Progress in Iraq

Looking for information about the implications of the ‘surge’ in Iraq, I found this NY Times report, which seems to sum up a lot of relevant points, and ought to prompt some rethinking of firmly held views. The key points

  • The American-led military campaign in Iraq is making enough progress in fighting insurgents and training Iraqi security forces to allow the Pentagon to plan for significant troop reductions
  • Attacks on allied forces have dropped to 30 to 40 a day, down from an average daily peak of 140

  • Thirty-six American troops died in Iraq last month, the lowest monthly death toll in over a year

  • More Iraqi civilians are defying the insurgents’ intimidation to give Iraqi forces tips

  • Even some of the administration’s toughest critics now express cautious optimism

  • There has been a steady increase in the capabilities and numbers of Iraqi units

As they say, read the whole thing. Then check the publication date.

63 thoughts on “Progress in Iraq

  1. Even better news: the military phase of the operation is now complete! Mission Accomplished!

    Now just turn on them oil spiggots and watch the whole dang operation can start paying for itself…

    Then saddle me up my old grey mare and we’ll ride backward into Afghanistan. Watch out for all them dang rose petals, Thunder! And tell them womenfolk to stop throwing their veils in the air and showing us proof that female circumcision is a thing of the past in this town! Jeebus!

  2. Juan Cole’s excellent Informed Comment blog is a rather more reliable source of information on Iraq than the NY Times.

    Basically its still a million dead Iraqis (and counting) for nothing. Even if you assume that the surge has worked (false) the diversion of effort has coincided with a resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The surge was a failed idea from the start: there is no military solution to Iraq, and the US has gotten the politics wrong from day one. Better to admit defeat, withdraw and at least try to stabilise Afghanistan.

  3. I hasten to add that I was not trying to suggest the desire for more conflict. The difference is that more troops in Afghanistan might do some good in allowing reconstruction to actually occur.

  4. Yes it’s now a good time to declare victory and go home, just as it was a good time to do that then.

    I really wish I could be more optimistic about Afghanistan – the war there originally had more justification than in Iraq. But I fear the final outcome is going to be much the same.

  5. I really wish I could be more optimistic about Afghanistan – the war there originally had more justification than in Iraq.

    Not really – it was merely better timed.
    Yes, Afghanistan is supposed to be the ‘good’ war, intended to bring UBL to justice.
    People forget that the Taliban offered to hand over UBL and other terrorists in exchange for proof that they were actually involved in 9/11. When this proof was not forthcoming, they then offered to hand them over to a ‘neutral third country’ (Pakistan) for imprisonment and trial. This offer was also rejected by the US.
    After the fact, of course, the commentariat cited human rights as the just cause for the invasion, and ongoing occupation. Never mind the fact that human rights have not improved in the meantime, and the fact that in 2007, allied troops killed more civilians than did the insurgents.

  6. John, Are you suggesting that because the claims then were overly optimistic that the claims of improvement now are also optimistic. That would be an unjustifiable deduction. If you are not saying this – what are you saying? That people sometimes exaggerate?

    My understanding is that al Qaeda is not doing well in Iraq now and that the surge is broadly working.

    And Socrates the number of dead in Iraq is about 151,000 not 1 million. Even the Lancet study came up with an exaggerated figure of 650,000 not 1 million. Its still a large loss of life but the figure you quote is out by a factor of almost 7 – not a detail.

    Let me guess the response ‘why quibble obscenely about numbers when so many have been killed?’. My response (in anticipation) is that the figure of 1 million is a misrepresentation.

    Finally, suppose (hypothetically) the US could, over the next few years, bring about a peaceful resolution in Iraq with some semblance of democracy and with a civil insurrection and al Qaeda interference. Would critics of the war still maintain their opposition? I would like to establish whether in the eyes of the critics US objectives were wrong and immoral or whether the war has proven to be unexpectedly difficult and should therefore be abandoned.

  7. Even if we don’t accept the figure of 1 million dead, 151,000 sounds pretty implausible, to say nothing of the injured, and the vast number of refugees (between 1-2 million).

    I would like to establish whether in the eyes of the critics US objectives were wrong and immoral or whether the war has proven to be unexpectedly difficult and should therefore be abandoned.

    Are you suggesting that the current situation in Iraq is merely one of ‘mismanagement’? That it was not entirely predictable from the outset? That a more efficient shock and awe campaign would have brought the light of US democracy and neoliberalism shining down upon grateful Iraqis?

    And when you ask whether opponents of the war believe US objectives were ‘wrong and immoral’ – to which objectives are you referring? The post-hoc, disingenuous claims about spreading democracy by bombing campaigns? The fanciful pre-war suggestions that Iraq was an emerging military power, and emerging threat to the western world? The unsubstantiated association continually made (pre-war) between 9/11, Al Qaeda and Saddam?

    In short, do you mean the ludicrous and utterly implausible ‘manifest’ objectives, or the less overt objectives that are nonetheless readily deducible from the actions of US authorities, lawmakers, et al.

  8. The IFHS number is for “violent deaths” rather than “excess deaths”. Apples with apples, Harry.

    The 1 million number is a projection of the Lancet estimate to the present day (because the survey was done some time ago). The comparable number of “excess deaths” from the IFHS is 700,000.

    So that’s a factor of 1.4, not a factor of 7.

  9. “Would critics of the war …”

    What ‘war’? War against whom? What are the war objectives and how will anybody know whether or not they have been achieved? There is a US occupation of Iraq. There is no war.

    BTW Harry the source that you rely on for mortality figures suggests that the estimated number of deaths of 151,000 (plus or minus 50,000) covers the period ‘from March 2003 through June 2006.’ Are you suggesting nobody’s died since then? Remarkable.

    But then I looked at your source for your statement that Teh Surge was working and I see it’s dated March last year, and mainly summarises the opinions of the bloke who is in charge of Teh Surge. Hardly an impartial commentator, I would have thought.

    No wonder so many people make fun of the social sciences if this is typical of the standard of argument.

  10. No wonder so many people make fun of the social sciences if this is typical of the standard of argument.

    I wish I could predict what sort of response this is going to provoke. Nice one, Ken. 🙂

  11. if dubya had personally walked down the mainstreet of baghdad killing at random with an m-16,everyone would be clear that he was at best a murderous maniac. that he used the american war machine to magnify his efforts by 100,000-fold in pursuing some geopolitical plan absolves him of any blame, and we can measure his activities not by the number of dead, but by his success in achieving america’s aims.

    i don’t measure success that way. he is still a murderous maniac. people who celebrate his success are suffering from a lack of experience, or a psychological condition commonly called sociopathy.

  12. SJ, The IFHS did not make estimates of non-violent deaths. Lancet 2 (with updating) massively overestimated violent deaths. I assumed this is where Socrates got his 1 million figure from.

    THR, Refugees and injured persons are not deaths. The rest of your comment is nonsense.

    Ken, No I am not suggesting there have been no deaths in Iraq since 2006. Nor am I suggesting that the Pope has decided to become a nun.

    What’s your source for the view that the surge is failing? Most stuff I have read suggests some grounds for optimism – al Qaeda loosing support and opposing Shia/Sunni factions in Iraq being less militant. Even the Australian commander in Iraq says that our troops can be withdrawn since Iraqi troops can take over this role.

    Al Loomis, I don’t agree that George Bush is a ‘murderous maniac’. I don’t know anyone who celebrates Bush’s successes and therefore qualifies for your label ‘sociopath’.

  13. SJ, The IFHS did not make estimates of non-violent deaths.

    That’s dealt with at the link I provided.

    Lancet 2 (with updating) massively overestimated violent deaths. I assumed this is where Socrates got his 1 million figure from.

    This isn’t just a semantic quibble about violent vs excess. You seem to be talking make-believe stuff.

  14. Thanks for those who defended my 1 million figure over HCs nonsense. I agree with the references to Tim’s columns at Deltoid which explain why the 1 million figure is regrettably credible. Though I really wonder why we need to defend the Lancet study. It was done by experts using the recognised methodology for such studies.

    HC, I will not bother to debate you on the statistics, since I doubt you will ever admit you are wrong. However, I would like to ask you a question – why do you need to seek to minimise the number of deaths? Does it somehow morally legitimise a unilateral decision to invade Iraq based on evidence later proven false? You admit yourself that a peaceful, stable Iraq is at best hypothetical, yet you still think it might then justify this? Of course, if George W Bush really cared about democracy, why did he support the Pakistani and Saudi governments, which are both military dictatorships, and one of which did in fact have WMDs? There was another reason…

    As for the surge, it is a short term thing. As soon as the troops leave Iraq, it will be back to the civil war. The only hope for peace is a deal with Iran, which Dubba will never make. I marched against this stupid invasion before it happened in 2003, because it was obvious to anyone who had ever studied mid-east history that it was stupid. Sadly for the Iraqis, it still is.

  15. Whether 1 million people died, 200,000 people died, or 40,000 people died, it is still utterly inexcusable.

  16. The major problem with the twits claiming success with the surge is that things are still very bad. It was even worse before.

    On top of that there is no way the American Army can keep up this effort continuously. Many retiring officers (freed from commentating while they were enlisted) have pointed this out. They no longer have the manpower or equipment to continue this level of build-up for a protracted conflict. The capability of the army is being worn down for years to come.

    Of course by the time the American army leave, a bunch of silly twits from the right will start a new myth about being the army stabbed in the back by politicians. How they “could have won if it wasn’t for the politicians”.

  17. Some interesting discussion techniques. Point out that someone has their facts wrong and the issue changes ‘who cares about the facts – its immoral to even want to look at the facts’. Another approach to the same issue ‘I don’t want to debate you on this since I know you won’t change your opinion’. It is pathetic.

    And SJ the issue you raised in not addressed in Lambert’s post – the IFHS did not compute estimates of ‘excess deaths’. The IFHS claim directly that Lancet 2 dramatically exaggerated the estimates of violent deaths. No ‘make-believe’ stuff there – but again a way of diverting the debate when you are clearly shown to be wrong in your claims.

  18. “Ken, No I am not suggesting there have been no deaths in Iraq since 2006.”

    Then why state that “the number of dead in Iraq is [present tense] about 151,000 not 1 million” when on your own admission that’s not the case? Odd behaviour from someone who is criticising others for getting their facts wrong. You’re a senior member of a discipline that is supposed to value the judicious and measured interpretation of data dude, do you think your statement meets good scholarly practice?

    “What’s your source for the view that the surge is failing?”

    What’s your source for your opinion that I have such a view, since I have never expressed it nor do I have it? It would only be possible to form a view about Teh Surge’s success or failure if one knew what the objectives of the occupation of Iraq were … questions I asked which you avoided answering in your haste to change the subject.

  19. Comment 5 is an important bit of history often forgotten. However it is not clear (to me at least) that the Taliban were making a genuine offer or if they were just stalling for time in the hope that the diplomatic climate might change to their advantage and/or that Osama might go into deep hiding in the interum. From the American perspective they may also have regarded the Taliban as complicit in which case calls for evidence were not genuine. All up I think invasion was a tolerable response but perhaps alternatives were available for a very narrow window of time. In so far as the US might have miscalculated so did the Taliban.

    The mistake in Afghanistan was to try and save the country from itself. The alliance should have gone in, killed the leadership, snatched Osama and left. The objective should have been to punish the leadership and to signal to leaders in other places. It should not have been to spread democracy.

    The mistake in the case of Iraq was invasion. However given that they did invade they should not have sacked the army. They should have shot Saddam and his boys and then gone home. The place would still be governed by a tyrant but it would be a new tyrant that new that the US does not mess about.

    I opposed the Iraq invasion at the time. The rest is with the benefit of hindsight, which is of course a lot easier than foresight. When a big bear is sleeping and you prod it in the bum with a sharp pointy thing it is not going to wake up in an entirely rational state. It is easy to blame Bush but the real problem lay in a body politic not accustomed to responding to massive acts of terrorist provocation.

  20. My understanding is that the surge involved expanding the Green Zone to various suburbs of Baghdad and reducing involvement in Sunnah Muslim areas west of Baghdad.

    This has meant that Saddam’s men were able to assume some control in the Sunnah areas. This has reduced al-Qaida activities in those areas.

    There was no al-Qaida in Iraq before the invasion. Al-Qaida has only been able to operate in areas where the occupation has tried to control.

    The surge in fact was a contraction of the geographic areas controlled by the occupation. We need more of that to ensure that Al-Qaida is finally defeated in Iraq. We need to completely withdraw from Iraq and particularly the various Baghdad suburbs
    surrounding the Green Zone. Iraqis will sort out al-Qaida, they were good at it when Saddam was alive and the surge shows that they are still good at it.

    /snark While a low USD is pleasant for Australians traveling in the US, I’m happy to wear that cost of withdrawing from the war that the lunatic fringe of the Neo-Orientalist brigade got us into.

  21. point out that someone has their facts wrong and the issue changes ‘who cares about the facts – its immoral to even want to look at the facts’.

    He didn’t say that at all and you’re deliberately misrepresenting it. He and several others defended the figure quite adequately, better than your attempt to set the bound at 151 000. Even so, your pre-emptive defence of the lower figure is still inexcusable. What makes your figure (even if correct) morally defensible?

    What happens when the surge succeeds? What does success look like? When do the Americans go home? How much money have they spent, in what condition is the country and how likely to be stable and relatively non-violent (let alone secular and democratic)?

  22. terje, I don’t think it’s easy to downplay Bush and his inner circle’s role in prosecuting war against Iraq. They had to really push the issue, and lie to a lot of people, to get it to happen. The PNAC has a well-documented role in this.

  23. Socrates: “HC, I will not bother to debate you on the statistics, since I doubt you will ever admit you are wrong.”
    HC “The IFHS claim directly that Lancet 2 dramatically exaggerated the estimates of violent deaths.”

    HC, thanks for living down to my expectations,and proving me right.

  24. Wilful at 27: “I don’t think it’s easy to downplay Bush and his inner circle’s role in prosecuting war against Iraq. They had to really push the issue, and lie to a lot of people, to get it to happen. The PNAC has a well-documented role in this.”

    Ain’t that the truth, wilful. I’ve been a regular reader of Harry’s blog from about a year before our Nov. election and an interested observer of his comments here, and until he got slapped badly upside his ideological head, at LP. The Good Professor, like a “Good Sheperd’s” assistant, has not budged an inch from the “Company Line”. HC’s overlap with JWH’s sycophantic justifications for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, AND the aims and objectives of the Project for a New American Century have extraordinarily “High Correlation”.

    One of PNAC’s ideological bastions, Leo Strauss, was quite up front about how it was necessary to deliberately “snow” the gereral population in order to achieve what were perceived to be necessary long-term goals. This country has seldom seen the likes of one who runs such serious interference for Straussian neoconservatism. As PPMcG falls off his perch, up pops Harry to grab the soiled standard. When you’re a jet, you’re a jet all the way and a committed idelogical warrior is never a quitter.

  25. EC
    On HC and others debating tricks, since they are not conservative in their claims, perhaps they need a new name besides “Neo-Cons”. Given the shameless game playing with facts, I suggest “Neo-Sophists” would be appropriate.

    BTW I had no idea who HC was, and was dissappointed to hear that he is a professor in any Australian university. He seemed like just another right wing troll.

  26. The objective of a sovereign and democratic Iraq seems further away than ever.
    If President McCain withdraws troops it will be an American triumph, if President Obama withdraws troops it will be a craven act of surrender. This is the likely right-wing script, Nixon got out of Vietnam.

  27. Wilful,

    The Bush team made the key decisions and should be held to account. However they had popular support, a willing media, a mostly silent political party on the opposite side of congress and limited time in which to effect a response. Those few in the republican ranks (eg Ron Paul) and also those few in the democrat ranks who voiced objections found little in the way of supporters in the body politic or in the mainstream media willing to stand with them. Congress as a whole handed Bush a blank cheque esentially abdicating it’s constitutional role in declaring wars (and in not declaring them).

  28. whatever other success the surge may represent, it has revivified the republican cause. i just came across a poll showing mccain beating clinton handily(old news) and obama narrowly.

    i thought it was going to be obama vs mccain after iowa, i never dreamed it might be close at the time. now it’s close, the other way! are the yanks gonna stop pretending after virtue, and simply admit: “we are the masters, grovel when we say grovel!”

  29. hc, you seem very sure of your ground on the death toll. There is plenty of reason to support the Lancet study as being more independent and more rigorous. See

    ‘http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/columns/shoptalk_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1003711142’

    http://www.jhsph.edu/refugee/research/iraq/lancet_mortality_response.html

    And, at http://www.accuracy.org/newsrelease.php?articleId=1627

    “There are reasons to suspect that the NEJM data had an under-reporting of violent deaths.

    “They roughly found a steady rate of violence from 2003 to 2006. Baghdad morgue data, Najaf burial data, Pentagon attack data, and our data all show a dramatic increase over 2005 and 2006. …

    “It is likely that people would be unwilling to admit violent deaths to the study workers who were government employees.

    “Finally, their data suggests one-sixth of deaths over the occupation through June 2006 were from violence. Our data suggests a majority of deaths were from violence. The morgue and graveyard data I have seen is more in keeping with our results.”

    If you are going to assert the Lancet study to be a ‘misrepresentation’ you need to base it on evidence and not smear.

    You’ve chosen this ground to fight on, hc. If you’re wanting to die in the ditch over whether Bush, Howard and co are in the Foday Sankoh as against the Pol Pot league of war criminals, you’re welcome to your foxhole.

  30. I trust people have been following the recent news of the Turkish invasion of northern Iraq agaisnt the Kurds? (I had assumed that people on this blog were sufficiently familiar with the region to understand why the surge alone cannot work and that it wasn’t necessary to explain that.) Anyway, for HC’s benefit, even if the surge is militarily successful within Baghdad in the short term, the rest of Iraq is still a huge mess. Again, a political solution involving Iran is the only long term hope for peace. Apologies for boring those who already know this.

    As for US politics, I guess ignorance is strength. They are about to be eclipsed as the world’s major power.

  31. Tergje, I didn’t think popular support was a valid defence for war crimes. Shouldn’t we require political leaders to look beyond the current popular feeling and consider things like the morality of their actions and evidence on likely outcomes?

  32. As they say, read the whole thing. Then check the publication date.

    Don’t have to; just have to hover my mouse over the link to see *gasp!* that the link is more than two years old! You mean to say we were being misled, even back then!?

  33. What is required at this point is for a modern Iraqi Simon Wiesenthal to hunt down all the war criminals from the Coalition of the Killing.

  34. It’s always worth hearing from Sun Tzu in these matters.

    “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

    “The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.”

    And perhaps the clincher;

    “There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare.”

  35. Sun Tzu happens to have been mildly mistaken on the second of those assertions, and seriously mistaken on the third. Oman describes mediaeval Swiss tactics as requiring so little direction that the rank and file insisted that their officers justify their higher pay by taking the forward positions. And, Aragon and Castile benefitted greatly from prolonged warfare (the Reconquista), as did the Ottomans during about the same period.

  36. As for-
    “a political solution involving Iran is the only long term hope for peace”

    I’m all ears and you have the floor there Soc old chap.

  37. Re 41. I would back in the wisdom of Sun Tzu against the wisdom of P.M. Lawrence any day of the week.

    Apparently Oman saw “mediaeval Swiss tactics as requiring so little direction that the rank and file insisted that their officers justify their higher pay by taking the forward positions.”

    Well of course the tactics needed little extra direction in battle as the Swiss infantry squares were already well drilled. It is far too late for complex directions once battle is about to be joined. My sources have it that “the (Swiss) militias drilled constantly to improve articulation, producing a battle square comparable to the Macedonian phalanx in manoeuvrability, cohesiveness and shock power.”

    And the officers led from the front? Good for morale and typical of the performance of elite armies in many eras of warfare.

    As for the third proposition, let’s just say Dame Imperial America’s strategic overstretch marks are showing badly.

  38. Observa

    I don’t claim to be an expert on Iraq, and my views are based heavily on my own reading, especially Juan Cole and Robert Fisk, who I would recomend, but I’ll give it a brief try.

    Iraq is an ethnically diverse and divided country. Even if the original foreign terrorists who flooded in after the invasion left, there would still be major conflicts. There has been effectively a civil war betwee Sunni and Shiite militias since the bombing of the Shiite Al Askari Mosque in Sammara in 2006.

    So how to get peace? The presence of US troops in itself enhances recruiting of terrorists, so they will have to leave for it to end. At that time the internal conflict could get worse. But putting it off won’t make it any better. Any peace would need some outside support for a fragile new democratic government to survive. That means neighbours, and Iran is the biggest and has the longest border. Plus Shiites are the majority group in Iraq, they are the majority of the army, and Iran is Shiite. No post US occupation democratic government in Iraq could surive without at least the tolerance of Iran. The alternative is another military dictatorship strong enough to stop the fighting, which would be back to square one (i.e. before the invasion).

    That is my understanding, others please correct any errors or omissions on my part.

  39. Socrates,

    The only omission I’d point to is the apparent assumption that the Iraqi Shia are united and uniformly pro-Iranian.

    There is definitely a pro-Iranian faction within Iraqi shi’ism and so long as it has the support of Grand Ayatollah Sistani. it is probably the most influential group.

    But there are significant divisions within the Shia and Moqtada Al Sadr represents the other main faction – nationalist and much more skeptical towards Iran.

    The Al Sadr’s have always been deeply suspicious of the theological innovations associated with the late Ayatollah Khomeini. On a more mercenary note, Sistani is allied with the Al Sadr’s long-standing rivals, the Al-Hakim family and Sistani himself is of Iranian descent. Opposing undue Iranian influence in Iraq, is an indirect way of criticising Sistani, who is too popular with the Iraqi Shia public to attack directly.

    So it’d clearly be desirable to have Iranian assistance in keeping the Shia mollified but doing so risks becoming entangled in internal Shia politics.

  40. Since a lot of the stability has come about from arming Sunni Militias against the Shia militias and paying off local warlords, I’m not quite sure how this bodes for the long term stability of the country.

    As I also pointed out before, the American army can not keep up this level of effort indefinitely, they no longer have the man power or equipment. Fairly soon they will have to start winding down.

  41. The myth of the Iraq War going badly is just that – a myth. In fact only 23 innocent Iraqi citizens have been killed, and they were all pre-enlightenment so don’t really count.

    Furthermore, if anyone is to blame for the carnage it is Australian Aboriginals, who stubbornly refuse to go over and fight.

  42. Clearly identity theft is a problem on this site. I suspect it should be against the comment policy but thats up to John. Just note that if mischief is the order of the day it is somewhat trivial to post comments as Kevin Rudd or John Howard or John Quiggin or anybody else really. It may be amusing but it is not such a good idea.

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