Monday, September 20, 2004

Keeping Score

Andrew Sullivan takes Mark Steyn to task for arguing that "In two-thirds of the country (Iraq), municipal government has been rebuilt, business is good, restaurants are open, life is as jolly as it has been in living memory" because that's indecent.

So what if Iraqis are dealing with two 9/11s a month? Our Blessed Leader, who is responsible for the security of Iraqis, never makes mistakes, does he? And the last thing pro-war journalists should ever do is raise questions.

The claim that Iraqis are suffering two 9/11s -- or 6,000 deaths -- per month is interesting compared to the claims made by other sources. The Associated Press has a good roundup of stats.

Source Number of Iraqi Deaths
Iraq body count (since the war began) 12-14 K
Hazem al-Radini at the Human Rights Organization (no time frame) 30 K
Iraq Ministry of Health  (April 5 to Aug 31, 2004) 3 K
Sheik Omar Clinic (Baghdad and environs) 10 K
Amnesty International (April 2003 to April 2004) 10 K

The basis of on which these figures are compiled varies. For example, the Al-Radini and the Sheik Omar Clinic hold America responsible for violent deaths of all types, including victims of crime, people killed by insurgents and insurgents killed by American troops.

Iraqi dead include not only insurgents, police and soldiers but also civilian men, women and children caught in crossfire, blown apart by explosives or shot by mistake--both by fellow Iraqis or by American soldiers and their multinational allies. And they include the victims of crime that has surged in the instability that followed the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime.  ... even those killed by criminals could be considered indirect victims of a war that destroyed Iraq's security services and brought a spike in crime. ...

Al-Radini at the Human Rights Organization in Iraq agreed. "The main responsibility behind these Iraqi civilians deaths lies with the occupation because those victims would not have fallen had there not be an occupation," he said.

Even taking the Sheik Omar and al-Radini figures as a basis, the claim that Iraq is suffering "two 9/11s a month" seems a stretch. (See correction below) Clearly, "a lot" of Iraqis are dying, whatever the precise numbers, but lining up their coffins to point an accusing figure at the "Blessed Leader" is in its own way, the ultimate cheapening. Under this kind of arithmetic, US forces are 'responsible' for killing 300 enemy soldiers in Najaf and equally guilty when the enemy kills 23 Iraqi National Guardsmen in Kirkuk, of killing 10 "people" in a precision airstrike in Fallujah yet also guilty of not stopping those same people from attacking the Iraqi police. If US and Iraqi soldiers launch an offensive in Al-Anbar by year's end, as Dexter Filkins of the New York Times writes, they stand condemned, according to this curious logic, for each enemy soldier or terrorist they kill.

If war is to make any sense (a proposition that some conscientious objects will deny in principle); and to progress toward some notion of "victory", then all deaths cannot be equal. There is an inverse relationship between the number of enemy deaths and the number of allied and civilian deaths one has to endure. It is undeniable that a lot of people, guilty and innocent, are still dying in Iraq.  But it's the distribution that counts.

BTW, Mark Steyn's argument that "In two-thirds of the country (Iraq), municipal government has been rebuilt, business is good, restaurants are open, life is as jolly as it has been in living memory" is neither refuted nor asserted. However, the Guardian reports that British troop levels in some parts of Iraq are going to be reduced, so it is possible that Steyn's assertion may be true of some localities at least. Although the Guardian begins by prefacing its reportage with "despite the deteriorating security situation in much of the country" it goes on to say:

The main British combat force in Iraq, about 5,000-strong, will be reduced by around a third by the end of October during a routine rotation of units. ...  The reduction will take place when the First Mechanised Infantry Brigade is replaced by the Fourth Armoured Division, now based in Germany, in a routine rotation over the next few weeks. Troop numbers are being finalised, but, military sources in Iraq and in Whitehall say, they are likely to be 'substantially less' than the current total in Basra: the new combat brigade will have five or even four battle groups, against its current strength of six battle groups of around 800 men

Incidentally, the US troop rotation plan, OIF-3 will also reduce the number of US forces in Iraq but will increase the proportion of Army National Guard brigades.

Beginning in July 2004, the United States began implementing the OIF 3 troop rotation. OIF-3 plans call for troops numbers to be reduced from 140,000 to roughly 130,000. According to documents presented during a HASC hearing on July 7, 2004, US force disposition plans call for a Stryker Brigade to remain stationed in Northern Iraq. The 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, will replace in this role the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. In the North-central sector of Iraq, The 1st Infantry Division will be replaced by the 42nd Infantry Division of the NY National Guard, while II MEF will take over I MEF operations in Western Iraq. The Brigade of the 1st Armored Division attached to the Polish south-central sector, will be replaced by the 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain. Finally, the 3rd Infantry Division will take over the 1st cavalry Divison in Baghdad. As part of the rotation, OIF units will be deploying 'heavy'.

The number of Army National Guard brigades in Iraq will increase during this rotation from three to five. The rotation will mark a first with a National Guard division headquarters (42nd Infantry Division) assuming, for the first time in Iraq, command active-duty brigades.

The danger with uncritically accepting claims like "the insurgency is spreading" or "Bush is so desperate he is calling up the National Guard" is that it is not obviously supported by the geographical distribution of casualty figures, the rising number of enemy deaths, the drawdown in deployed forces nor does it account for changes in the force mix.


Reader Kenny writes to say:

Even though i'm not one to defend Andrew Sullivan (i think he's gone off the deep end), I think you misunderstood his statement of "two 9/11's" a month. He doesn't mean that there are 6,000 people dying each month, he means that the proportion of people dieing each month, is proportional to the United States experiencing two 9'11's a month in term's of the different size populations between the US and Iraq.

The USA has slightly more than ten times the population of Iraq (290 M vs 26 M). Taking the high end Iraq Body Count numbers, we have 14K/19x10=7,400 per month American casualties equivalent, which is indeed 2 x 9/11s. On that basis, Andrew Sullivan's claim is justified and I do apologize for misunderstanding his comparison. But Sullivan's comparison is apt in more ways than one. Most of Iraqi casualties will have been caused by terrorist action, such as car bombs going off in market places, police stations, hotels etc just as 9/11 was caused by Al Qaeda operatives crashing into three buildings and these deaths are the "Blessed Leader's" fault in the same sense that 9/11 was his fault, which is an argument that some in the 9/11 Commission tried to make.

This goes to the strategic heart of the problem. The War on Terror is a politico-military struggle. The United States has always had the military means to obliterate Ramadi, Fallujah etc. or for that matter, every Islamic nation in the world. Do you "hurry up" or pick your way through? The seige of Fallujah was a distillation of this debate in miniature. Many commentators, including Ralph Peters, have argued that that Fallujah should have been taken at whatever cost. Many feel the siege of the Imam Ali Mosque should have been pursued without limits. In this context, what does the claim that Iraq is suffering the proportional loss of 2x9/11s mean?