The Devil in the details
Former Spook at In From the Cold looks at US casualties in Iraq and finds that the NYT is ignoring certain pertinent details.
As the Battle for Baghdad rages on, casualties among U.S. troops have increased in recent months. Predictably, The New York Times has already weighed in on the subject, noting that this month may rank as one of the bloodiest months for American soldiers and Marines; so far, at least 53 U.S. military personnel have been killed in Iraq during October, and that total will certainly rise with two weeks remaining in the month.
The Times' veiled message is easy enough to decipher: efforts by the U.S. to improve security in Baghdad aren't working; violence continues to spiral out of control, resulting in more casualties among American troops, Iraqi civilians, and members of that nation's fledgling security forces.
Is that an accurate assessment? To its credit, the Times notes that a major reason for the increase in combat casualties is an increased deployment of U.S. forces in and around the Iraqi capital. With more troops battling terrorists in the heart of the insurgency, it is logical to assume that casualties will increase, at least over the short term. However, the Times fails to note that the U.S. offensive also falls during the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan, a period that traditionally produces a major spike in terrorist attacks. In recent years, there has been a noticeable decrease in enemy strikes after Ramadan, so it seems likely that U.S. casualties will also fall in November and December--another fact ignored by the Times.
Likewise, the Newspaper of Record also ignores other trends that may not bode well for our enemies. According to data from the same web site (icasualties.org), the number of troops killed by IEDs has declined steadily over the past year, despite an increase in terrorist bomb production and implantation attempts. Since IEDs represent the insurgents's only viable tactic, a decrease in their effectiveness means trouble ahead for the terrorists. And, based on current trends, the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq will decline again this year, for the second year in a row. Obviously, the loss of 3,000 military personnel since the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom is a tragedy for a society that values (or should value) all human life. But those casualties should also be weighed in the context of history, and our own, collective sense of what constitutes an appropriate level of sacrifice in defense of our freedoms.
My only observation is that Iraq is never quite the same place over time. While there are elements about it which endure, the character of the conflict has changed in so many respects that the correct frame of reference (it seems to me) is not back towards some archaic policy expectation expressed in a 2003 or 2004 document but in identifying the drivers of the dynamic and attempting to influence it in ways that only become apparent as you go along. Our goals are something we will have to discover. I know this sounds awfully wooly and unspecific, so let me try it explaining the thought in this way. Nonlinear dynamic systems like unstable societies are very sensitive to initial conditions. Arbitrarily small perturbations can lead to significantly different effects in the future; hence their behavior can't be predicted confidently very far into the future. You can't treat them in a linear manner. The only way to handle them in by shortening your reaction cycle to manage and so, hope to influence where the system will converge given enough time.