Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Casualty Conundrum

The numbers game gets thicker, and more convoluted the deeper you dig. I did only a little digging, and I'm still confused.

On Sunday, the New York Times reported that Civilian Death Toll Falls in Baghdad but Rises Across Iraq:

BAGHDAD, Sept. 1 — Newly released statistics for Iraqi civilian deaths in August reflect the strikingly mixed security picture that has emerged from a gradual six-month increase in American troop strength here: the number of deaths across the country rose by about 20 percent since July, but in the capital itself, the number dropped sharply.

This is seemingly a mixture of good and bad news; the capital is getting under control, however the violence seems to be spreading outward.

Meanwhile, Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly picks up on the LA Times story, noting that civilian deaths in Iraq are up since last month. He writes:

What's remarkable is that not only does it not show any decrease since the beginning of the surge in February, but it doesn't even show a significant dip during summer, traditionally the quietest season in Iraq.

It's simply not plausible that the Pentagon has credible numbers demonstrating that the surge is successful but is refusing to release them.

Drum should concede that the Iraqi casualty numbers are a bit muddled, given the 500 deaths from the catastrophic Yazidi attack.

Regarding American military deaths, Former Spook goes Behind the Numbers and explains what exactly we are looking at when it comes to U.S. military casualties:

With the end of the month just a few hours away in Baghdad, the U.S. fatality totalfor August stands at 79--the same number recorded last month. That will likely generate such headlines as "American deaths hold steady in August," or "Combat deaths inch upward," (assuming that there are additional fatalities that have not yet been reported by DoD). In either case, the implication is the same: We're still losing 80 soldiers a month, so our "progress" is clearly limited.

But that analysis is wrong on multiple levels. Not only have the number of attacks dropped steadily, U.S. combat deaths have also continued their decline. Unlike this forum (and other milblogs), the MSM simply lumps all of the monthly fatalities together, regardless of cause. Fact is, our forces in Iraq suffer a number of non-hostile casualties each month, the results of illnesses, accidents and other mishaps. That may be little consolation to the families, but it is an important consideration if you're using combat deaths as an indicator of "progress."

Using data from the icasualties web site, we determined that 54 U.S. military personnel were killed in combat in Iraq during August. The other 25 died mostly in accidents, including two helicopter crashes that claimed a total of 19 American lives. The continued drop in combat deaths follows a trend that's become increasingly evident, as detailed by this monthly breakdown, which includes the number of hostile fire and non-combat deaths:

Month/Total Fatalities/Hostile/Non-Hostile

April 104 94 10
May 126 118 8
Jun 101 92 9
Jul 79 66 13
Aug 79 54 25

In other words, Americans combat deaths in Iraq has dropped by almost 50% over the past three months--while the number of troops in harm's way has increased (the surge hit its peak less than two weeks ago), with a corresponding spike in our operational tempo. We mourn for all of our fallen heroes, but the significant drop in casualties--during a period of greatly expanded operations--offers clear proof that the surge is working, and that their sacrifice was not in vain.

McClatchy continues on this thread: Combat deaths in Iraq decline; reasons aren't clear

WASHINGTON — American combat deaths in Iraq have dropped by half in the three months since the buildup of 28,000 additional U.S. troops reached full strength, surprising analysts and dividing them as to why.

U.S. officials had predicted that the increase would lead to higher American casualties as the troops "took the fight to the enemy." But that hasn't happened, even though U.S. forces have launched major offensives involving thousands of troops north and south of Baghdad.

McClatchy did offer one reason for the lower numbers:

"The population is progressively turning to coalition and Iraqi forces and making a positive difference in bringing security to their towns, villages and neighborhoods. They are pointing out extremist leaders, identifying caches and IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and asking to be a part of the legitimate Iraqi security force," Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the No. 2 commander, said last month.

More from Captain's Quarters.

Pat Dollard also notes some incredible statistics about Iraqi Army and Police casualties, which he says the AP censored:

The number of Iraqi police and army personnel killed in August was down an incredible two thirds from July. The August total was 87, July’s was 224.

The AP saw those figures today but made the editorial decision to censor them from their wire story, for fear they would help General Petraeus and the Bush administration make the case to remain in Iraq.

Dollard also adds that if not for the Yazidi bombing, Iraqi civilian casualties would have fallen 15 to 30%.

This is not good enough for "progressive" Daily Kos Bloggers: Iraq: A 75% Drop In Killing If You Don't Count The Bodies, who are intent on Calling General Petraeus a liar. Interestingly enough, The CarpetBagger Report accepts the numbers disputed by DailyKos, but argues only that the decrease in sectarian killings are no thanks to the surge:

The sectarian attacks have dropped, not because of the surge, but because there’s no longer much of a point — bombings that were intended to ethnically cleanse parts of Iraq have been successful and are no longer needed.

Interesting how matter of factly the statement is pronounced, with such conviction. Speculation has never appeared so concrete.

Taking a more comprehensive look, Back Talk has more accurate information on the recent casualty numbers. (H/T Instapundit).

Yet, liberal Daily Kos remains steadfastly incredulous: The White House's Iraq Stats and Reality. Citing a study by the National Security Network, the Kos blogger seeks to debunk the casualty numbers. Only a cursory look at the NSN's website helps explain the discrepancy - Two of their chairmen are Sandy Berger and Wesley Clark. Huh.

CarpetBagger also writes today of the now peaceful Dora market in Iraq. The post is titled ‘This is General Petraeus’s baby’. The implication being that the reason for the market's success is due to American dollars paying off merchants to sell food, and giving them cash to rebuild. But isn't that what we've been doing all along in Iraq? Supplying money for reconstruction? Why is this news? It has been held up to conveniently attack the General's progress of the past few months.

There are two sides to every coin. According to "progressive" bloggers, and Democratic leaders on the right, the surge is not to thank for any of the positive signs (for those that even agree there are some positive signs). For them, the numbers are getting better either because:

  • Everyone has already killed each other, or
  • Because of the Sunni Sheiks alone rejecting al Qaeda (as if the U.S. Army and Marines had nothing to do with the open dialogue), or
  • Petraeus is cooking the books, or
  • al Qaeda is just biding its time, or
  • Americans are paying off Iraqis for peace

Never a mention that American troops are actually succeeding, or that Iraqis have begun to trust Americans enough to tip them off to attacks, or that al Qaeda has lost all credibility due to its horrific brutality, or Kurdistan has barely suffered a casualty throughout this entire conflict. It's galling and difficult to see the suge dissemblers spring into action when, for example, there has been a marked decrease in operations conducted by Al-Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq. They're on the run, plain and simple. And the surge is a primary reason for that.

I've personlly drawn my own conclusions based on the conflicting casualty numbers available. First of all, it's clear that accurate numbers are difficult to come by at best. Secondly, we are taking out many more Jihadis/insurgents than combat losses we sustain. Third, the drop in media reporting of attacks speaks volumes about the improvement on the ground, and serves as a loss of a PR mouth piece for al Qaeda. Fourth, once volatile provinces like Anbar and Diyala have now become far less violent - proof that hope is not lost by any means.

Ultimately, everything I've seen recently points to incremental gains from the surge. That is an advantage we should not give up at the first signs of further progress in the months to come.

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