May 2010 Index Update: Afghanistan Picture is Troubling

Data from May is now available for the key battlegrounds of the Central Command area of operations, and there are important insights to be gained in each place. This blog entry focuses on Iraq and Afghanistan.

Iraq is the more straightforward of the two countries. At the risk of sounding Panglossian, it is still worth saying that in statistical and quantitative terms, the country continues its remarkable progress. Indeed, with apologies to colleagues in the news media, the impression commonly created of Iraq in recent months—of a country teetering on the edge of a return to large-scale violence—has not been particularly accurate. While Iraq remains troubled and politically fragile in the aftermath of the March 7 elections, the security scene looks fairly good. There were several moderate-scale attacks in May, to be sure, but the overall toll was not huge by Iraq’s own standards. Recent months have been reasonably acceptable too, averaging around 200 fatalities a month—still a tragic number to be sure, but down a factor of 15 from the peak of 2006-2007, and down at least modestly from the same period in 2009 (when U.S. forces were still actively helping Iraqi forces in Iraq’s cities).

Afghanistan is more complex and on balance much less reassuring. (Indeed, with 15 NATO soldiers killed in just two days the first week of June, the situation may get worse before it gets better.) Security incidents continue to climb, averaging almost 100 a day in May. (By contrast, at the worst of the violence in Iraq, there were about 200 such “incidents” of all types daily, though in Iraq they were typically more lethal.) That is only modestly worse than the rate for the same period last year but twice as bad as 2008 and three times as bad as 2007, roughly. Some of the increase is due to the greater presence of ISAF (and Afghan) forces, who are now seeking and making contact with insurgents more frequently. Indeed, the number of security events initiated by insurgent forces is up only modestly over the last three years. Unfortunately, the overall picture is troubling; while civilian fatalities from violence have grown only modestly, security forces are absorbing many more casualties than before 2009. No corner has yet been turned.