Friday, January 08, 2010

The American war in Iraq trails off

This is a milestone:
Baghdad, Iraq (CNN) -- December was the first month since the beginning of the Iraq war in which there were no U.S. combat deaths, the U.S. military reported.

There were three noncombat fatalities. [....]

Since the beginning of the war more than six years ago, 4,373 U.S. military members have died -- 3,477 from hostilities and 898 in non-combat incidents.

Combat fatalities have decreased significantly since June, when the United States started withdrawing troops from Baghdad, Iraq's capital, and other urban areas. The United States also started a troop drawdown in 2009 from about 160,000 to the current level of around 110,000. [....]

Since July, U.S. forces have suffered no more than five combat-related deaths each month. There were five in July, three in August, four in September, two in October and four in November.
=> For Iraqis, the war is not over. The increase in security since the worst days of 2006-2007 does seem to be real and significant, despite a recent upsurge in terrorist attacks against government and civilian targets:
Casualties also have decreased among Iraqis, with Interior Ministry officials reporting in late November that the civilian death toll fell that month to its lowest level since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
But this is a relative matter:
According to the Interior Ministry, 2,773 civilians were killed and 8,900 were wounded in 2009. In addition, 242 Iraqi soldiers were killed and 612 were wounded in 2009.

In December, the ministry said, 306 Iraqi civilians were killed and 1,137 were wounded; 13 Iraqi soldiers were killed and 32 were wounded. Also in December, 48 Iraqi police were killed and 119 were wounded.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that casualty rates for Iraqi civilians are dramatically lower than they were during the most horrific period in 2006-2007, and the long-term tendency has been one of continuing decline. Terrorists, so-called "insurgents," sectarian fanatics, and other political thugs of various stripes are still trying to murder Iraqi civilians, but they've become much less effective at doing so over time.
November recorded the lowest casualty figures for Iraqis since the U.S.-led invasion, with 88 civilians killed and 332 wounded. In addition, 12 Iraqi soldiers died in November and 44 were wounded. Among Iraqi police, 22 died and 56 were wounded.
=> Around the end of 2006 and the beginning of 2007, as the inter-sectarian bloodbath in Arab Iraq seemed to be escalating out of control, a great many people concluded that Iraq was going irretrievably over the edge, that further US military involvement was a hopeless cause, and that the only sensible course was for the US to abandon the effort and start pulling out. There were some genuinely plausible reasons to reach this conclusion, but it turned out to be incorrect. In retrospect, it's clear that on the fundamental question as it was posed around the beginning of 2007--whether or not the right course was for the US to admit failure and abandon Iraq--Generals Petraeus and Odierno and (let's give credit where it's due) John McCain were right, whereas Barack Obama, most Democrats, much of the top military brass, and a great many Republicans were wrong.

This chart captures the basic picture from March 2005 through November 2008. (All such estimates are controversial, of course--the sources for these are explained here--but the basic overall tendencies seem clear enough.) Since then, despite some ups and downs, the long-term downward trend has continued (so far).

The CNN report concludes:
Daily violence has drastically dropped across the country over the past two years, but sporadic spectacular attacks, including high-profile suicide bombings against government buildings on August 19, October 25 and December 8, continue to claim hundreds of lives and shake confidence in the abilities of Iraq's security forces.

President Obama has said he plans to withdraw all U.S. combat forces from Iraq by August 2010 and all remaining troops by December 2011. Britain, the United States' major ally in Iraq, ended combat operations in April.
=> David Silbey, at the group blog The Edge of the American West, asks whether this is what "victory" might look like in Iraq ... and gives a sober and thoughtful answer.
As I highlighted earlier, counterinsurgencies rarely end cleanly and clearly, with a single moment identified as the day of victory. But they do end, and Iraq is ending now. That’s not to say the victory is one to be particularly happy with, that Iraq is a fully-functioning democracy without corruption, or that the potential for unraveling doesn’t exist. But it is to say that the United States has likely done as much as it could politically and militarily, given all the circumstances. Despite the result, I suspect that the memorials to Iraq, when they come, will be closer to the muted mourning of the Vietnam Wall than they will to the triumphalism of the World War II memorial. It seems unlikely that Iraq will ever be remembered as a “good war.
Despite all the differences between these two American wars--and the differences between Vietnam and Iraq are deep and important--much of that doesn't seem implausible to me. We'll see.

Meanwhile, it's important to bear in mind that the US will almost certainly continue to be involved in Iraq for years (since the withdrawal of all US "combat troops" won't actually mean the withdrawal of all US forces, at least for a while, and I wouldn't count too much on the target date of December 2011, either). As 2010 develops, there could also be some nasty surprises. But we do seem to be witnessing the beginning of the end of the American war in Iraq.

--Jeff Weintraub