WASHINGTON - Since April 14, when Pentagon officials declared major combat finished in Iraq, more US military personnel have died while occupying Iraq than in a year of occupying Afghanistan, according to Department of Defense figures compiled by the Globe.
Fifty-six US troops have died in Iraq since the fall of Tikrit nearly nine weeks ago, and the majority of those deaths have come in the past six weeks - after President Bush's May 1 speech declaring that invasion operations had ended. Since then, 46 deaths have been reported among US forces, including 11 from combat wounds.
The numbers reflect the ongoing danger facing US troops in Iraq, where coalition forces have in recent days stepped up efforts to root out loyalists of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein, using task force tactics strikingly similar to those used in the last year to hunt down Al Qaeda and Taliban remnants in Afghanistan. The figures also reflect the crucial difference between the US goals, presence, and activities in Iraq and those in Afghanistan.
By comparison, since the end of major operations in Operation Anaconda in mid-March 2002 - which was the biggest battle of the Afghan war and which was said to have finished the last major concentration of Al Qaeda and Taliban - 27 US troops have been killed, seven as a result of hostilities. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld did not declare an end to major combat operations in Afghanistan until the start of May this year. Lower-level combat operations continue in that country.
''We're actually trying to stabilize all of Iraq, and our ambitions aren't as great in Afghanistan,'' said Michael O'Hanlon, a defense expert with the progressive Brookings Institution.
One reason for the higher death rate in Iraq is that many more US military personnel are stationed in that nation than in Afghanistan.
''It's awfully hard for people to kill American soldiers if there aren't any on the ground,'' said Loren Thompson, a defense expert with the Lexington Institute, a libertarian-leaning research group. ''The US waged the Afghan war with a minimal ground presence, and even now the number of US troops in Afghanistan is less than 10 percent of the Iraqi presence. So part of the explanation is there are fewer targets for Taliban sympathizers to shoot.''
About 8,500 US troops are in Afghanistan, compared with 140,000 US and coalition troops in Iraq, according to GlobalSecurity.org, a Virginia-based think tank. Overall, about 220,000 US troops are in the Persian Gulf region.
The US strategy for the Afghan war focused on a relatively small US force augmented by local troops.
''Much of our fighting was actually done through indigenous warlords and ethnic forces,'' Thompson said. ''Within particular sectors of the country, there's not much reason for people to want to shoot us, whereas from one end of Iraq to the other there are displaced Ba'ath Party sympathizers that hate us.''
Following the conflict, military specialists said, US strategy has likewise relied on local indigenous authorities - warlords - to keep day-to-day order while focusing on support for the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai.
''All we're trying to do in Afghanistan is keep Karzai as mayor of Kabul and give American forces freedom of movement around the rest of the country,'' said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org. ''Whereas in Iraq we're attempting to actually govern the country. We're attempting to assert a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Not to raise the dreaded `quagmire' word, [but] what we're trying to do in Iraq is much closer to what the Soviets were doing in Afghanistan or what we were trying to do in Vietnam. We have intentionally avoided that in Afghanistan.''
The ongoing US mission in Afghanistan also has been less reactive, with the US troops that are there predominantly focused on hunting down Al Qaeda and Taliban, said Owen Cote, associate director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
''It's harder to find the persons, but when there is a fight it's usually on our terms,'' Cote said. By contrast, US troops in Iraq are engaged in a broader variety of missions that make them easier targets and leave them in a more reactive posture.
And the opposition is larger in Iraq - the Iraqi armed forces were far larger at the start of the Iraq war than the Taliban were at the start of the Afghan war.
The greatest risk for US troops occupying both Afghanistan and Iraq remains noncombat injuries, ranging from traffic accidents and unexploded ord nance to inadvertent weapon discharges.
Rumsfeld announced last month an initiative challenging the defense community to reduce the number of accidents overall by 50 percent over the next two years. ''World-class organizations do not tolerate preventable accidents,'' Rumsfeld said in a May 19 memo.
But in terms of intended harm against US forces, specialists agreed that the coming weeks will be crucial in determining whether ''the last month was the last gasp, or whether the last month is the way things are going to be for a while, or the last month was just coming attractions,'' Pike said.
Retired one-star general John Reppert, executive director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, compared the attitude of most Iraqis to that of voters before an election. ''The basic argument is how we go through national elections - are you better off than you were four years ago, or in this case are you better off than you were four months ago? The legitimate answer for much of the Iraqi population is they are not better off.''
But Jack Spencer, a military analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation, cautioned against quick judg ments. ''Six months from now, we'll have a better handle on how well we're doing.''
© 2003 The Boston Globe Company