Remembrance is a time to reflect on the sacrifices of those who’ve suffered the hellish conditions of war. As a nation, we are familiar with the tribulations of soldiers who fought in the First and Second World Wars, along with the broad strokes of their commanders’ strategies.
The same, though, cannot be said for the ‘War on Terror’. Britain formally ended combat operations in Iraq in 2011 and Afghanistan in 2014, although military personnel still remain in both nations. 638 British troops have died during overseas operations since 2001. Yet the cumulative ways in which British soldiers lost their lives has not largely been publicly reflected upon.
To address this, Action on Armed Violence, a London-based research charity that investigates the causes and consequences of armed conflict, manually inputted every listed death of UK and US soldiers since 2001 into a database. This was an attempt to do what neither government nor civil society has done to date: to analyse how combatants have died since the ‘War on Terror’ began.
The lethal cost of these operations, in terms of service personnel, is a delicate subject, eliciting understandably strong emotions. Behind every number is an individual. However, it is only through analysing the collective data that we can hope to learn from, and possibly avoid, unnecessary loss of life in the future.
We found the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were defined by the Improvised Explosive Device (IED). These were the primary cause of death for both UK and US militaries, accounting for between half (UK) and two-thirds (US) of combat fatalities, where cause of death is known.
Considering the total size of deployments, a UK soldier was 26% more likely to be killed by an IED than their US counterpart. This was witnessed acutely in 2009 when 65% of all 109 British overseas operational deaths were from IEDs in Afghanistan, making it the UK’s deadliest year during the ‘War on Terror’.
For the US, the deadliest year was 2007, where 1,020 troops were killed. Comparing these peaks in fatalities, the UK was losing personnel at nearly twice the rate. In fact, comparing total deployments, the War on Terror was proportionately 12% deadlier for UK personnel than it was for US.
Afghanistan truly was the most fatally dangerous battlefield for UK troops, witnessing nearly three-quarters (71.2%) of all British overseas fatalities. Conversely, two-thirds of US fatalities were in Iraq.
Why was this? Well, in 2006, British forces moved into Helmand province, one of Afghanistan’s most volatile regions. Based at Camp Bastion, they faced regular attacks from the Taliban, prompting an increase in their total fighting force to over 10,000 by 2009. Even though the number of UK deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan was roughly the same, over the two decades, Afghanistan was nearly three times deadlier.
Indeed, such intense fighting meant UK troops were more than twice as likely to be killed by enemy gunfire than US personnel.
But IEDs and bullets were not the only threat. One in every seven UK fatalities was caused by an accident, primarily vehicular. For the US, it was nearly one in eight. Also, 21 British troops died from friendly fire, the third most common cause of combat death. How many of these accidents and mistakes were preventable?
War inherently brings with it a fog over transparency, and AOAV’s research showed that the US data was particularly opaque. The causes of 518 US non-combat deaths were unclear, which meant, based on available evidence, UK forces were proportionally over ten times more likely to die from friendly fire than their US counterparts and over fifty times as likely to die from suicide. This either reflects a concerning failure of UK military operational communications and troop welfare management or – more likely – a worrying refusal of the US military to publicly acknowledge friendly fire and suicide deaths.
The Great Leveller
What showed, too, was just how modern war is fought.
The IED emerged as the great leveller on the battlefield. Billions of pounds of training and equipment could not quell the threat of a home-made roadside, car or suicide bomb. As the proliferation of IEDs increased, military strategies had to change.
With coalition forces being led by a more risk-averse mindset from mid-2007, US military deaths more than halved (-55%) between 2007 – 2009. Britain also saw a short-term 40% reduction in fatalities, down from 91 in 2007 to 55 a year later. Such respite didn’t last, though – UK deaths doubled to 109 in 2009.
Between 2007 and 2009, civilian deaths also plummeted in Iraq and Afghanistan by nearly 20,000: a 72% decrease. To avoid shooting civilians, fearing they were suicide bombers, US and UK forces demonstrated what was referred to as ‘courageous restraint’ and ensured a higher bar in terms of rules of engagement were practised.
Yet in Iraq, as both UK and US troops withdrew, the dogs of war – once unleashed – began to bite. There was a quadrupling in civilian deaths (between 2012-14), peaking at 20,218 in 2014. Simply put, the instability created by the invasion of Iraq was not resolved by the time the US and UK departed.
Similarly in Afghanistan, just as UK and US forces were withdrawing in 2014, civilian deaths were at their highest since the conflict began – a 12-fold increase from 2002 – and has remained at that level even until now.
Back in the UK, the frequent news of military deaths combined with little discernible progress meant there was growing frustration at a war with no end in sight. By 2011, even the hawkish David Cameron pledged to end operations by 2015.
“I believe the country needs to know there is an endpoint to all of this,” he said. It was the experience of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that led parliament to reject military deployments to Syria in 2013.
In the same year that British combat troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan, the RAF began its airstrikes against Islamic State. Up to March 2020, it has dropped 4,409 bombs and missiles. While the RAF claimed 4,315 enemy combatants were killed and injured in Syria and Iraq, they acknowledged only one civilian death. Such a claim was greeted with scepticism by experts.
The threat of IEDs led to the strategic retreat of troops from battle. Force instead, was imposed by airstrikes, increasingly drones. Such a shift means, today, British forces face almost none of the risk their predecessors did a decade ago.
In terms of preserving British military lives, this is undoubtedly good. Yet civilians have not been offered the same protection. The instability created by US and UK deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq worsened when Coalition forces left. Islamic State expanded into the power vacuum in Iraq and the Taliban today remain a strong force in Afghanistan.
A desire to end a bloody, costly and unpopular war, spurred on by deadly IEDs, ultimately led to a huge loss of civilian life in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The modern conduct of Britain’s forces – a reliance on airstrikes and drones, a push toward ‘nimbler’ operations overseas – is the outcome of this War on Terror – a war that began with a suicide attack and continues, from a distance, today.
This is what we should not forget.
Read the full report here.
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