Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Clarity of Analysis

Before taking a break for the Labor Day weekend, we wondered if the MSM would actually report the recent--and dramatic--drop in U.S. combat deaths in Iraq. As we noted on Friday morning:

With the end of the month just a few hours away in Baghdad, the U.S. fatality total for August stands at 79--the same number recorded last month. (Note: that was the latest total at the time of our post). That will likely generate such headlines as "American deaths hold steady in August," or "Combat deaths inch upward," (assuming that there are additional fatalities that have not yet been reported by DoD). In either case, the implication is the same: We're still losing 80 soldiers a month, so our "progress" is clearly limited.

But that analysis is wrong on multiple levels. Not only have the number of attacks dropped steadily, U.S. combat deaths have also continued their decline. Unlike this forum (and other milblogs), the MSM simply lumps all of the monthly fatalities together, regardless of cause. Fact is, our forces in Iraq suffer a number of non-hostile casualties each month, the results of illnesses, accidents and other mishaps. That may be little consolation to the families, but it is an important consideration if you're using combat deaths as an indicator of "progress."

Using data from the icasualties web site, we determined that 54 U.S. military personnel were killed in combat in Iraq during August. The other 25 died mostly in accidents, including two helicopter crashes that claimed a total of 19 American lives. The continued drop in combat deaths follows a trend that's become increasingly evident, as detailed by this monthly breakdown, which includes the number of hostile fire and non-combat deaths:

Month/Total Fatalities/Hostile/Non-Hostile
April 104 94 10
May 126 118 8
Jun 101 92 9
Jul 79 66 13
Aug 79 54 25

In other words, Americans combat deaths in Iraq has dropped by almost 50% over the past three months--while the number of troops in harm's way has increased (the surge hit its peak less than two weeks ago), with a corresponding spike in our operational tempo.

To her credit, Nancy Youssef of McClatchy Newspapers highlighted the casualty decrease in a story that appeared in various Sunday newspapers. However, the "experts" interviewed for the piece said the reasons for the decline were "unclear." And quite naturally, some of them managed to find a dark cloud amid the silver lining:

Military officials and observers are wondering whether the lower U.S. casualties are a sign of success or an indication that insurgents and militiamen simply chose a different battlefield when the Americans mounted their offensive in Iraq's capital.

"Nobody here is doing cartwheels yet," said one senior military official at the Pentagon, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely.

One British analyst, using the example of the British drawdown of forces in southern Iraq, suggested that the lower numbers may mean that American troops are irrelevant to the many conflicts racking Iraq: ethnic cleansing of neighborhoods in Baghdad, massive bombings of religious minorities by Sunni Muslim extremists in northern Iraq and Shiite-on-Shiite-Muslim violence in southern Iraq.

Instead, he suggested, Iraq’s armed factions and politicians already are thinking beyond the troop buildup.
"Everyone is preparing for what happens" after U.S. forces leave, said James Denselow, an Iraq specialist at the London-based Chatham House, a foreign affairs research institute.

While some caution is in order--a spike in violence (and casualties) may occur ahead of the Petraeus-Crocker Report---the dour assessments of McClatchy's "analysts" should be tempered by obvious signs of progress. As the Q&O Blog observed yesterday, the reasons for the drop in combat deaths become obvious when viewed in their proper context (and sequence):

1) We're taking the fight to the enemy--and holding more ground 2) Our operations are expertly planned and executed--designed to minimize our own casualties and those of Iraqi civilians; 3) The surge is disrupting enemy operations, reducing their ability to strike, and giving the Iraqis more confidence; 4) That confidence has brought more Iraqis to our side, and produced a wealth of actionable intelligence, which allows us to further target the enemy.

Seems clear enough to us.

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