,000 times in July 2012. ISAF registered about 475 attacks from homemade bombs in July 2009; and about 625 in July 2012.
Other data provided by ISAF, measuring the changes in attack patterns during the summer fighting seasons, show that the 30,000-plus surge troops cumulatively suppressed summer attacks in 2011 and 2012. 2012′s summer attacks have maintained 2011 levels — something recently acknowledged by Marine Gen. John Allen, who cautioned that any dip from 2011 “may not be statistically significant.”
But that suppressive force provided by the surge did not tamp down insurgent activity to levels seen in 2009, when Afghanistan looked sufficiently dire that a bipartisan consensus of Washington policymakers came to believe that a surge was necessary.
There are statistical exceptions to the rule reflected in the data. ISAF troops caused substantially fewer civilian casualties in 2012 than in 2009: in August 2012, for instance, ISAF judged itself responsible for perhaps 25 innocent deaths and injuries, compared to about 50 in August 2009. And civilian casualties caused by insurgents are also down somewhat from their 2009 levels, a sign that added U.S. troops helped protect Afghan lives. This data is consistent with patterns found independently by the United Nations.
And while it’s too soon to tell if a trend has developed, attacks in eastern Afghanistan — which the surge largely neglected — appear to be down from 2009 levels. At the same time, that might also be attributable to a change in insurgent attack patterns toward the massive, occasional assaults that the main insurgent operation in the east favors.
But now the surge is over, and debate on what it added up to begins. The end of direct U.S. combat in Afghanistan is scheduled for 2014, proposed by President Obama and endorsed as a “goal” by Republican challenger Mitt Romney, although the U.S. plans to keep substantial forces in Afghanistan beyond then. Meanwhile, the pathway “out” of Afghanistan, training Afghan forces, is imperiled by Afghan troops turning their guns on their U.S. mentors. There is little to no appetite within the country for another U.S. troop surge in what is now the U.S. longest war — and an unpopular one.
And there’s a number missing from ISAF’s latest set of war data. That’s 988 — the number of U.S. troops killed in action in Afghanistan or who died from their combat wounds since Obama announced the troop surge.