Friday, August 03, 2007

How are things in Iraq?

The issue of progress, or the lack thereof, in Iraq has never been more disputed or more critical. While Administration figures and some initial supporters of the war insist that General Petraeus's strategy is bearing fruit, many have pointed out a decline in coalition casualties (especially US casualties) during July as a possible harbinger of better news. Certainly one new tactic is bearing fruit at the local level. Alliances with Sunni tribes and even former insurgents have quieted a good deal of Anbar Province and, evidently, some Sunni neighborhoods around Baghdad. Such alliances are sensible--but they are also making the Al-Maliki government so angry that it is talking about demanding Petraeus's withdrawal. My intention this evening is briefly to survey the figures provided by the excellent web site to ask whether in fact the insurgency seems to be declining. And the answer, I regret to say, is clearly no.

To begin with, after a flurry of American deaths in the last few days of July, the drop in our killed in action did not turn out to be that big. The coalition lost 117 men killed in April, 131 in May, 108 in June--and 90 in July. That 90 was still more that the total in any of the first three months of this year. The surge, by putting more soldiers on the streets of Baghdad and surrounding areas, is putting more Americans at risk.

That, however, is not all. The best measure of insurgent activity would be the total number of attacks, but those figures are rarely released, and the Baker-Hamilton commission reported that the official figures often significantly understate the case. What we do have are weekly figures for Americans wounded, divided into those who were returned to duty within 48 hours and those who were not. The data does not allow us to precisely give the totals for months, as with those killed, but we can look at 4-week increments, and combine them into twelve-week increments.

For the twelve weeks ending on February 1--that is, before the surge--749 Americans were mildly wounded, and 460 more severely wounded. For the next twelve weeks, ending May 2, were 575 and 555. And for the next twelve weeks, ending Jul7 25, they were 990 and 798--a dramatic upward trend. Things don't look any better when we compare the four-week periods that began on May 3, May 31, and June 18. The less severely wounded for those periods went from 280 to 311 to 399; the more severely (those who did not quickly return to duty), from 311 to 209 to 278. What fell in July, in other words, was not only the total killed, but the ratio of killed to wounded. That, I would suggest, is a matter of luck--a few pieces of shrapnel that fortunately hit non-fatal spots instead of fatal ones. Although few people know this, the rise and fall of US casualties in Vietnam exactly tracked the total number of American troops there. So far the same thing is happening in Iraq--the surge has put more troops in harm's way, and they are suffering more casualties.

And of course, the real mission of the troops isn't to avoid casualties, but to increase security for Iraqis. Here there a mildly positive trend, according to the figures for deaths of Iraqi civilians and security forces published by which are inevitably only approximate--but it is not yet clearly a sustainable one. The worst periods for Iraqi deaths during the last year were August-September of 2006 and February -March of 2007, when Iraqis died at the rate of 3000 per month, or 100 a day. Since March of this year the monthly totals are 1821 for April, 1980 for May, an encouraging 1345 for June, but 1690 for July. That represents some improvement, it still means a very insecure country.

The experience of Anbar province suggests something very important: that an American withdrawal will not, as the Administration argues, mean the ascendancy of Al Queda, whom Iraqi tribesmen have no reason to love. But meanwhile, there has been no rapprochement between Sunnis and Shi'ites. Our strategy appears to be to try to fight the extremists among both groups while supporting the moderates, and it is angering the Shi'ite government while failing to please the Sunnis, who just withdrew their ministers. The need for some kind of partition seems to get more obvious every day, but we are not moving in that direction yet.

In Vietnam American troops enjoyed substantial military successes in the 1968-70 period, mainly because the enemy launched a series of costly offensives, but also because then, too, we shifted somewhat towards a pacification strategy. All the gains turned out to be temporary, however, because we could not convince the South Vietnamese people that the Saigon government would in the long run be stronger than the Viet Cong--as indeed they were not. Military success, in short, did not translate into political success. We may well face the same problem in Iraq--but so far it is not clear that we have achieved even military success.


Anonymous said...

The clarity of your analysis, and the historical context, is not something I find anywhere else on the web.

(although I will Col. Pat Lang dibs for knowledge of the region and detailed tactical understanding).

Vietnam is so similar a situation that it is frightening. False historical analogy can lead us to some terrible blind alleys, but the parallels are so striking.

One comment that perfectly summarised the British in this, Ian Jack in the Guardian:

'We no longer control Basra. What we have in that base is Rorke's Drift, with air support'.

That is such a perfect summary of the situation down there.


Anonymous said...

Reading Ronald Spector's The Year after Tet, it is clear the US had stalemated by 1969.

The Tet Offensive was devastating to the local NLF/VC infrastructure and operations, allowing Pacification to progress.

But the US was still trapped into Search & Destroy operations, and massive 'encounter' battles (the Marines took their heaviest casualties of the war in this period, in a battle in some villages north of Da Nang). The enemy had learned to evade the massive US firepower, or to 'hug him closely' and negate its advantage.

Another factor was the one identified by Jonathan Shell, Neil Sheehan, etc. By systematic bombing of civilian areas (in which the enemy was operating/transiting) and 'free fire zones' the US had depopulated large chunks of the countryside, forcing the population to become internal refugees in government controlled camps.

Pacification was working but in the fashion described by Tacitus 'the Romans made a wilderness, and called it peace'.

A desperate US Administration would, as you have noted, look to widen the war, to 'win' it, and secure advantage at the bargaining table. Hence the secret bombing of Cambodia, the invasion of Cambodia, and later the bloody disaster of Lang Son 719, the ARVN invasion of Laos.


Anonymous said...

Just to follow-up on what the first "anonymous" commenter said about the historical similarities between Iraq and Vietnam, large sections of Robert McNamara's book "In Retrospect," written in the mid-1990s about the lessons of the Vietnam War, could be quoted verbatim to comment on the Iraq occupation. The similarities are uncanny, and the fact that no one in charge bothered to consider the lessons of Vietnam before we invaded is a tragedy that will reverberate for a long time to come.

Anonymous said...

Just a minor note about your word choice -- several of the "men" that were killed from April to July were in fact women. Perhaps you were using "men" as a synonym for "troops", but the number of women killed in action in Iraq is unprecedented and worth noting.