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Human toll in the war in Afghanistan 1979-1989 - 19.6.2009
Nikita Mendkovich

Human toll in the war in Afghanistan 1979-1989

By Nikita Mendkovich Expert with the Centre for Contemporary Afghan Studies

Issues linked with the conflict in Afghanistan have actively been discussed in scholarly literature. For one, one of them is the personnel losses in the conflict with the involvement of the Soviet forces from the 25th of December 1979 through the 15th of February 1989. This article is a survey of existing statistics about the losses of sides involved in the conflict.

To begin with, it should be said that the status of toll statistics of the Soviet forces that fought alongside the Kabul government are much better. The level of initial recording of losses was quite high: this was promoted by the procedure in the Soviet armed forces and norms of recording the movements and retirements of manpower. Moreover, despite political changes that took place on the post-Soviet territory military archives have comparably been preserved well, and this has helped military experts to estimate with high precision the losses in the war.

The total number of servicemen, who served in Afghanistan during the given period of time, was 620 thousand, including 525.5 thousand soldiers and officers of the Soviet Army, 21 thousand civilian personnel and 95 thousand representatives of KGB (including border guard forces), internal forces and police.

The overall toll was 15 051 people and 14 427 out of them were servicemen who were killed in fighting or accidentally or died from illnesses during more than nine-year military presence. The military loss was 82.5%. The number of irrecoverable military and non-military losses includes those who died in hospitals and following illnesses after retiring from military service. In view of this, these are most likely complete details about dead, and one has to ignore higher estimations given in western publications. The given statistics do not include those who died before the retirement from the army while getting treatments in hospitals outside the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.

The statistics of irrecoverable losses were not included 417 people, who were missing in action or were captivated. In all 287 people did not return home by 1999. A significant damage to the Soviet forces was made by the so-called sanitary losses that include the people who were dislodged from the war for health reasons. These losses include both those who were injured in fighting and those who fell sick for other reasons that had nothing to do with injuries or concussions. The losses linked with noncombatant factors were proved to be extremely high for the Afghanistan War and their share was 89% of sanitary losses.

According to estimations by American researchers in the 90s, 56.6% noncombatant losses were caused by infectious diseases, 15.1% - civilian trauma, 9.9% - dermatological illnesses, 4.1% - illnesses of lungs. According to Gray and Jorgensen, one fourth of the military personnel of the Soviet Army had been noneffetive throughout the entire period of the war. The authors said: The 5th infantry division became noneffective in October-December 1981 when over 3000 people were simultaneously infected with hepatitis. Most likely, the morbidity rate was linked with the shortage of pure drinking water, disruption in the supply of clean uniforms, which were untypical for European Russia from where a large number of servicemen came and infectious diseases. Owing to sharp change in climate practically all new comers had stomach troubles some time after their arrival. Dysentery, hepatitis and typhoid were quite common among servicemen.

In all 466 thousand servicemen needed medical assistance during the entire period of the presence of Soviet forces in the country and 11 284 out of them were dismissed from the army for health reasons and 10751 received permanent disability.

The Soviet Army suffered the highest irrecoverable losses between March 1980 and April 1985 when the highest average irrecoverable losses per month were registered. The highest average monthly sanitary losses (most likely, the peak of mobility) were registered between May 1985 and December 1986.

The situation linked with the losses of the Afghan army, anti-government militant groups and civilian population was more complicated. According to estimations by A. A. Lyakhovsky, the Afghan armys irrecoverable losses were 26595 servicemen and number of people missing was 28002 and number of people deserted was 285541. Abnormal level of desertion has been reflected in many memoirs, and this is explained by the chaotic mobilization policy of the Afghan government and low level of ideological work among manpower. The peak of irrecoverable losses was registered in 1981 when 6721 servicemen of the Afghan army were killed. The peak of losses in desertion (over 30 thousand people a year) was in 1982 and 1988.

On the one hand, this level of loss is significantly higher than that of Soviet forces, and this shows Afghan forces were greatly involved in fighting but there is a need to take into account the difference in technical equipment and quantity and quality of work carried out by medical personnel, which had led to fatal losses. 

The losses among mojaheds and civilian population are still more confused. Practically, there is no precise statistics. UN experts registered the death of 640 thousand people in Afghanistan from 1980 to 1990 and 327 thousand out of them were males. However, these figures are surely incomplete and could be considered as the lower level of civilian loss.

The number of people in the opposition groups was first and foremost confused. The most common estimation in publications is that the opposition had from 20 to 50 thousand regular fighters and from 70 to 350 nonregular militants. Estimation by Crayl is seemed to be logical. Referring to memoirs by CIA agents he insists that the US financed units that had about 150 thousand militants out of 400 thousand operated in the country.

How many militants were killed? The author has never found any reliable estimation in publications devoted to military history. Reliable estimation will hardly appear owing to the problem of identification of membership of nonregular mojaheds, and no one has registered the losses of individual units or carried out centralized accounting of the loss.

The losses of the opposition groups could be counted most likely from overall population, the estimation of loss of which differ strongly. According to USAID, 875 people were killed in 1987, while the Gallup study shows 1.2 million people. The largest number of irrecoverable population loss in the publications lies between 1.5 and 2.0 million people, but the author believes these figures are highly exaggerated. The number of refugees in Pakistan, Iran and other countries was estimated at 5.7 million in 1987 and 6.2 in 1990. Notably, a significant number of people registered as refugees was proved to be Afghan migrant workers who tried to legalize themselves abroad and hoped for receiving humanitarian aid. This was a huge figure because up to one million people left Afghanistan in search for work before the war and in the early 70s. In view of this it is not so simple to estimate the real percentage of people who were forced to leave Afghanistan during the war.

The given statistic data about the number of people in each side and lost in the conflict between 1979 and 1989 could be incomplete, but, according to the author, they are at least substantiated unlike several exaggerated estimates, which are being used for political speculations about the history of the Afghanistan War.

Any military loss, especially unconscious participants of the conflict, the civilians living on the territory, where it is going on is appalling and from the standpoint of simple ethics it cannot be justified, and the war as horrible display of hostility by a person against another has no justification. However, as we see the nowadays developments, the level of development of the society and international relations do not exclude the use of this tool to settle differences between the states. This means there will be new losses and new human tragedies.

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