Twenty-nine years ago last week, the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan. The Red Army had intervened in 1979 to prop up Kabul’s socialist government in the face of mounting local resistance. The resulting war with the Afghan rebel fighters, who were known as “mujahideen” and backed by Pakistani and American intelligence, descended into bloody stalemate. Eventually, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev realized that nothing more could be gained militarily and withdrew his forces.
The U.S. is now bogged down in its own Afghan war of attrition. American forces attacked the country after 9/11 to neutralize al-Qaeda and dislodge the Sunni-fundamentalist Taliban regime in Kabul, which had given the group sanctuary. Seventeen years later, the conflict drags on, with no end in sight. President Trump’s decision last August to send in a surge of troops, intensify airstrikes, and crack down on neighboring Pakistan for supporting the Taliban has not yet tipped the balance in America’s favor.
But, while there are depressing parallels between the American and Soviet interventions in Afghanistan, there is one key difference: civilian suffering. An estimated 1 million civilians died in the Soviet war, compared with more than 31,000 in the U.S.-led effort. True, casualties have steadily increased, reaching a record high in 2016. But a U.N. report released late last week shows that civilian deaths actually fell by 9 percent in 2017, the first year-on-year drop since 2012.
Over 10,000 civilians were killed or injured as a result of the war in 2017, still a sizable and lamentable number. Sixty-five percent of those deaths were caused by anti-government insurgents, 20 percent by the Afghan security forces, U.S. military, and others. (One percent of the total was accounted for by Pakistani shelling, while the remainder of the deaths were attributed either to both sides or to unknown causes.) The percentage of casualties induced by suicide attacks increased in 2017 following a series of devastating attacks in Kabul last year, including a Taliban bombing in May that killed 90. Sectarian attacks also rose.
The main factor pushing down casualty rates was the lower number of civilians killed or injured in ground operations. The drop did not come about because there was less fighting — levels of violence were only slightly lower in 2017 than in 2016, according to the U.N. report — but because the Afghan military began taking greater precautions last year. Also, according to the Afghanistan Analysts Network, coalition airstrikes might have deterred the Taliban from launching major attacks against urban centers.
The main factor pushing down casualty rates was the lower number of civilians killed or injured in ground operations.
True, casualties from those airstrikes rose in 2017 by 7 percent. But the number of strikes rose at a much higher rate than resulting casualties, creating fewer casualties per airstrike than in 2016. “The reduced harm ratio,” the report says, “suggests improvements in targeting and civilian protection procedure.”
This is surprising, given the results of Trump’s hard-line stance and relaxed rules of engagement elsewhere. In 2017, American airstrikes in Iraq and Syria increased by 50 percent, while casualties escalated by an estimated 215 percent, according to the group Airwars. But in Afghanistan, Trump has done better than his liberal-humanitarian predecessor, President Obama, and he and his Afghan partners deserve more credit than they have received for reducing civilian harm.
Of course, the fall in civilian casualties may be a one-off. In other respects, the Afghan war is going badly. Last week a report by the Department of Defense inspector general described the conflict as a “stalemate,” concluding that U.S. efforts to seize back territory from the Taliban this year had failed. A recent BBC investigation found that the Taliban was openly active in 70 percent of the country. President Ghani’s government looks weaker by the day, and the American intelligence community has predicted that Afghanistan’s security will deteriorate this year.
Violence will surely continue until Kabul and its allies can reach a peace settlement with the Afghan Taliban. The Trump administration once explicitly supported finding a diplomatic solution to the conflict, and some preliminary discussions have taken place. But after a dreadful Taliban attack in Kabul last month, Trump changed course and seemed to reject further talks, shrouding the future of efforts to resolve the conflict in doubt.
So, yes, peace is still a long way off, and civilians will continue to suffer for as long as the war drags on. But, if the harm can be minimized, that is a good thing — no matter who controls the White House.