Just before the January 2005 Iraqi elections, I was quoted in one media outlet: “Those who believe that the elections will result in a calming effect in Iraq are just wrong. The violence will increase and get uglier.” I went on to say: “And if 150,000 U.S. troops can’t put down the insurgency, what makes anyone think that an Iraqi-trained force will be better?” I was publicly chided by a former colleague (not a defense or foreign policy expert) for making such comments, presumably for being so negative and at least by implication, critical of the Bush administration.
But what has happened since the January 2005 elections? And what are the implications after the recent constitutional referendum vote, as well as for the December 2005 elections for a permanent Iraqi government?
According to the Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index a statistical compilation of economic, public opinion, and security data that is updated twice a week U.S. troop fatalities fell from 104 deaths in January 2005 to 43 in March. They subsequently rose to 90 fatalities in August (the fourth worst month since the U.S. invaded and occupied Iraq), dropped to 43 troops killed in September, and, as this is written (based on the Iraq Index updated on Oct. 20, 2005), stand at 52 dead in October.
Unfortunately, the historical pattern suggests that this most recent downturn in U.S. troop fatalities is likely just temporary. In April 2003, 74 U.S. soldiers were killed. Subsequently, U.S. military fatalities fell to 29 in June and then rose to a new high of 82 killed in November. The November 2003 high was followed by a downward trend for several months that bottomed out in February 2004 with 21 deaths. Just two months later, however, U.S. troop fatalities rose to 135 killed in April. That spike was followed by another drop-off to 42 deaths in June and then rose again to another new high of 137 killed in November 2004.
The pattern is that every lull in the storm has been followed by a new spike in U.S. troop fatalities. While that does not mean that we are caught in a deterministic cycle that is sure to repeat itself, history cannot be ignored. So while President Bush is right that for the voting on the constitutional referendum “the level of violence was considerably less than the last election,” the statistical data suggests that the violence will increase just as it did after the January 2005 elections (and no one should be surprised if there is a similar experience after the Iraqi parliamentary elections in December). Indeed, in the week after the constitutional referendum vote, 26 U.S. soldiers were killed. According to The Sunday Telegraph (London), a secret poll commissioned by the British Ministry of Defense (MoD) shows that 45 percent of Iraqis believe attacks on U.S. and British troops are justified so we have to expect even more soldiers killed. Indeed, on the day that U.S. troop casualties rose to 2,000, President Bush admitted that the death toll will go higher: “This war will require more sacrifice.”
It’s also important to look beyond U.S. troop fatalities to understand the situation in Iraq. According to the Iraq Index, Iraqi civilian casualties have climbed relatively steadily from day one of the war to an estimated total of between 15,000 and 27,000 (IraqBodyCount.net estimates Iraqi civilian casualties at between 26,000 and 30,000, while other organizations put the number at over 30,000). In May 2003, 63 Iraqi civilians were killed. The number soared to over 1,400 civilian deaths in August 2005 and currently stands at 117 in October. As has been the case with U.S. troop fatalities, peaks in the number of Iraqi civilians killed (773 in April 2004, 401 in August, 1,044 in November, 355 in February 2005, and 527 in May) have been followed by an immediate drop and then another climb. The September and October numbers suggest that we are on the downside of the August peak, but they also suggest this is the prelude to another spike in civilian fatalities. The fact that attacks against Iraqi civilians have been unabated including attacks that killed 26 Iraqis on the opening day of Saddam Hussein’s trial and another 44 Iraqis over a two day span since the referendum vote certainly does not bode well.
Another indicator of the security situation in Iraq is multiple-fatality bombings (defined as two or more people killed in a single attack). To date, there have been 472 such bombings (of which at least 236 were suicide bombings) resulting in 4,364 people killed and 9,284 wounded. As is the case with U.S. troop fatalities and Iraqi civilians killed, the numbers move up and down from month to month. Unfortunately, the overall trend line is upward with the each peak almost always higher than the previous peak and each valley also higher.
Iraqi military and police killed are also a telling statistic. The monthly average from April 2003 through December 2004 was 64 killed. In latter 2004, the average rose to 160 killed. So far in October, 145 Iraqi military and police have been killed, and the monthly average for 2005 (not including October) is 220 killed. Again, the numbers are moving in the wrong direction.
Two other numbers are important to note. The first number is 152,000 which is the total number of U.S. troops currently in Iraq, who have been unable to put down a persistent Iraqi insurgency (earlier this year, General John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Persian Gulf, conceded that the insurgency was as strong as it was six months previously). The second number is one which is the number of combat-ready Iraqi battalions that can fight insurgents without U.S. or coalition assistance (down from three just a few months earlier). So despite all the previous talk by President Bush of Iraq having “more than 160,000 security forces trained and equipped for a variety of missions,” the prospects of the Iraqis being able to take over their own security in the foreseeable future are basically nil. Indeed, at the end of September, General George W. Casey, Jr. who oversees U.S. forces in Iraq told Congress, “Iraqi armed forces will not have an independent capability for some time.” Translation: years.
When you do the math, it all adds up to one thing: a continued and indefinite large-scale U.S. military presence in Iraq. And that presence is a triple whammy. First and foremost, it is a rallying cry for insurgents and jihadists to perpetuate the violence in Iraq, which according to a CIA assessment in June has become a more potent training and breeding ground for Islamic terrorists than Afghanistan was in the 1980s. But to make matters even worse, the United States would then be in the position of being still perceived and resented by most Iraqis as an occupying military force (according to the MoD poll reported by The Sunday Telegraph, 82 percent of Iraqis are “strongly opposed” to the presence of coalition troops), yet at the same time their anger against the United States would mount for not doing enough to quell the insurgency and protect the people it supposedly entered Iraq to liberate. Moreover, the undeniable fact that the U.S. military is occupying an Islamic country is a powerful tool for Islamic radicals to incite anti-American sentiment which is the stepping stone to hatred and then to violence and terrorism around the world.
One would think that doing the math and seeing such sobering results would be the basis for finding a way out of Iraq sooner rather than later. But I was chided rebuked even by former colleagues (again, not defense and foreign policy experts) for suggesting that too. But what would I know?