Despite record setting pace for U.S. military fatalities in Afghanistan in 2010, the rate of fatalities per troops on the ground is on pace for a 6-year low and a 24 percent decrease from 2009

Barack Obama’s surprise visit to Afghanistan on Sunday – his first as Commander in Chief – shifted the focus, for the moment, away from the tense domestic battles over the aftermath of the passage of health care reform and onto the President’s most ambitious foreign policy initiative.

Part of the President’s strategy to root out Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents and to stablize the Afghanistan-Pakistan region has been a surge in U.S. troops in Operation Enduring Freedom – a surge the administration hopes will replicate the success from a 2007 troop surge in Iraq, though in a very different theater of military conflict.

While the President is experiencing increasingly harsh criticism from the left for continuing and escalating the war launched by George W. Bush in 2001, and although U.S. troop deaths are on pace for a record high this year, there might be some good news for the President that the surge is working.

A Smart Politics analysis of Department of Defense data finds that the current U.S. Military fatality rate in Afghanistan is on pace for a 24 percent decrease from 2009, when comparing the ratio of the number of U.S. troops killed to the average monthly number of ‘boots on the ground.’

In fact, the rate of U.S. fatalities in Afghanistan is currently on pace for its second-lowest rate across the 10 years of the conflict – at a projected 4.46 deaths per 1,000 troops on the ground.

Of course, this news is not an easy sell to the American public, let alone the left wing of Obama’s party, when the raw number of U.S. deaths is still increasing. And, of course, there is no guarantee this rate will hold throughout the year.

Through Monday, 84 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan in 2010 – on pace for 348 deaths for the year. U.S. military fatalities have increased in each of the previous three years, from 98 in 2006, to 117 in 2007, to 155 in 2008, to a record 316 in 2009.

The Obama troop surge hopes to reverse the trend in increasing rates of troop fatalities that has occurred over the past three years:

· In 2006, there were 98 U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan with an average monthly troop level of 20,400 U.S. troops, for a ratio of 4.80 fatalities per 1,000 troops on the ground.
· In 2007, there were 117 U.S. troop fatalities with an average monthly troop level of 23,700 – a 2.8 percent rise in the fatality rate to 4.94 per 1,000 troops.
· In 2008, there were 155 U.S. military deaths with an average of 30,100 troops on the ground, for an increase in the fatality rate of 4.3 percent, to 5.15 deaths per 1,000 troops.
· In 2009, the number of deaths more than doubled to 316, the average number of troops on the ground rose to 54,100, and the fatality rate increased 13.4 percent to 5.84 deaths per 1,0000 troops.

Obama’s latest surge of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, 9,000 of which are now in place according to the Department of Defense, has coincided with a fatality rate that is on pace for the lowest for U.S. troops since 2004.

With an an increase in personnel to 83,000 (with a monthly average of approximately 78,000 for 2010 thus far), and troop fatalities currently at 84, the U.S. military is on pace for a 4.46 fatality rate per 1,000 troops, which would be a drop of 23.6 percent drop from 2009.

This assumes, of course, that the fatality rate through the first quarter of 2010 holds for the rest of the year. However, some of the bloodiest months of the Afghanistan conflict have been in the summer months of June, July, and August (e.g. 2008, 2009). If this happens again in 2010, the fatality rate would likely increase as well from this current projection.

But when looking at the U.S. military fatality rate for just the months of January through March, the rate in 2010 (1.08 deaths per 1,000 troops) is down 8 percent from 2009 (1.17 deaths/1,000) and far below the record highs of 2002 (5.33) and 2003 (2.40).

Overall, 2010 ranks in the middle of the most bloody months of January, February, and March over the past decade.

Sustaining this declining rate of military fatalities is, of course, part of the U.S. military’s objective. Although more soldiers on the ground means more are at risk of being killed, the hope is that troop levels can reach an optimal number to kill more insurgents, train more Afghan personnel, provide more protection so that stability is increased and sustained in the region, and thus decrease the rate (and ultimately number) of U.S. troop fatalities.

It is, of course, politically difficult for the Obama administration to brag about a drop in the rate of U.S. troop deaths, when the death toll itself is still rising year-to-year (and is on record pace again in 2010).

However, this data is a bit of good news for the President, who is trying to replicate some of the end result successes of the 2007 troop surge in Iraq, but also trying to avoid the political hit his predecessor took among a war-weary constituency during that surge’s implementation and the immediate months thereafter.

Fatality Rate for U.S. Troops in Afghanistan, 2001-2010 (per 1,000 troops)

Ave troop level
% change
84 (348*)

* Projected out for 2010 at current pace through March. Troop level data from the Department of Defense. Fatality rate data from Table compiled by Smart Politics.

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  1. CJ on March 30, 2010 at 11:34 am

    We are enjoying a ‘honeymoon’ right now. Insurgents will mount a new offensive as they have heavily increased their recruitment efforts around the world.

  2. James on April 1, 2010 at 1:29 am

    There is no doubt that the insurgents are looking for opportunities to strike our forces, especially after our recent success with deployments deep into their strongholds. Training and equipping Afghan forces as quickly as possible is going to be the key factor in reducing casualties.

  3. Kirk the Conservative Jerk on April 1, 2010 at 4:02 pm

    Thats good because last year under Obama, death was at an extremely high level. More than double any other year and hardly a peep!

    Anyone notice the absence of the “death toll counter” being broadcast by the media. Remember how NBC, CBS, ABC would broadcast this at least once a week? You could practically walk up to anyone on the sidewalk in 2008 and ask them what the death toll was in Iraq or Afghanistan, and the could tell you. But those were the Bush years…
    They wouldn’t want to tarnish Obama.

  4. Marc W. Herold on April 4, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    Any one following the military dimensions of the Afghan war would know that the level of U.S military deaths for 2010 will greatly exceed the 2009 level. A comparison of Jan-March for 2009 and 2010 indicates the level is already double, e.g., 43 for 2009 and 87 for 2010. In other words, if the three months’ trend for 2010 continues, the total level for 2010 will be about ~600, giving a rate of 7.69 under the war president, Barack Obama! Propagandistic, wishful thinking in above article.

  5. Rudy on April 11, 2010 at 9:15 pm

    Dicking around for 8 years in Afghanistan is obscene, especially if our best outcome is ‘not lose.’ To restate the obvious one more time, we are mistaking the sunk-cost fallacy for a strategy.

    Were our nation’s affluence unbounded, the lives of our young soldiers of no value, and the rest of our global interests happy to idle while we mess around in the Middle East, it might be a nice hobby to play this game a bit longer. But with the realities we have, our best course is to reset the registers to their positions antebellum and write off Bush’s Folly in Iraq and his colossally mismanaged war in Afghanistan as no longer in the national interest to pursue.

    Win? Lose? Why not ‘Abandon?’

  6. CJ on August 9, 2010 at 8:31 pm

    I agree, it is no longer in our national interests to be in Afghanistan. It has become nothing but a money pit and a killing field for soldiers and civilians as well. Ten medical aid workers in Afghanistan were massacred. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the killings, accusing the group of being spies and Christian missionaries. This group, International Assistance Mission, a Christian aid group has operated in Afghanistan since 1966. This is proof that the insurgency has turned even more vicious in recent months. Eight years, what have we accomplished?

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