Tuesday, October 26, 2004


Combat Deaths in Iraq: The Dog That Isn't Barking.

One week out from the election, I had myself a minor epiphany this morning while getting ready for work.

Where's the major terrorist attack on U.S. soil?

Now, it's entirely possible that one could happen in the next few days, even this weekend, ala Spain.

But one obviously hasn't happened, unless only Keith Olbermann reported it. Then, no one would know.

Now, if we did a probability graph, I'm assuming there's some sort of ski slope at work here, and the odds of an attack, or an attack attempt increase as we get closer to the election.

Again, however, every day that passes without an attack "eats into the ski slope," as it were.

However, noticing the absence of a domestic terrorist attack wasn't my epiphany-- just an incidental result.

Instead, I thought to myself, "Huh. We're not hearing a lot lately about casualties in Iraq."

John Kerry's stump speech, and later his debate comments, emphasized that American battle deaths in Operation Iraqi Freedom have continued to increase, from June to July, from July to August, from August to September.

However, with only five days left in this month, October stands to be a month of *decline* in American deaths.

Chart care of Global Security.org

The numbers off the Iraqi Coalition Casualty Count website show 50 dead for October, down from 87 in September. The Global Security chart above extrapolates the average of 1.92 deaths a day in October to arrive at their projection for October (vertical in pink).

Now, let me state unequivocally that *I* don't think this bean counting is all that useful. We could have no casualties in Iraq, and still be losing the war. We could also have a very bad day, perhaps a convoy ambush gone terribly wrong for American forces, that would skew all the numbers for any given month. Such a result would probably be useless in predicting victory or defeat. After all, Okinawa, the bloodiest battle in the war against Japan, happened just two months before the unconditional surrender in Tokyo Bay, but certainly "skewed" the casualty rates.

That said, the enemy almost certainly uses these numbers as a metric for victory. Given the varied character and often divergent aims of the myriad of insurgent groups fighting us, it's difficult to infer any coherent "strategy for victory" on their part. They just seem to like killing Americans, and Iraqis.

So, in the absence of an obvious strategy, it's likeliest to assume the ONLY strategy being executed on a nationwide scale is the infliction of casualties aimed at demoralizing Coalition forces. Given that such tactics have worked for the enemy in the past (witness Spain, or the U.N. pullout from Iraqi), I'd guess that's still their objective.

Well, by counting only American deaths, the enemy is failing.

I don't want to belittle the tragedy of American deaths. Every number on that chart above represents a father, a sister, a son, a friend. I'd infinitely prefer that there be *no* deaths in Iraq.

But we are at war, and the coin of war is always blood. We can suffer dead and lose this war, or we can suffer dead and win it. That's our choice.

Continuing my analysis, to judge the progress of the entire war effort, it would also be necessary to include free Iraqi combat deaths. I have seen no solid numbers online, but I can only assume they've been bad in October, especially given the recent murder of nearly 50 Iraqi soldiers, an attack claimed by Zarqawi's group.

That said, if the Kerry Campaign refuses to include Iraqi contributions when *praising* Coalition performance, I see no need to include them when they criticize their performance, by highlighting casualties as an umitigated negative.

Thus, again, if we focus only on American casualties, the trend-- outlier it may be-- is declining.

More importantly, even if it is an outlier, the trend is declining at the critical juncture where American casualties are most relevant, i.e., just before the American election.

If a major element of the Iraqi strategy is to inflict as many casualties as possible on Americans in order to force us to pack it in and go home, then the best opportunity to effect such a change is by influencing Americans prior to November 2nd.

I am not going to turn this post into a political one-- I can't, I'm at work-- but I think we can all agree that regardless of the statements from the Kerry Campaign about "staying the course" in Iraq, if I'm, say, Zarqawi, do I want to stick with the enemy that I know will continue the war, i.e., President Bush, or do I gamble on the enemy that may-- or may not-- continue the war?

To paraphrase Mae West, when choosing between two enemies, the terrorists will want to choose the enemy they haven't tried before.

Thus, through no malice and forethought of their own, the political rhetoric of the Kerry Campaign converges with the military strategy of the Iraqi insurgency: more American deaths mean a greater opportunity for success.

If these figures hold true, however, the clock is running out for the enemy to influence this election. They may have already done enough damage to achieve their objectives-- we'll find out on November 2nd. But they certainly aren't making a "fourth quarter" push, or are at least not having any success in doing so.

Now, an important corollary here is that while the enemy strategy may be to inflict mass casualties on Coalition forces, it's entirely possible there has been an operational shift to focus on free Iraqi versus American forces. Without facts and figures in front of me, my gut tells me that is likely to be the case.

American forces are better protected, better armed, and better trained than the free Iraqis. If you're a terrorist or an insurgent (I repeat myself), you're fighting an asymmetric battle when you attack Americans-- but you're attacking a much softer target when you hit the free Iraqis.

And, ultimately, the war will be won by Iraqis versus Iraqis. It certainly becomes easier for the enemy to win if the Americans go home, but as I explained above, their window for forcing a quick(er) pullout is closing. However, even if we Americans stay in Iraq, and suffer no more casualties from here on out, we can still lose this war by losing the support of the free Iraqi people.

My prediction? If John Kerry is elected, the enemy will make a major push against American forces, with the expectation that increased American casualties will force a pullout in the next year. If George W. Bush is re-elected, the enemy, knowing that there's markedly little chance America will leave in the next year, will focus on inflicting free Iraqi casualties.

Either way, of course, both American and free Iraqi casualties can be expected to increase, as we're all in this together.

Listen-- every day we lose a brave man or woman is a tragic day for America. However, while I may regret the cold appearance of my analysis, I make no apologies for undertaking it. If critics of American power argue that enemy body counts are meaningless as a metric for military victory, than conversely, *Coalition* body counts are meaningless as a a metric for military defeat.

The enemy can not defeat America and its allies on the battlefield. In fact, given the car bombings and beheadings, the enemy obviously understands this. Their objective, if they have any besides anarchy and mayhem, is our will to resist them (if you haven't already, see Ace's excellent essay on "Willpower").

And, by my account, one major opportunity for the enemy to advance his cause towards ultimate victory-- inflicting intolerable American combat deaths before November 2nd-- is about to vanish.

Again, it may not matter for the election, the damage may already have been done, or not done. American combat deaths may have already influenced every voter they would ever influence, and done so months ago. Absent a catastrophic setback, additional deaths in the next week may be "tuned out" by the electorate.

That said, I'm absolutely certain that if October was even worse than September (continuing the trend highlighted by the Kerry Campaign), we'd be hearing about it nightly on the news.

As it stands, the dog isn't barking.

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