Who's paying the ultimate price?

Casualties among Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan are hitting the highest ranks the hardest, a CBC news analysis shows. But Canada is also losing non-military personnel, and more soldiers are succumbing to injuries not related to combat.
Canadian soldiers get ready to go on patrol from Kandahar air field in southern Afghanistan. ((Joe Bryksa/Canadian Press))
There are many ways to measure the cost of conflict. Counting casualties just might be foremost among them.

In Afghanistan, Canada's soldiers take incredible risks on an almost daily basis. They are part of a big international mission to help a country beset by 30 years of war. And Canada is losing soldiers in that country each year.

Canada has also lost diplomats and aid workers, who have both been attacked and killed in Afghanistan.

But what is going on in Afghanistan is outright war — however unconventional — and those who are most often killed or wounded are uniformed members of the Canadian Armed Forces.

Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan: by year

4 2002
2 2003
1 2004
1 2005
36 2006
30 2007
22 to Sept. 2008

So far, it appears that Canadian casualties have fallen in recent years from a high in 2006, when this country's forces took part in major offensives around Kandahar. Whether this continues depends on the nature of future operations, the changing face of the NATO and U.S. deployments in the country, and other factors.

Statistics also show that fatalities have been high amongst the most experienced soldiers, who are often married and have families. Non-combat related injuries appear to be increasing, perhaps because medical personnel are more finely attuned to stress-related illnesses and other issues. 

Infantry and ground forces affected

Because the the Taliban are a guerrilla force that uses ground-based tactics, most Canadian casualties are also ground forces — they make up well over half members of the infantry between April 2007 and August, 2008.

The armoured services, artillery, special forces, military police, engineers and staff officers have each suffered their own share of the casualties, despite smaller deployments.

So have medics: Canadian soldiers go into action accompanied by trained paramedics who carry both side-arms and a medical bag. The run the same risks as combat soldiers and at least five have paid the ultimate price.

Among Canadian regiments, the western Canada-based Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry has suffered more casualties than any other, reflecting the fact that is has been taking part in Afghan deployments since 2002.

However, statistics from the Department of National Defence (DND) reflecting the number of Canadian Forces members injured in Afghanistan reveal much less detail about victims.  In part, DND says this is for operational reasons. Such concerns are fairly standard across Western military forces. The rationale is that releasing a constant stream of information about casualties helps opposing forces fine-tune their attack strategies.

It's different with military deaths. These are almost always disclosed in considerable detail as soon as next of kin can be notified.

Bombs have killed more than combat

The DND maintains a constantly up-to-date website to honour Canadian soldiers who have fallen in Afghanistan. So does the CBC, as well as other media outlets.

By the numbers: Cause of soldiers' deaths

Roadside bombs/IED/mines            46

Suicide bombs                               11

Firefight/insurgent attack                24

Friendly fire/firearms discharge        7

Other, including road accidents                  8

As of September 2008, more than half of Canadian military deaths were from bomb blasts, either the booby-trapped, remotely detonated devices known as IED's (improvised explosive devices) or a suicide attack by an enemy combatant wrapped in high explosives.

That toll could decline as Chinook helicopters rented by the Canadian Forces come into service early in 2009, replacing ground vehicles as way to move soldiers and re-supply forward bases. Military experts warn that Afghan insurgents have shot down Chinooks several times, including an incident in May 2007 when a Canadian, Master Cpl. Darryl Priede, was among seven North Atlantic Treaty Organization soldiers killed.

A subtle shift in emphasis in Canadian military and civilian operations in Kandahar province could also change the nature of casualties in the province, say analysts. In recent months, Canadian and Afghan forces are spending more time in what are known as forward operating bases, small, fortified outposts in outlying districts. This is a practice that's expected to continue as aid from Canada is used to develop certain so-called "signature projects" in the province. One example is the Dahla irrigation dam, outside Kandahar city.

Such garrisons are intended to secure countryside and help protect aid workers as well as Afghan civilians in the surrounding area. But the 24-hour presence and necessarily isolated position also expose troops to a level of risk of militant attack that is much higher than within the heavily guarded confines of Kandahar Air Field.

More corporals than other ranks killed

Looking at the ages and ranks of Canadian soldiers who fall in Afghanistan is also revealing.

Canada's fallen in Afghanistan range in age from 20 to 46 years old. Most who have died are in their mid-20s and early 30s, a fact that experts say reflects the demographics of the Canadian armed forces as a whole.

Ranks of Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan, April 2002 to Sept. 2008:

28 Privates and equivalents
46Corporals/Master Corporals
5 Warrant Officers
source: DND 

Corporals and master corporals are the ranks most devastated by fatal injuries in Afghanistan. Nearly half of those killed during the current mission so far held those ranks. Again, those deaths reflect on the makeup of the current military. During the 1990s, recruiting of new soldiers fell to peacetime lows and existing troops acquired the experience and skills necessary for promotion.

Also, non-commissioned officers are a crucial conduit between junior ranks and commanders and are relied upon as trainers, mentors and motivators of troops in the field. A corporal typically has five-to-eight years of experience and is a considerable military asset. Sergeants and warrant officers are even more key to day-to-day operations, as well as those in combat and training.

NCO deaths worrisome

At least 15 of these highly experienced men have been killed since Canada's involvement in Afghanistan began in 2002. By August 2008, the mission had also claimed seven commissioned officers, several of them platoon leaders.

It's a development that worries professional military analysts.

"This is unsustainable for operations," says Chris Madsen, a professor of military law at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto. "It takes no time at all to train an insurgent and a bullet doesn't discriminate between an amateur and a professional soldier. We're losing some of our best people."

Some of the dead were men who were married and had children. That's a cost that can't be measured in any prosaic way but it's something that needs to be factored in as society considers the impact of conflict.

Families of fallen soldiers face many difficulties, including grief, long term stress and financial burdens. Children who lose a parent have a lifetime of coping ahead of them.

Meanwhile, those who suffer injuries during overseas operations are in a separate category and they face a separate set of challenges.

Injuries suffered in Afghanistan

Year Wounded in action Non-battle injuries
 2002 8 1
 2003 3 0
 2004 3 5
 2005 2 7
 2006 180 84
 2007* 84 298
 source: DND *figures released end of each year 

Severe injuries such as loss of a limb or limbs require rehabilitation, therapy, retraining and counselling for the victim and family. Eventually, when the injured person is well enough, jobs need to be found, outside the armed forces if necessary — although the former chief of defence staff, Gen. Rick Hillier, was known to be keen on keeping injured personnel employed in the military if they so desired.

U.S. talk of 'longest war'

A recent report by the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence found that care and treatment received by injured soldiers back in Canada varied widely between provinces. Senators praised the handling of wounded soldiers by the military but found some civilian health care providers were lacking.

Other areas that have not yet been subjected to public statistical analysis include the psychological effects of overseas deployment — from the simplest anxieties to mental illness.

One thing is certain: Canada's mission is Afghanistan carries a price tag far beyond its monetary cost. The casualty count can be expected to rise until the last Canadian soldier is withdrawn.

For the moment, Parliament has only authorized the mission until 2011.

In the United States, the talk among politicians, military analysts and diplomats is increasingly about "the longest war", a reference to the fact that U.S. forces could be in Afghanistan for much longer than the 14 years they were engaged in Vietnam.

Next year, the incoming U.S. president, whether it be Barack Obama or John McCain, is expected to send more American forces to Afghanistan and to spend more money on training local security forces, as well as development projects and aid.

Canada, as a member of NATO and a close ally of the United States, will be under pressure to maintain its role in Afghanistan, if not actually increase its involvement.

That means counting the cost of conflict is an exercise that could persist in this country for years to come.