August 2, 2010

Differences in the Iraq casualty count - math or politics?

According to Iraqi government figures - and you would assume they are in the best position to know - July 2010 was the deadliest month since 2008 with over 500 dead and almost 1,000 injured as a result of increasing violence. Yet, the United States government - well, the Obama Administration - has taken issue with those figures, claiming that the real numbers are closer to 220 killed and less than 800 wounded.

If the American military counts casualties as accurately as the Obama administration counts jobs saved or created, there may be a credibility issue. We've never been good at body counts - remember Vietnam? In Operation Desert Storm, those of us from the Vietnam era were thrilled with General Colin Powell's and General Norm Schwarzkopf's decision not to count how many Iraqi soldiers we killed.

Despite the counting methodologies, the fact remains that the violence in Iraq, which had been on the decline since the American troop surge that began in 2007, has begun to rise over the last few months. There two key factors that account for this - the withdrawal of American combat forces according to an announced timetable, and the failure of the five major Iraqi political parties to form a government in the wake of the parliamentary elections held in March. The insurgents - be they the remnants of al-Qa'idah in Iraq (AQI) or others - are taking advantage of the resulting power vacuum to assert their relevance.

The two factors symbiotically contribute to the increasing violence. First, as any military officer will tell you, announcing timetables for military operations is never a good idea. Adhering to them in spite of a deteriorating security situation on the ground is even worse. The insurgents know that this is the one campaign promise President Barack Obama will keep.

American line units, the brigade combat teams with overwhelming firepower and maneuver elements, are being removed from the fight. This leaves the primary defense duties in the hands of the Iraqi army and security forces. While these units have made substantial progress over the last few years, they are not trained, disciplined and tested American troops. The insurgents know that their time is now, but that this opportunity will not last forever.

It is the second factor that dictates how long the window of opportunity for the insurgents remains open. As long as Iraqi politicians cannot or will not form a government, there is a huge power vacuum in Baghdad. No one is making policy, no one is executing policy, and no one is directing the defense of the country.

It's the "perfect storm" for the insurgents - American troops (through no fault of their own) are being withdrawn without adequate concern for the security situation, and there is no Iraqi government standing up to take the reins and take the fight to the enemy.

A major part of this fight is national will. If I was an Iraqi insurgent, whether from the AQI or elements of the resurgent Ba'th Party, I would assess that the Americans do not have the national will to alter their set-in-stone withdrawal date because of a domestic political agenda, and the Iraqi leaders (and I use the term loosely) do not have the national will to reach a political compromise in governance that will lead to effective security in the country.

Back to the numbers. It is in the Obama administration's political interest to have lower casualty numbers than what the Iraqis claim are the actual figures. If the administration can convince the American public that there is no serious increase in violence, there is no reason to reassess the security situation that might delay the pullout of combat troops from Iraq.

Politics is driving this train. That's cynical, but believable.