Probably sometime in late May or early June, American military forces in Afghanistan will outnumber those in Iraq for the first time since 2003. This is a significant development. While an artificial milestone in some ways, it is worth noting, since it tells us a good deal about the two wars and where our efforts stand in each.
As of this writing in late April, we now have nearly 90,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and just under 100,000 in Iraq. Contractors employed by American firms and the American military roughly double these numbers in both places (though most of those hires are not Americans). The U.S. buildup in Afghanistan continues, as does the drawdown in Iraq, at the pace of a couple thousand GIs per month in Afghanistan and more than 5,000 a month in Iraq.
The total U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan is expected to total about 100,000 by summer’s end, at which point our military presence in Iraq will have declined further to 50,000. (Total international forces in Afghanistan already outnumber those in Iraq; that particular crossover occurred a couple months ago.)
At the peak of the surge in Iraq in 2007, there were about 170,000 uniformed Americans in Iraq (and a grand total of about 180,000 international forces). At that time there were just 25,000 GIs in Afghanistan (and almost as many additional foreign forces from other countries). So the shift has been very large over the last three years. When Barack Obama was inaugurated as president, U.S. troop tallies were about 140,000 in Iraq and 35,000 in Afghanistan.
Casualties for Americans are not comparable in the two places, however. They are much greater in Afghanistan now than in Iraq, by a ratio of roughly 5 to 1, and that imbalance will likely increase over the course of the year.
The crossover point also reminds us that the cumulative stress on our military forces from these two conflicts has not yet declined relative to recent years. Only late this summer and fall will the combined deployments really decline.