KABUL, AFGHANISTAN (NYTIMES) - More than 28,000 Afghan police officers and soldiers have been killed since 2015, the Afghan President revealed this week, breaking with his government's long-standing suppression of casualty totals.
The admission from President Ashraf Ghani came during a particularly bad week for Afghanistan's beleaguered government forces, with at least 242 security force members killed from Nov 9 to 15, according to casualty reports compiled by The New York Times.
In the Jaghori district of Ghazni province, once regarded as the safest rural district in the country, an entire company of 50 elite commandos was wiped out, all but a handful killed or wounded.
Taleban insurgents also killed dozens of police officers and soldiers in a series of attacks in Farah province, and an additional 14 police officers in an attack on a police station in the central city of Ghazni.
Speaking by video link on Monday (Nov 12) from Kabul, the Afghan capital, to an audience at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, Mr Ghani noted that some 2,000 US soldiers had been killed in Afghanistan through 2014, at the end of which responsibility for security was handed to the Afghans.
"Since 2015, still much regrettable, but the entire loss of American forces in Afghanistan is 58 Americans. In the same period, 28,529 of our security forces have lost their lives," Mr Ghani said.
Here is some background:
1. What is the significance of the toll?
To put Ghani's figure in context, it means that the current death rate is on average about 25 police officers and soldiers a day, or 175 a week - more than 9,000 a year.
By comparison, in 2013, there were occasional weeks in which the death toll for the government exceeded 100, but the average was far less.
Even at that point, US commanders were alarmed.
"I view it as serious, and so do all the commanders," General Joseph Dunford Jr, the US commander in Afghanistan at the time, told The Guardian.
"I'm not assuming that those casualties are sustainable."
If the average week now is nearly twice as bad as a bad week in 2013, the losses are even less sustainable - although US military leaders are not talking publicly about that now.
The last time Mr Ghani's government gave official totals was in May 2017; after that, the information was treated as classified by the US military at the request of the Afghans.
Here is how the current rate is calculated. Mr Ghani said that 28,529 security force members had been killed since the beginning of 2015.
Previously released government data confirmed 5,000 deaths in 2015 and nearly 7,000 in 2016.
That leaves 16,529 over the past 23 months (Mr Ghani did not specify how up to date his figure was, but he spoke on Monday). Assuming, conservatively, that losses have held steady in 2017 and 2018, that is an average of about 175 a week.
2. Is it getting worse?
Losses have probably not held steady, however. In the week ending Thursday, at least 242 Afghan security forces were killed, according to a New York Times compilation, even though much of the country is already experiencing winter weather, when the fighting season traditionally ends or at least greatly slows down.
When the weather was still warm and the fighting season in full swing, Afghan forces suffered what might have been their worst week of fighting recorded so far in the week ending Sept 14, when more than 400 members of the security forces were killed.
3. Why are Afghan casualties so high?
On paper, the Afghan security forces are many times more numerous than the Taleban, but there is some indication that those numbers are inflated by "ghost" soldiers who have left or deserted without being removed from payrolls.
Even with a larger force, however, the government has been fighting a largely static war, guarding facilities, roads, bases and outposts throughout the country, while the Taleban have been free to pick their targets and concentrate their forces.
The US military has been pressing the Afghans to abandon that policy and not worry so much about guarding rural areas as protecting population centres.
At the same time, the government and the Americans have encouraged the training of more commando forces, which would in theory have the same mobility - backed up by air power - as the insurgents.
But most deaths among the Afghan security forces continue to be those of police officers and soldiers at relatively isolated outposts, as military leaders struggle with local politicians who want their areas protected.
4. Does this mean the Taleban are winning?
Some people think the Taleban are indeed winning, but Mr Ghani denied it in his speech to Johns Hopkins, as he has in other recent public remarks.
"Is the state at risk of collapse?" he said. "No. Why? Because as long as we have our commando forces and our air force, we will be able to retake. Are the losses horrific? Yes."
Afghan officials also insist that they are giving as good as they get, and killing large numbers of Taleban militants.
In fact, last year, the government claimed to have killed 13,600 insurgents and arrested 2,000 more, nearly half the insurgents' total strength, according to some estimates.
Verifying that claim is difficult; only in rare cases are the authorities able to produce bodies or photographs as evidence.
That is partly because the insurgents generally try to take away their dead, and unlike government casualties, they rarely end up in hospitals or morgues.
5. What about American losses?
Mr Ghani's figure that 58 Americans have been killed since 2015 is actually on the high side.
According to the special inspector's reports, 30 US soldiers were killed in Afghanistan from 2015 to 2017.
Nine more Americans have died so far this year, according to icasualties.org, which tracks war fatalities. (Mr Ghani's number may have included casualties from Nato and other members of the US-led coalition.)
The low number of American casualties reflects the fact that most of the fighting is being done by the Afghans.
Of the 14,000 US troops in Afghanistan now, only about half are Special Operations troops involved in combat missions.
By comparison, in 2011, there were more than 100,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan.
6. Are Afghan losses sustainable?
The central government in Kabul says that its forces have been able to recruit enough replacements to make up for their losses, but many individual recruiters at the provincial level have expressed doubt about that.
The government's own figures this summer showed that the Afghan National Army was at 85 per cent of its authorised strength.
In its latest report to Congress, the special inspector noted that since then, new attrition data for the Afghan army and the police has been classified by the US military.
Attrition includes losses from non-reenlistment, desertions and illnesses, besides battlefield casualties.