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Tilting at Windmills

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January 7, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

IRAQ UPDATE....I was on vacation at the beginning of January and then forgot to post this last week, but I said a while back that I'd revisit Iraq civilian casualty figures once a month, so here are December's ending results. My erstwhile sparring partner Engram has pretty clean numbers, so I'm reproducing his chart on the right.

I don't have a lot of new commentary to add to this. There are probably several reasons for the decline in violence, but certainly the surge is responsible for much of it. This is good news.

At the same time, there's still not even a glimmer of hope on the political reconciliation front. In fact, if anything, things seem to have retrogressed a bit, and this is distinctly bad news — especially with the surge about to wind down and the "breathing space" it provided probably coming to an end. Unless something changes pretty quickly, it's looking more and more as if the surge simply isn't going to be a success on its own terms.

On the other hand, John McCain thinks it's OK if we stay in Iraq for a hundred years. So the day is still young.

Kevin Drum 12:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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Comments

And McCain would have invaded Iraq even if he knew there were no WMDs. What a wonderful world these bloodthirsty crazies must inhabit. Meanwhile, N Korea isn't living up to their agreement, but with no oil...

Posted by: Gore/Edwards 08 on January 7, 2008 at 12:47 PM | PERMALINK

Only 500 civilian murders a month?

Say, that is just peachy news, innit?

Posted by: Quaker in a Basement on January 7, 2008 at 12:51 PM | PERMALINK

There are probably several reasons for the decline in violence, but certainly the surge is responsible for much of it. This is good news.

Let's suppose, for the moment, that the surge is indeed responsible for much of the decline. How would that play out on the ground, and how much of the country do we actually control? To answer those question, you would have to answer these, at least:

1. Did the surge kill most of the insurgents, or did they choose to curtail their activities?

2. Did the surge come at a time when Iraq's internal conflict had already eliminated or expelled most of the easy targets?

3. Did the surge coincide with and contribute to improved defenses between warring factions?

4. How accurate and comprehensive are the accounts of civilian casualties?

5. Did the surge provide protection and support for the final stages of ethnic cleansing?

6. What forces are poised to be unleashed once the surge is over (can Petraeus dismount the tiger)?

Posted by: Boolaboola on January 7, 2008 at 12:56 PM | PERMALINK

I love that curve fit overlaid there. Why, extrapolate that baby and pretty soon we'll have NEGATIVE casualties. Does this mean Resurrections? Or maybe it's Plan 9 of GWB, reanimation of the dead?

Posted by: Tom Hamill on January 7, 2008 at 12:58 PM | PERMALINK

Hasn't Bush been telling us the reason we can't set a timetable to withdraw our forces from Iraq is because a timetable would allow the insurgents to wait us out? Don't you suppose that, given the well known limited duration of the surge, they have simply chosen to hold their fire and build their strength in preparation for the post-surge environment?

Posted by: Chesire11 on January 7, 2008 at 12:59 PM | PERMALINK

— especially with the surge about to wind down and the "breathing space" it provided probably coming to an end. Unless something changes pretty quickly, it's looking more and more as if the surge simply isn't going to be a success on its own terms.

Kevin, you're stuck on stupid with this one. When you say the surge is going to wind down, yes the troop numbers will go down. But the tactics which changed at the same time will not go back to pre-surge. The emphasis on local control, the support for the awakenings, moving troops out of bastions and into neighborhoods, in general the focus on counter-insurgency, will remain. Those were at least as important as the increase in troop numbers. You need to fold that into your calculus.

Posted by: SJRSM on January 7, 2008 at 1:00 PM | PERMALINK

Look at McCain's reasoning. Essentially he is saying that the American people care about casualties, not about whether we are in Iraq or not. If no one is getting killed, they'll be fine with our maintaining a position in Iraq, just as they are with our commitments in Europe, Japan and Korea.

His reasoning isn't wrong, and we can see this by how far Iraq has retreated in its salience as an issue on the campaign trail -- compared to health care, the economy, and immigration. What McCain is overlooking isn't the pace of political reconciliation in Iraq, though. It's how much the United States is spending in Iraq.

Some Democratic candidates (and Ron Paul) have mentioned this in speeches or debates. That isn't enough to make the cost of keeping a bunch of Arabs from killing each other in perpetuity a salient political issue. For that to happen, the cost of the war needs to be hit much, much harder -- and the importance of Iraq to American interests around the world needs to be (for want of a better word) belittled. Americans won't respond to the idea that we are blowing billions on the problems of backward people in an unimportant country as quickly as they will do pictures of American soldiers getting blown up, but they will respond to it sooner or later. Getting them to respond sooner is what the campaign is for.

Posted by: Zathras on January 7, 2008 at 1:01 PM | PERMALINK

My concern is with how many Iraqi civilian casualties are caused by the US military. The chart does not say and it is obvious Engram could care less. I would like to see a chart of daily Air Force bombings of Iraqis.

Posted by: Brojo on January 7, 2008 at 1:04 PM | PERMALINK

"retrogressed"?

Posted by: Buckethead on January 7, 2008 at 1:06 PM | PERMALINK

yes the troop numbers will go down. But the tactics which changed at the same time will not go back to pre-surge

This is true. But now a whole new set of challenges seems to be presenting. We have put a lot of weapons in a lot of unvetted hands over there, so incidents like the one I link to are bound to happen - and check the rank of the two he made sure to kill, not just wound.

The new tactics the US is employing have shown some success thus far - but the Mahdi Army is still standing down. That moratorium ends next month and if Sadr tries to extend it - all bets are off, and he likely loses control of his militia.

Of course reductions in deaths are good news - But I can't blissfully stop there - I must compulsively keep turning over rocks.

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State (aka G.C.) on January 7, 2008 at 1:12 PM | PERMALINK

Or maybe it's Plan 9 of GWB, reanimation of the dead?
If Bush had to deal with this much longer, he probably would wish he could pull a Plan 9 on Saddam and put him back in power. As it is, he'll try to coast through the next year and then either claim his success if things improve or blame his successor if they don't.

Posted by: AJ on January 7, 2008 at 1:23 PM | PERMALINK

Well, it has gotten pretty quiet lately, but it is just a calm before the storm. They are carefully watching us slowly leave and waiting for Bush's term to expire. I bet the place starts to get a bit noisier towards the end of the year, and yeah we've given them quite a few weapons lately... This all reminds me of a Hunter Thompson quote:

"Even maniacs need time to reload, but it is a rare quirk in history when they all run out at the same time, and almost any one who has spent any time around wars will tell you that a sudden calm, for no reason, is almost always a time to get braced."

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on January 7, 2008 at 1:24 PM | PERMALINK

As long as American casualties stay down, and Iraqi casualties don't go much higher than 700 a month, I expect Iraq to be relegated to a lower priority than the economy during the primaries.

However I think Americans are simply assuming that we are going to start leaving Iraq this spring no matter what Republican candidates say about staying forever. I think they are very wrong to make this assumption; they credit Republicans with much more common sense and benevolence than they deserve.

By next fall I expect priorities to shift. There will be fewer U.S. troops in Iraq, and whatever patience insurgents and militias have been exercising will be wearing out. In the absence of political solutions, and grounded in the reality of still unready Iraqi police and soldiers, the civil war will come to a boil again. So then the candidates will have to take a stand. Do we try to re-surge? Or do we continue to withdraw and leave the Iraqis to it? I think most Americans would be angry about being told the "surge" didn't work after all, and would be unwilling to invest yet more lives in George's mess.

The only things that will keep the level of violence low are major, major improvements in the Iraqi standard of living and the Iraqi economy. It will be harder to convince people to take part in the violence if they have something to lose. So how much progress can Iraq make in repairing their infrastructure, providing security to Iraqi civilians and improving employment rates before September? And THEY have to do it, not us, or it's not going to stick. We don't know, but experience does not encourage optimism.

If I were running for president in 2008, I'd be thinking very hard about what I was going to say if the progress of the surge has evaporated by September.

Posted by: cowalker on January 7, 2008 at 1:33 PM | PERMALINK

We must never forget the completely bogus nature of aWol's war. His Oedipal hang-ups should not have become a facet of national policy.

Posted by: Rula Lenska on January 7, 2008 at 1:33 PM | PERMALINK
.... the surge appears to be saving around 1200 Iraqi lives per month. ex-lax at 1:30 PM
While you are finally admitting that the US and George W. Bush are responsible for Iraq civilian casualties, you ignore the fact that they can caused in excess of 600,000 deaths

Opinion Research Business (ORB) poll conducted August 12-19, 2007 estimated 1,220,580 violent deaths due to the Iraq War. A nationally representative sample of 1,499 Iraqi adults answered whether any members of their household (living under their roof) were killed due to the Iraq War. 22% of the respondents had lost one or more household members. ORB reported that "48% died from a gunshot wound, 20% from the impact of a car bomb, 9% from aerial bombardment, 6% as a result of an accident and 6% from another blast/ordnance.

The Lancet study's figure of 654,965 excess deaths through the end of June 2006 is based on household survey data. The estimate is for all excess violent and nonviolent deaths. That also includes those due to increased lawlessness, degraded infrastructure, poorer healthcare, etc.. 601,027 deaths (range of 426,369 to 793,663 using a 95% confidence interval) were estimated to be due to violence. 31% of those were attributed to the Coalition, 24% to others, 46% unknown. The causes of violent deaths were gunshot (56%), car bomb (13%), other explosion/ordnance (14%), air strike (13%), accident (2%), unknown (2%).[9]

War supporters also claim success when the situation in Iraq is still horrific

Posted by: Mike on January 7, 2008 at 1:40 PM | PERMALINK

One more point--a recession will just exacerbate opposition to Iraq because of the tons of money it would require just to keep troop numbers at pre-surge levels. Imagine the disgruntlement among the barely employed at seeing more billions of dollars hurled into the Iraq money pit.

Our only savings would be that the value of the incentives offered to recruits to join the army could be lowered./sarcasm

Posted by: cowalker on January 7, 2008 at 1:57 PM | PERMALINK

There seems to be an uptick in the past week to 10 days as well, so we'll have to see how the January numbers shake out.

Posted by: MNPundit on January 7, 2008 at 2:04 PM | PERMALINK

So, why doesn't this chart start from the end of our conquest of Iraq?

Posted by: freelunch on January 7, 2008 at 2:19 PM | PERMALINK

Good news! We're back to 2005's level of violence! Was it acceptable in 2005? Sheeesh. We are a gullible bunch...

Posted by: elmo on January 7, 2008 at 2:46 PM | PERMALINK

The dramatic drop-off in civilian casualties in September 2007 doesn't correlate all that well with the escalation which had been in full swing for several months by then. A better explanation might be the ceasefire announced by al-Sadr's Mehdi Army at the end of August. So far that's lasted quite well but is not considered permanent. I suspect as the escalation winds down, and with no political progress, we'll find out that the respite in violence was merely the calm before the storm.

Posted by: Ian S on January 7, 2008 at 2:51 PM | PERMALINK

Hey, US casualties are back to where they were in early 2004! Just before...uh, never mind.

Posted by: Speed on January 7, 2008 at 3:07 PM | PERMALINK

Quaker in a Basement: Only 500 civilian murders a month?


and consider...iraq is 12-times smaller than the usa...

Posted by: mr. irony on January 7, 2008 at 3:27 PM | PERMALINK

The dramatic drop-off in civilian casualties in September 2007....

This formulation always bothers me -- the casualties didn't drop off in total, since of course there were more people killed and wounded in total in September 2007 than there had been in August 2007 and the same is true going back each month to March 2003. What dropped off was the rate of increase.

Think of it this way -- assume my business lost $200 in August and $100 in September. Have my losses decreased? No, they've mounted, because I went from having lost $200 total to having lost $300 total. What decreased was the rate at which I lost money, not that I was losing money. I'm still worse off in September than I had been in August.

Posted by: Stefan on January 7, 2008 at 3:34 PM | PERMALINK

Stefan, that's just wrong. The y-axis is absolute numbers, not rates. This is just a histogram with a curve fit. You're summing across the data, which measures something else entirely -- total civilian casualties. Which is a worthy thing to measure, but doesn't address the strategic question, "did the surge work, if so, how and how much?" No one expects -- nor is any suggesting -- a "negative" death rate.

Posted by: Hemlock for Gadflies on January 7, 2008 at 3:42 PM | PERMALINK

Exactly, Hemlock. Watching the figures from month to month is the only way to even attempt to observe an effect on the death rate resulting from one or more possible factors. Of course, those already killed are not resurrected so the overall total number of deaths continues to rise. I think it's pretty important to be aware of all the possible factors affecting the monthly number of deaths otherwise we open ourselves to nasty surprises.

Posted by: Ian S on January 7, 2008 at 3:52 PM | PERMALINK

The Mehdi Army's August cease-fire was for six months, so it will be over next month,

Posted by: croatoan on January 7, 2008 at 4:02 PM | PERMALINK

The drop-off in civilian deaths correlates precisely with Muqtada al Sadr's call for a ceasefire on August 31, following a sharp escalation in Shia-on-Shia violence. Originally his ceasefire was to last six months. If he extends it, we'll see the civilian casualty rates stay at their reduced levels. If not, the rates will go up again. Simple. And unrelated to the surge.

Posted by: cmac on January 7, 2008 at 4:04 PM | PERMALINK

The drop-off in civilian deaths correlates precisely with Muqtada al Sadr's call for a ceasefire on August 31, following a sharp escalation in Shia-on-Shia violence. Originally his ceasefire was to last six months. If he extends it, we'll see the civilian casualty rates stay at their reduced levels. If not, the rates will go up again. Simple. And unrelated to the surge.
Posted by: cmac

So you're saying that the drastic reduction in violence in the Anbar is not reflected in these numbers?

Posted by: SJRSM on January 7, 2008 at 4:09 PM | PERMALINK

Stefan, that's just wrong. The y-axis is absolute numbers, not rates. This is just a histogram with a curve fit. You're summing across the data, which measures something else entirely -- total civilian casualties. Which is a worthy thing to measure, but doesn't address the strategic question, "did the surge work, if so, how and how much?" No one expects -- nor is any suggesting -- a "negative" death rate.

No, I'm not just talking about the graph, but about the language that war supporters use to bamboozle the public about the war's supposed success. They keep saying that casualties are "down" when what they really mean is that they are down per month compared to last month, which is generally a fairly meaningles standard when used to judge the success of a war that should never have been fought at all. In fact, casualties are always up, as each day and week and month more people are killed and wounded in this war than ever before. And yes, there was a way to have gotten a "flat" -- if not negative -- death rate -- never to have started the war at all.

Posted by: Stefan on January 7, 2008 at 4:17 PM | PERMALINK

It's great to know that, completely aside from the prospects of political reconciliation, the 'surge' has returned Iraq to the conditions of those halcyon days of 2005, when that country was surely the Switzerland of the Middle East.

Posted by: low-tech cyclist on January 7, 2008 at 4:36 PM | PERMALINK

The surge has killed a lot more Iraqi civilians than those who are providing this data want to reveal. This graph is about civilian casualties. When the US military kills and wounds civilians they are listed as al Queda or terrorists, not civilians. With the increased aerial bombings since the surge began, more Iraqi civilians have been targeted by US forces and more of them have become casualties - dead.

Do not expect someone who names himself after the word for storing emotional and physical pain to be used as a behavioral survival mechanism to truthfully provide a proper accounting of the Iraqi civilian casualties caused by Americans.

Posted by: Brojo on January 7, 2008 at 5:08 PM | PERMALINK

If we stay in Iraq for 100 years we can build more McDonald'ses and promote world peace. I won't be happy until every Iraqi boy learns to play American football on the execution grounds and none of this pansy-ass soccer "footer" stuff....

Posted by: Anon on January 7, 2008 at 6:01 PM | PERMALINK

Two million emigrants going to Syria and Jordan who might might need to come home to neighborhoods currently taken over by militia might also have something to do with the reduction in violence that couldn't yet be described as success.

Posted by: jhm on January 7, 2008 at 6:31 PM | PERMALINK

"...but certainly the surge is responsible for much of it."

That would be fascinating if true. But the accuracy of "civiliain casualty" numbers coming out of Iraq are not particularly verifiable.

Posted by: HeavyJ on January 7, 2008 at 6:33 PM | PERMALINK

Dumb question, but why is american news & spin off debate all about Iraq, when Afghanistan is where the fighting more relevant to counter-terrorism is?

And it happens to be right next door to Pakistan, a nuclear-armed unstable state where OBL et al are still hiding, directing the insurgents in Afghanistan? Where NATO is clearly losing, and where for counter-terrorism purposes, it matters more if we lose?

Posted by: Bruce the Canuck on January 7, 2008 at 6:51 PM | PERMALINK

Since when did the troop surge start in Aug 07?

Posted by: dave on January 7, 2008 at 11:01 PM | PERMALINK

Stefan makes an incredibly important point. There are always more dead in Iraq.

I know that there are goons posting here who orgasm at the thought of more dead Iraqis, but normal human beings will never be satisfied with the level of deaths in Iraq owing to the unprovoked assault on the citizens of that nation.

How many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have to die for the entertainment of the sick bastards who supported this thuggish war?

And, as a follow-up, if one drops a bomb on three people - two innocents and one suspected criminal, how many "evil-doers" does that represent to the US Military? Three? Seven? Twenty-two? Or just one plus a couple of bad cases of venereal disease as one killer for hire has suggested?

Only supporters of terrorism and friends of Al Queda support this war.

Posted by: heavy on January 7, 2008 at 11:25 PM | PERMALINK

For those too stupid to remember, here's something important: more people are killed by automobiles every month in the United States than have been killed by terrorism in this country in the past decade.

Those bed wetters and psychopaths who spend all their time worrying about how to kill Iraqis in order to save us from the big bad terrorists should be shunned from polite conversation - forever.

Posted by: heavy on January 7, 2008 at 11:36 PM | PERMALINK

The troop surge did NOT start in August, it started in May. What happened in August? Specifically, August 29th?????

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/08/30/wiraq130.xml

Posted by: Justin on January 8, 2008 at 12:27 AM | PERMALINK

A large cause of the reduction of casualties
is the reduction in aggressive actions of
American troops - patrols, attacks, raids on Iraqi targets, and bombings -
with the end of the surge.
If we continue to reduce these, and keep
Americans in bases out of harm's way, we
can declare victory and go home.
Iraq will remain in an imperfect state but
the overall level of violence will be greatly reduced.
It worked for the British in Basra ..

Posted by: DaveN on January 8, 2008 at 2:51 AM | PERMALINK

Also the graph is in error in that the surge
policy - more aggressive patroling and raiding of Iraqi homes-
started in October, several months before that
date shown in the graph.

Posted by: DaveN on January 8, 2008 at 2:58 AM | PERMALINK

Think of it this way -- assume my business lost $200 in August and $100 in September. Have my losses decreased? No, they've mounted, because I went from having lost $200 total to having lost $300 total. What decreased was the rate at which I lost money, not that I was losing money. I'm still worse off in September than I had been in August.
Posted by: Stefan

If we apply that reasoning to social equality in this country, if Obama gets elected the first black President it will be "One down, forty-two to go."

Posted by: SJRSM on January 8, 2008 at 9:24 AM | PERMALINK

For those too stupid to remember, here's something important: more people are killed by automobiles every month in the United States than have been killed by terrorism in this country in the past decade.

Yes, but how many of those automobiles are driven by terrorists....?

Posted by: Stefan on January 8, 2008 at 9:54 AM | PERMALINK

For those too stupid to remember, here's something important: more people are killed by automobiles every month in the United States than have been killed by terrorism in this country in the past decade.

How many of those car accidents brought down 100 story skyscrapers? Blew out the side of government buildings? Almost sank US warships? Destroyed our embassies?

Posted by: SJRSM on January 8, 2008 at 10:29 AM | PERMALINK

There is a differnt point of view. The surge is not likely to be responsible for much if any of the reduction of violence in Iraq. It may be due to agreements between Suni's and the US, the completion of segregation, the cease-fire by al-Sadr. If this view is correct, then what we really have is lull, that will explode later.

The Suni's no doubt needed a lull. They were getting pounded. They know that the Saudi's will not allow the US to abandon the Suni's interests in Iraq. So as the sides arm themselves to become even more dangerous, there is no political movement.

While the reduction in violence is good, the real reasons to not point well for the future.

Posted by: George on January 8, 2008 at 10:45 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin, have you tried to expand this chart to the left to see if the seasonality patterns you have commented on in the past are still in effect (or not)? This might add some additional insight.

Posted by: Stephen Allen on January 8, 2008 at 11:14 AM | PERMALINK

McCian is a war criminal. He was also wrong about Vietnam and he is wrong about Iraq. Giuliani may be a front man for the Neo-Con/Israeli agenda but McCain is just not fit to serve as President. His infamy was enabling Bush to continue his war on America.

Posted by: allie on January 8, 2008 at 12:42 PM | PERMALINK
If we apply that reasoning to social equality in this country.... SJRSM at 9:24 AM
An analogous social equality situation would be 100 schools integrated last month, 10 this. You claim that it's like changing the past is so bizarre, it makes stupid seem smart.
....How many of those car accidents brought down 100 story skyscrapers....SJRSM at 10:29 AM
It is a shame, isn't it, that Bush rejected all warning about al Qaeda and possible terrorist acts. It's almost as if he could use it for a smear&fear campaign for his boner about Saddam. I wonder how many suicide bombings or car bombs occur in the US, because now those are not a sign of a failed occupation according Bush and his bitter-enders. Posted by: Mike on January 8, 2008 at 3:09 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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