What the 2,000th American Death in Afghanistan Means: Taking Stock of an Eleven-Year War

On Saturday, September 29, the number of American troops killed in Afghanistan edged over 2,000, when an exchange of fire between American and Afghan soldiers resulted in the deaths of two Americans and three Afghans. Pentagon press secretary George Little dismissed the significance of the 2,000th death, calling it an “arbitrary milestone.” This might be true, but the incident undoubtedly comes at an important crossroads for the US-led effort in Afghanistan. It occurred just two days after Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the resumption of normal partnered operations between American and Afghan forces, and less than two weeks after the official end of the US troop surge. And moreover, this upcoming weekend will mark the eleventh anniversary of the start of the war, America’s longest to date. For all of these reasons, it’s worth examining what happened on Saturday and what it says about the state of things in Afghanistan. According to the New York Times, the incident was sparked by a mortar shell attack on American troops, who, assuming that Afghan forces were responsible, responded by firing rockets and killing several Afghan soldiers. NATO officials initially reported that the mortar shell incident was an insider attack by Afghan soldiers, but later suggested that insurgents may have been responsible. Regardless of the specifics, as Time’s Mark Thompson points out, “the bottom line remains the same: supposed allies are killing one another.” The incident indicates the continuing inability of American and Afghan forces to trust one another: insider attacks in 2012 have claimed the lives of 53 NATO coalition forces, if Saturday’s incident is counted. Matthew Rosenberg of the New York Times notes that, in another troubling sign of the divide between the supposed allies, American forces who visit Afghan Army outposts now “keep their body army on and their weapons loaded.” But more importantly, the weekend’s deaths highlight the coalition’s seemingly haphazard approach toward partnering with the Afghan forces. On September 16, NATO command called for a restriction on joint operations below the battalion level, a decision that apparently surprised both our British allies and commanders on the ground in Afghanistan.  Then, last Thursday, September 27, came Panetta's announcement that partnering efforts were back to normal. Yet, as Wired’s Spencer Ackerman noted later that same day, little had actually changed. The bureaucratic restrictions on lower-level joint operations remain in place: the operations still need two-star general approval, which means that in many cases they won’t take place. Saturday’s clash was an example of the effects of the new restrictions, because it occurred in the midst of an operation that ordinarily would have been a joint American-Afghan effort, but due to NATO’s new policy, was being carried out by Americans alone. The New York Times’ Rod Nordland suggested that this may have played a role in precipitating the attack, although Deputy ISAF commander Adrian Bradshaw denied it when asked. What happened on Saturday is important, and not just because American deaths reached a particular number. The number of casualties, and the circumstances under which those casualties occur, are direct products of unwise US and NATO decision-making. The sudden suspension of joint operations is one example, but President Obama’s recently concluded troop surge is another, bigger instance of our failed policy in Afghanistan. When additional troops were sent to Afghanistan as part of the surge, as Wired’s Ackerman suggested earlier this month, NATO policy never properly prioritized the training of Afghan troops,. Similarly, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, author of a new book on the Afghanistan debacle, argued that the surge encouraged Afghan soldiers to “hang back and let the Americans do the fighting.” These are just two ways in which the surge seems to have hindered, not helped, America’s efforts. The surge may technically be over, but every day we’re seeing more tragic evidence of its ineffectiveness – which means that every day, policymakers and voters should be taking a hard look at the true costs of war, and the casual dismissal of those costs in our mainstream political debate.