It's a grim gauge of U.S. wars going in opposite directions: American and allied combat deaths in Afghanistan in May passed the monthly toll in Iraq for the first time.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates used the statistical comparison to dramatize his point to NATO defense ministers that they need to do more to get Afghanistan moving in a better direction. He wants more allied combat troops, more trainers and more public commitment.
More positively, the May death totals point to security improvements in Iraq that few thought likely a year ago.
But the deterioration in Afghanistan suggests a troubling additional possibility: a widening of the war to Pakistan, where the Taliban and al-Qaida have found haven.
By the Pentagon's count, 15 U.S. and two allied troops were killed in action in Iraq last month, a total of 17. In Afghanistan it was 19, including 14 Americans and five coalition troops. One month does not make a trend, but in this case the statistics are so out of whack with perceptions of the two wars that Gates could use them to drive home his point about Afghanistan.
Even when non-combat deaths are included, the overall May toll was greater in Afghanistan than in Iraq: a total of 22 in Afghanistan, including 17 Americans, compared with 21 in Iraq, including 19 Americans, according to an Associated Press count.
Gates stresses success
The comparison is even more remarkable if you consider that there are about three times more U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq than in Afghanistan. Since the Iraq war began in March 2003, there have been just under 4,100 U.S. deaths — including more than 3,300 killed in action — according to the Pentagon's count. In the Afghan campaign, which began in October 2001, the U.S. death total is just over 500, including 313 killed in action.
"It's important that we live up to our pledges in both the civilian and military spheres as necessary for success in Afghanistan," Gates said Friday, concluding two days of NATO defense minister talks that produced few signs of optimism about the Afghan war.
Gates made a point upon taking his Pentagon post in December 2006, amid great and growing U.S. public doubt about Iraq, that he was deeply concerned about backsliding in the less publicized and less unpopular war in Afghanistan. He seems even more troubled now.
And he appears less patient with the allies, aware that much of the European population is unconvinced by the American argument that al-Qaida in Central Asia — whether it's Afghanistan, Pakistan or the largely ungoverned areas along their mountainous frontier — poses a grave danger to Europe as well as to the United States.
Gates said that when it came his turn to talk at Thursday's defense ministers meeting on Afghanistan he tossed aside the remarks his aides had prepared for him and stated his case as sharply and directly as he could.
"I told them my expectations are simple: I expect government decisions and actions to match government rhetoric," he said. It was then that he mentioned the May casualty figures. And he noted that since the NATO meetings got under way on Thursday, three more coalition troops — reportedly two from Britain and one from Romania — had been killed in Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan the United States has ceded overall command authority to a NATO-led force known as the International Security Assistance Force, although that force is led by an American general. In Iraq the military effort is overwhelmingly U.S., partnering with Iraqi forces.
NATO has no direct combat role in Iraq. In Afghanistan, several allies are taking a fighting role, but most have shied away, preferring to contribute in other ways such as humanitarian assistance.
The relatively low U.S. death toll in Iraq in May continues a trend of declining violence against Americans as well as Iraqi civilians, although the situation there remains fragile. If the trend continues — which is far from a certainty — then U.S. officials may decide to withdraw more U.S. troops in the second half of the year and perhaps beyond. That would enable the Pentagon to send more troops to Afghanistan — for combat and for training Afghan forces.
And that's just what the next president may have to do unless things begin turning around in Afghanistan.