Some Implications of “Staying the Course”

The numbers are flying around — so much so that one cannot be sure of where force levels will be in a few months. However, based upon press reports and data provided by the Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index, we can make some educated guesses.


Assuming 10,000 of the estimated 28,000 plus troops of the President’s planned escalation are in place as of March, there will be some 160,000 US troops in theater by sometime in the summer; I will assume that this means by September of 2007.


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Figure 1: US (green) and total non-Iraqi coalition (black) force levels. Estimated September 2007 US force levels (green triangle) based upon assumption of 10,000 of 28,000 escalation in theater in March; and estimated non-Iraqi coalition force September levels (black square) based on assumed 2,100 reduction in UK forces, and holding constant all others. Sources: Brookings Institution Iraq Index and author’s calculations.

However, at the same time, the British are reducing forces: 1,600 in the next few months, 2,100 by the end of summer. I’ll assume this means by September as well. This means that while US forces will be back up to peak levels attained in late 2005, coalition forces ex-Iraqi will be down from peak levels.


Some other trends are worth mentioning. Figure 2 plots fatalities in theater through February. The red line plots trend fatalities through December 2008, based upon data over the entire period since 2003. However, as the tempo of US operations have picked up over the past year, and insurgent forces have become more effective, the trend has steepened. At this faster pace, US fatalities will exceed 4,000 by February 2008, instead of June 2008, and will reach 4,747 by end-2008.


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Figure 2: Fatalities in Iraqi theater of operations, through February 28 (blue), and trends based on entire sample (red), and 2006M02-07M02 (green). Source: Iraq Coalition Casualty Count accessed on 24 March 2007.

The pace of non-fatal casualties has also accelerated in the recent year (February ’06 to February ’07). As displayed in Figure 3, at current rates, cumulative wounded will exceed 30,000 by January 2008 instead of June of that year.


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Figure 3: Wounded in Iraqi theater of operations, through February 28 (blue), and trends based on entire sample (red), and 2006M02-07M02 (green). Source: Iraq Coalition Casualty Count accessed on 24 March 2007.

At this higher trend rate, cumulative wounded will reach 36,817 by end-2008. Given that we will be increasing troop levels in Iraq, I would think that these higher estimated trend rates of casualties incurred would not be implausible.

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16 thoughts on “Some Implications of “Staying the Course”

  1. Joseph

    This site reports that 18 countries has completely withdrawn coalition troops, leaving only 21 countries left. Only the UK and South Korea presently have more than 1000 troops in Iraq. Recently Georgia has announced their intentions of increasing their troops to as many as 2400. Other than that, it looks like just about everyone else is on their way out.
    There are some interesting poll results toward the end of the Brookings report. For example the percentage of Iraqis approving of attacks on US led forces increased from 47% to 61% during 2006. Also 81% approved of a government timeline for US withdrawal.
    Overall, that has to be about the most grim report I have ever seen. Just about every metric of progress in Iraq has deteriorated in the last four years — from the number of daily insurgent attacks, to number of bombings, oil production, electricity production, water and sewage, number of physicians, unemployment, etc. It really sucks to be Iraq.

  2. DickF

    Menzie wrote:
    as the tempo of US operations have picked up over the past year, and insurgent forces have become more effective, the trend has steepened. At this faster pace, US fatalities will exceed 4,000 by February 2008, instead of June 2008, and will reach 4,747 by end-2008.
    Menzie,
    Your bias is showing. If the US increases aggressive action and therefore increases the number of engagements there will naturally be an increase in casualties. This in no way means that the “insurgent forces have become more effective.” As a matter of fact the news from the ground is just the opposite. The number of insurgent casualties has increased and the number of insurgent actions in Baghdad has decreased. Additionally many of the insurgent leaders have retreated to Iran.
    Also I question static analysis and straight-line projections. While your forecast of casualties many be right I believe it is more valid to say that there will actually be fewer casualties as forecast for June because of the increased military action now. Significant amounts of bomb making material have been uncovered and destroyed and the insurgents are seeing their safe havens decreasing.
    This is very similar to static economic analysis. The whole reason for the “Surge” is to invest in the present to reduce the criminals and reduce the crime in the future. Reduced regulations and taxes on the economy do the same thing.
    Now to the question of the British pulling out you have to understand that the British and US forces have different responsibilities. The area the British have been guarding is significantly pacified. Their primary role has been reduced to controlling smuggling. Reducing their force seems prudent. On the other hand the US is confronting crime in a major city. This is requiring a more intense police action. An increase in US forces seems prudent.
    This analysis also has a parallel in the economic world. It is macro versus micro and it demonstrates how macro analysis absent the consideration of micro events can mislead.

  3. Anonymous

    Lee: Thanks for your insights. It would be illuminating to hear what constitutes non-lame in your opinion.

    Joseph:I agree; the Iraq Index is extremely useful for those individuals who would like to examine data as opposed to quoting talking points.

    DickF: While I understand the objections to straight-line projections (which is why I provided two sets for each variable), I have to say your remarks about how much bomb-making material have been captured remind me of “light at the end of the tunnel” comments in the search-and-destroy era. To sum up a complicated issue, I still don’t see how a total combined (ex-Iraqi) coalition force under 200,000 is expected to stabilize — vis a vis insurgents and other elements that have managed to infiltrate the security forces — the entire country.

  4. Joseph

    This report released by the GAO this month describes how the failure to plan for the occupation and the shortage of troops to secure munition sites resulted in widespread looting of explosive ordnance. The looted munitions are being used in the IEDs that are responsible for half of all combat deaths and casualties in Iraq. The report also says that as of October of 2006, three and a half years after the invasion, some sites still have not been secured. When questioned by the press about the widespread looting immediately after the invasion in 2003, Rumsfeld replied “hey, stuff happens.”

  5. Sebastian

    DickF said: “…Also I question static analysis and straight-line projections. While your forecast of casualties many be right I believe it is more valid to say that there will actually be fewer casualties as forecast for June because of the increased military action now. Significant amounts of bomb making material have been uncovered and destroyed and the insurgents are seeing their safe havens decreasing…”
    The U.S. military’s own views on insurgencies support Menzie’s position over yours, IMO. Insurgencies aren’t ended by military action but by society-wide improvements in living conditions. The surge is a one-time event and when it’s over, the insurgents will replenish their bomb-making materials, find new hiding places (or return to their old ones), and gain new recruits.
    We only “win” this war if we win, the insurgents can win just by not losing. That puts the U.S. at a tremendous disadvantage which we cannot and will not overcome. The Administration (whoever’s) will never actually accept this, but the cost of staying the course will eventually become too high and we’ll be forced to withdraw.
    Sebastian

  6. Pianoguy

    DickF: You’re absolutely right that casualty rates tend to reflect the pace of our operations, not the strength of the insurgency. However, there’s another metric that lends a great deal of credence to Menzie’s position: Iraqi civilian/police/military casualties. If the increased pace of US operations was weakening the insurgents and terrorists, then attacks on civilians would inevitably decrease. That clearly is not happening. Instead, it looks like a simple continuation the deadly game of “whack-a-mole” we’ve been playing for nearly four years – while we pacify Baghdad, violence increases elsewhere. When we concentrate our efforts elsewhere, violence will again increase in Baghdad.

  7. don smith

    Any notion that the situation in the south of Iraq, namely Basra, is pacified, can be asserted only on the basis of a misunderstanding. Civil tensions are not nearly as high in the south as in central Iraq but this is not due to British ‘pacification.’ Instead, it is due to the fact that the shia have complete control over government functions. However, tensions between several shia groups are evident, as indicated in very recent press accounts of fighting between the Mahdi army and another shia sect.

  8. DickF

    Pianoguy,
    Did you hear the out-going ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad yesterday? He said that since the SURGE began attacks are down 25%.
    There have been attacks in towns 30-40 miles outside of Baghdad but what this indicates is that the insurgents have been dislocated. It will be more difficult for them to make the headline news if they are hitting small towns. If Baghdad becomes significantly pacified it will be a huge win for the Iraqi security forces.

  9. rana

    Hey DickF,
    For the Iraqis that actually live in Iraq, rather than in the land of headline news, displacing the terror campaign to other parts of Iraq is not a huge win it is just a continuation of the trend line. You may not like straight line projections, but look at the two graphs, they tell that story. The number of troops fluctuate, the Iraqi government makes all sorts of progress according to the the Administration (elections, number of trained police etc) and the number of deaths mounts steadily. If Menzie added a third graph showing number of civilian deaths, you would see not a stable high level of violence but a deteriorating trend over time. Thus, the burden is on you to show why more of the same (look at the top graph) should generate vastly different results.

  10. DickF

    Robert Whaples, professor of economics at Wake Forest University, has measured the cost of each major American war up through the first Gulf War. We took these costs and compared them to the cost of the Iraq war and found that the Iraq experience has consumed a smaller percentage of GDP (just 2 percent of one years wealth creation) than every other American war except the first Gulf War (which measured just 1 percent of GDP).
    A graph can be seen at the following web site.
    http://www.nationalreview.com/nrof_buzzcharts/buzzcharts200601230854.asp

  11. Nick

    “The number of insurgent casualties has increased ”
    Are we really back to Vietnam-style body counts? The US military has previously agreed that these were misleading, and promised not to produce them. If they’re back, we’re really in trouble.
    On the other hand, I would suggest that a chart of cumulative casualties (or cumulative anything) is misleading. Better would be a chart of the casaulty rate: it would be much easier to see trends and changes.

  12. Pianoguy

    Nick,

    Good metrics are available at the Iraq Coalition Casualties site.

    DickF,

    Thanks for the link. If Whaples is correct, then it’s evidence that our military has much less reserve capacity than it had in wars past. In the military town in which I live, it’s clear how thinly stretched our forces are. Many troops will soon be heading out for their third tours of duty, despite the relatively low number of troops in Iraq.

  13. russell120

    “then it’s evidence that our military has much less reserve capacity than it had in wars past”
    Historically the United States peace time establishment has been tiny. In WW1 it was only because the French gave us almost all of the military equipment that we were able to send an expeditionary force to Europe. WW2 was better only because we were able to ramp up our military production through sales to Britain and France early on.

  14. Nick

    “Nick,
    The only ones keeping body counts are the anti-war voyeurs.”
    ummmm….. I was quoting from your comment.

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