I check out the Iraqi Coalition Casualty Count every day. Sometimes this makes me feel a bit ghoulish; at other times I think it’s important to keep track of most notable cost of this war to the United States.
As of today, 920 American soldiers have died in Iraq, 1042 in the Coalition as a whole. 122 contractors have also died, including 43 Americans. The best month for the U.S. is February 2004, when only twenty soldiers died. The worst month is April 2004, when 135 soldiers died. The death rate in most months seems to hover around 45-50. The easiest part of the Occupation came between June and October of 2003; since March of this year, deaths have averaged 73 per month. 54 Americans died in July, belying the claims of various conservatives that the insurgency has waned since the formal handover of power. 8 have died in the first three days of August; if the U.S. launches another offensive against Al-Sadr, August will probably look a lot like April.
Tragedies are never without political implications. The media has toned down its coverage of casualties in Iraq, largely because there’s nothing particularly new; just a steady drumbeat of death. The next time the media will pay attention is when the death toll passes 1000. At the current rate, this is almost certain to happen prior to the November election. This administration has never been shy about manipulating tragedy for political advantage, so I expect that they may try to manipulate the casualty rates a bit prior to the election. I think that this has already happened, in fact; the withdrawal from Falluja and the failed pursuit of Al-Sadr seem to me calculated to reduce casualty numbers in an election year. Predictably, these measures have failed. Insurgents in Falluja and supporters of Al-Sadr have stepped up attacks outside of their home areas, resulting in increased rather than decreased American casualties.
So what now? I can see two possibilities. On the one hand, the Administration may try to minimize casualties, hoping to stay below the magic number of 1000, even if such a maneuver ruins Iraq in the long run. This is hard to do, however, and could backfire in increased attacks all over Iraq. Since we’re only 80 short of 1000, it may be too late to make this strategy work, anyway. Alternatively, the Administration could try to go aggressive, risking casualites while at the same time trying to accomplish some goal that will obscure the death toll. This may be what they’re trying to do with Al-Sadr; get past the 1000 milestone before late October, and try to obfuscate the death rate with the capture of Al-Sadr. I think the latter is the more likely possibility.
Other countries are steadily decreasing their support. The substantial minority support for the war in Poland, Australia, and the Ukraine (40% or so) seems to have disappeared, and all three countries are thinking seriously about reducing their commitments or withdrawing altogether. Barring the appearance of 40000 troops from the Russian Army, which sure would be nice, if pretty bizarre, we’re stuck with a predominantly U.S. occupation. Iraqi forces remain wholly unprepared to fight and completely untrustworthy in any case, so don’t expect help from there. Regrettably, the Republicans have created a problem that will outlast this administration, regardless of whether it lasts for four or eight years. John Kerry is going to have to deal with this mess when he becomes President, and I don’t really expect it to become more tractable between now and January.
What a profound, ill-conceived disaster.