How lethal can your enemy get?
How long can your enemy sustain it's highest levels of lethality?
I think these two questions are important to consider when thinking about the wars which we are waging. To be successful in waging a war you have to be able to take the best shot your enemy can give for as long as they can give it without a collapse of will on your sides part. When asking these these questions you are trying to figure out just how much sacrifice in "blood" a conflict will require. It is the most cold calculation of war and I think trying to answer it objectively is an important moral dimension if one is to support a war effort. Obviously during the various stages of the conflict seeking the answers is conjecture and only in retrospect can you know the awful truth.
In the Iraq War it now seems pretty clear that our enemies maximum level of lethality was to kill about 1000 US soldiers in a 12 month period and for 5 years they could sustain a level of lethality towards US soldiers that would take a toll of around 700 soldiers per year. In the 6th and 7th year of the Iraq conflict US soldier fatalities have plumeted and for our part it would appear that a military victory has been achieved at a very modest to low cost when the historty and scope of modern conflicts are considered. The damage done to Iraqi patriots and civilians has been much more considerable, but the blame for this lies squarely at the feet of insurgents who's strategy for victory was to cause as much murder and mayhem as they possibly could in order to sour US politicians in the hope that the politicians would call for retreat.
In regards to the War in Afghanistan it does not appear that we have yet seen how lethal the Taliban can be. Since 2005 the Taliban have progressively been showing more lethality each year with a significant jump in Coalition fatalities this year. With the additional escalation of Coalition forces planned for 2010 it would seem we will get a indication sooner rather than later about just how lethal the Taliban can be. Right now the conventional wisdom says that Coalition fatalities will continue to spike in 2010 with the "surge" and on the surface that makes sense as more boots on the ground means more targets of opportunity.
However, I have my doubts about just how strong the Taliban is and can be. The insurgents in Iraq proved they could bring a consistant level of resistance 24/7/365. The Taliban has no such capability with the Afghan terrain and weather being what they are. Also I think a big reason the Taliban has been able to show increasing lethality over the last few years is because the baselines have been kind of low to begin with each year until now.
I do think the Taliban may be able to maintain current to slightly higher levels of lethality for at least the next couple of years but I'm hoping that won't be enough to convince us to bug out.
Update: Now that the January 2010 Coalition fatality numbers are in. I have to admit I am on the surprised side on just how many casualties the Taliban were able to inflict this past month. However, I did hear a report that it has been a rather mild winter and that along with the increased troop pressence now in country explain the hike in fatalities in Jan..