Friday, September 07, 2007

Assessing Casualties in Iraq

McClatchy News has responded to the large debate across the blogosphere to its story suggesting a mystery behind the fall of U.S. combat fatalities in Iraq (from Memeorandum):

A story by Pentagon Correspondent Nancy A. Youssef that we published on Sunday sparked a huge outcry in the blogosphere this week. Critics charged that the piece uncritically accepted the Bush administration's line that the surge of additional American troops to Iraq is working and that its statistical underpinning was flawed. McClatchy usually is associated with questioning administration claims, from the reasons for the war to Pentagon assertions about civilian casualties. We've earned a reputation for not accepting something just because someone says it's true, so being accused of uncritical reporting stings. But one of our mottos here is "Truth to Power," and that cuts both ways, so here's a more in-depth look at the story and some of the criticism of it.

The genesis of the story was pretty straight forward. In June, the
Pentagon announced that all of the troops involved in the so-called surge finally were in place and that American offensive operations would begin in earnest. Pentagon officials and the White House had predicted that U.S. casualties would rise, especially since the U.S. forces had launched major offensives in Diyala province, north of Baghdad, and Babil province, to the south. One of the most recent restatements of that premise came in the White House's July 12 assessment of progress in Iraq on Pages 3 and 4.

So what happened? Not what had been predicted. U.S. deaths caused by enemy action
peaked at 120 (filter by May 2007. Make sure you've clicked on U.S. in the box labeled coalition country) in May, before the surge reached full strength or Operation Phantom Thunder was launched.

Combat casualties then fell consistently for the next three months, reaching a
low of 56 in August, (filter by August 2007). That's the lowest number of combat casualties all year. You have to go back to July 2006 to find combat casualties at that level.

That discovery surprised many analysts, as Nancy wrote. Maybe it shouldn't have been such a surprise. Reporters in Iraq had noted a startling
lack of U.S. deaths or frustration on the part of soldiers that they weren't finding the gangs of insurgents they'd expected. One British analyst told Nancy that Iraq's armed groups may simply have avoided combat with the Americans. A few days later, a new report from the Government Accountability Office (Pages 42-43) lent credence to that idea.

Of course, some supporters of the surge credited the surge, and Nancy reported that, as well. After all, no one claimed to know precisely why the decline had taken place.

Criticism came from surge supporters, who said McClatchy was bending over backwards to belittle
Bush's policy or had joined the "surrender enthusiasts". An example of an email is attached to this story. But the most vitriolic criticism came from liberal Web sites who accused us of doctoring the statistics or of being part of the "as-usual servile and unquestioning mainstream press."
Read the whole thing. McClatchy goes on to note, admirably, that the original story did not evaluate all the possibly causes of the decline. One possible hypothesis is that combat deaths have shown an annual decline in the summer months, and the trend is holding up for summer 2007.

My criticism of the original article noted the twisted unwillingness of the McClatchy author to lend any weight to the new military strategy in Iraq as a cause of decreasing troop deaths: Perhaps with the U.S. routing the enemy, and decimating the ranks of the insurgent nihilists, fewer American forces have been lost.

Jules Crittenden also weighed in, dismissing the argument that the lower troop numbers were not significant because factional fighters in Iraq see the U.S. as irrelevant, and are waiting for America's exit:

Apparently, it’s because the enemy is winning in ways that cannot actually be detected. Or, that the enemy will be winning later, after we surrender. I think that’s what they are trying to say. It couldn’t possibly be because the Bush strategy is more successful than anyone dared suggest it might be.

In fact, there have been some much-heralded spikes in combat deaths as Americans engaged. But the turning of the tribes, a revolt that continues to spread, has dramatically cut violence in ways that were not anticipated when the surge was first announced. Combat operations north and south of the city have been highly successful. Al Qaeda operations in key areas have been terminated, and leadership has fled, attempting to spark bloodshed elsewhere.

It’s a war. Battlefields shift. But sometimes, the taking of territory, defeating the enemy, reducing one’s own losses is actually an indicator of pending victory, rather than defeat. Hard concept to grasp, I know.
Well, it's either a hard concept to grasp, or the hardcore antiwar types just refuse to grasp it. Any sign of impending victory will be rejected by the hardline antiwar types,
some of whom showed up in my comment thread, complete with a couple of desperate ad hominems directed my way:

Idiots like Mr. Douglas formulate their conclusions based on ideology and then chase any set of numbers, whether right or wrong, to justify themselves.
Or, at Daily Kos - the leading "progressive" opinion blog - McCatchy's refusal to consider the insurgents' "summer break" from the killing earned the paper the "Judith Miller Excellence in Journalism Award" :

IT appears that American media remain afflicted by the same unquestioning, "sure I'll drink the Koolaid" mentality that was so painfully evident in the New York Times' Judith Miller's horrendously wrong reporting that helped push us into this terrible war to begin with.
This is an interesing debate, with significant consequences. The hard-left forces are desperately trying to reclaim the upper hand in the media spin cycle over progress over the war.

The McClatchy update is noteworthy for highlighting the need for more evidence. That is good, although I'd bet no array of positive indicators would satisfy war opponents. The war's already been lost, they'll say - it's time to bring the troops home and end the "fiasco."

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