Monday, October 01, 2007

The Surge Works (Sadr's, That Is)

By Cernig

The big news today is that casualty rates in Iraq are down dramatically, according to figures from the U.S. military and Iraqi government.
A total of 64 American forces died in September — the lowest monthly toll since July 2006.

The decline in Iraqi civilian deaths was even more dramatic, falling from 1,975 in August to 922 last month, a decline of 53.3 percent. The breakdown in September was 844 civilians and 78 police and Iraqi soldiers, according to Iraq's ministries of Health, Interior and Defense.

In August, AP figures showed 1,809 civilians and 155 police and Iraqi soldiers were killed in sectarian violence.

The civilian death toll has not been so low since June 2006, when 847 Iraqis died.

"There is no silver bullet or one thing that equates as a reason to the drop in Iraqi and Coalition casualties and deaths," said Col. Steven Boylan, spokesman for U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus.

But he credited increased U.S. troop strength, saying that has allowed American forces to step up operations against al-Qaida in Iraq.
It's credit that Rightwing pundits are only too glad to extend.
The metrics have now shifted dramatically in Iraq. All violent deaths have dropped sharply, showing that the aggressive tactics and strategy of General David Petraeus have met with success. The terrorists have splintered and the tribal leaders in western Iraq have mostly aligned themselves with the US and the Iraqi Army. Those who claimed that Petraeus would misrepresent the truth in Iraq have nothing left of their argument.
However, before we all break the victory bunting out of storage, it might be worth considering a couple of points.

First, a graph.
Note first that the article quoted above says this month's death toll is the lowest since "since June 2006, when 847 Iraqis died". The graph above using Iraq Body Count's figures - which require two confirmations before they count a death - show June 2006 as claiming 2,000 Iraqi lives, just short of the all-time high the following month. It has been said before that Iraqi government casualty statistics are more about propaganda than accuracy - that seems to be the case here too. If they can't get June 2006 figures right what chance is there of them getting September 2007's right?

Secondly, even if there is a drop of some kind when more accurate figures are obtained, it is surely impossible to ascribe any such drop to the Surge. Civilian casualty figures during the Surge to date have been some of the highest of the occupation and actually rose over the Summer months. It's unlikely the Surge is the proximate cause of any dropoff unless Surge tactics and progress have dramtically changed in the last two months. They certainly don't seem to have made any such drastic change or breakthrough. Petreaus himself admits that AQI attacks are up during Ramadan, for instance. Bear with me, because in a second we'll look for another possible cause - and no, it isn't sectarian cleansing. The same problems attend such an explanation, unless we can find a sudden recent increase in population movements which would account for a seperation of sectarian combatants.

The same holds true for US military casualties. Here's another graph.
The red bars mark the period of the Surge up to August. As you can see, these months have contained some of the deadliest months for US forces ever.

So what changed? Well, the militant death toll was down in September too (according to the Iraqi government's admittedly odd figures) at 366, a drop of 106 from the previous month. Does that mean the Surge finally worked its magic sometime between the end of July and the end of August, so that everything is more secure? Well no - there's a far more likely proximate cause.

At the end of August, Muqtada al-Sadr ordered a cease fire of his Mahdi Army in order to reorganize that force, and said it would no longer attack U.S. and coalition troops. Such a ceasefire explains perfectly a drop in all metrics - in civilian casualties, US and Iraqi security forces casualties and in militant deaths. If Sadr's people aren't engaging then of course all of those are down - and would be down no matter what the Surge did. I wrote in August that Sadr's move was intended to let him consolidate his own state-within-a-state relatively unhampered, while also allowing him greater credibility and greater political power on the national stage and that his ceasefire didn't have to be perfect, just good enough that he could blame any Mahdi actions on renegades.

There are official hints that this is indeed exactly what is happening. Today, the Daily Telegraph has an admission from General Petreaus that "attacks by Iranian-backed groups may have declined" - and the primary group which it has been alleged is Iran backed is indeed the Mahdi Army. It's a remarkably convenient excuse for Petreaus even if it will annoy the Cheneyites in their push for war - having never presented sufficient evidence for Iranian meddling, he now never will have to if he can claim they've stopped doing so thanks to intercessions by the Iraqi PM. One wonders if the new Chief of the JCS, not known for his patience with political hacks, is making his presence felt already behind the scenes.

But what's notable is that Petreaus' remarks explain the drop in violence purely in the last month without crediting the Surge at all. That they don't credit al-Sadr either is perfectly understandable given the US insistence on attributing everything Shiite militias do to Iran even in the presence of contrary evidence.

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