US casualty rates in Iraq, October notwithstanding, have been somewhat less severe in 2005 than in 2004. The biggest reasons for the (mild) decline are probably the absence of the major anti-Falluja offensive of November 2004 and of the Sadr-led Shiite insurrection of April 2004. I suppose that the destruction of Falluja is an achievement, as it seems that whether or not insurgents have returned, they do not boast the same level of control they once had. Moqtada Al-Sadr is still alive and still a leader, so I’m not certain what the April and August operations against him achieved.
What’s interesting to me is that casualty rates have remained remarkably stable since April 2004. Spikes and troughs aside, we can reliably expect about 70 or so dead Americans in a given month in Iraq. This surprises me because the situation in Iraq is not static, and I find it interesting that outcomes remain constant.
What’s changing? I have no doubt that the Army and the Marine Corps are now better at their jobs than they were in 2003. Soldiers and Marines in Iraq now have a better handle on tactics, a firmer grip on the local situations, and much more experience in dealing with an insurgency at the micro level. Even if the operational doctrine of the organizations are misguided, tactical execution should have improved simply through repetition.
Casualty levels, however, have not changed. This could mean a couple different things. One, it is possible that US tactics have improved, yet casualty rates remain the same because operations have taken on an increased tempo or are being launched in riskier situations. It’s possible that this is the case, although I’m not sure there’s a lot of evidence to support it. Soldiers are for the most part still being killed by IEDs, which doesn’t suggest that the American operational approach has substantially changed. The second possibility (and I consider this very likely) is that the insurgents themselves have improved substantially since 2003. There are some good reasons to suspect that this is the cause. Smaller organizations tend to incorporate lessons more effectively than large ones. Insurgent cells are very small, indeed. Moreover, a Darwinian logic applies to the quality of insurgent forces. Insurgent cells that do well survive. Those that do not are destroyed. We should expect that the most competent insurgents will survive the longest, and competent in this case means flexible and adaptible. Moreover, the tactics of successful organizations can be copied by other organizations, resulting in a overall tougher insurgency.
This analysis suggests that Coalition forces and insurgents are in a holding pattern. This is bad; the insurgents care more about winning than we do, and are will to endure greater losses and to incur greater costs than we are. However, I think that the situations is even somewhat worse that this, because the above arguments don’t take into account the increasing size of Iraqi police and military forces.
How does the development of Iraqi government forces bode ill? In and of itself, an increase in government capabilities is a good thing. Larger Iraqi military and police forces make things harder for insurgents. The problem, however, is that there doesn’t seem to be any indication that the Iraqi forces have made a difference for US casualty rates. There are many, many more Iraqi police on the streets now than a year ago, yet the ability of the insurgency to carry out attacks, to maneuver, and to create costs for the occupation does not seem to have decreased. Rather, the insurgents are now killing roughly the same numbers of Americans, plus a tremendous number of Iraqi soldiers and policemen (2200 this year so far, including 215 in October).
Now, casualty rates are not the best indicator of the success of an insurgency. Armies can reduce casualties in ways that will ensure defeat in war. Much depends on the type of operation that the military is carrying out, and on the strategy that the insurgents employ to defeat the occupying army. Nevertheless, casualty rates ARE one indicator, and this indicator looks really, really troubling. It suggest that the insurgency is not weakening; rather, it seems to be growing stronger at an alarming rate.
Hopefully this analysis has missed some important variable, and I’m wrong.