Global Policy Forum

Iraq Statistics Tell Grim Story


By Martin Sieff

United Press International
August 8, 2005

If the U.S. Army and its Iraqi allies are killing as many insurgents as reports indicate they are per month, why is the insurgency intensifying instead of collapsing?

The Bush administration has been extremely reluctant to comply with the requests of a Congress controlled by its own party and issue detailed figures, or "benchmarks" on progress in combating the insurgency. But a study of the best figures and estimates available publicly suggests that the level of attrition reported and widely believed to be inflicted on the insurgents is in reality a lot less than the figures indicate. For if the figures widely quoted are accurate, then the insurgency should be either collapsing already or, at the very least, shrinking dramatically in its resources and capabilities as its combat units and intelligence networks should have been suffering unsustainable attrition.

Retired Gen. Jack Keane, the former Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, attracted widespread publicity on July 25 when he told a meeting at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, as reported in The Washington Times, that more than 50,000 insurgents had been killed since the start of the insurgency. Afterwards, official administration spokesmen refused to confirm that figure. Gen. Keane was not speaking inappropriately or inaccurately. According to estimates widely used by the U.S. armed forces in Iraq, and reflected in the weekly statistical update issued by the IIP, 21,000 insurgents have been detained or killed in Iraq in the 11 months from Sept. 1, 2004 to July 31, 2005 and 43,500 from May 1, 2003 to the end of July this year. Those figures are not much lower than the one announced by Gen. Keane, who would have had access to more confidential and detailed data.

And it is also a matter of record that the prison population in Iraq, overwhelmingly consisting of suspected insurgents, peaked in July at 15,000 according to the figures collected and released by the Iraq Index Project of the Brookings Institution, its highest level since the United States and its allies toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in April 2003. Indeed, the IIP monitored a dramatic boost in the total figures of those jailed from 10,783 in June to 15,000 in July. That increase would certainly fit the vastly stepped up rhythm and scale of counter-insurgency operations by the U.S. armed forces and the new Iraqi security forces in May and June.

Yet other figures from the same predominantly U.S. sources contradict this apparently encouraging trend. For if the numbers of those killed and detained to a large degree does reflect accurately casualties inflicted on the insurgents, they would have been losing such high proportions of their manpower that their scale of operations and the number of combatants they can deploy should be falling dramatically. But this is not the case. U.S. estimates of both raw figures and also of the overall effectiveness of the insurgency has it climbing remorselessly upward throughout this year, especially in the past three months from May through July. A CNN headline Friday reflected this widespread, and probably accurate appraisal: it said, "Insurgency on rise in Western Iraq."

After falling from 18,000 in January and February and down to 16,000 in March and April, the U.S. estimate of the strength of the insurgency quietly crept up again from 15,000-20,000 for June to "No more than 20,000" in July, the IIP reported. Yet the U.S. military has also reported or estimated the number of insurgents detained or killed as 21,000 since Sept. 1, 2004, and 2,000 per month through May, June and July.

If the figures for the past three months are accurate, the insurgents have been losing 10 percent of their real strength per month, or almost one third in only three months, but the continued rise in the number of casualties they are inflicting on U.S. and allied Iraqi forces strongly suggests that, on the contrary, they are maintaining their strength or even extending it: That view, incidentally is also held by several U.S. Army analysts who have spoken on condition of anonymity to UPI.

Therefore, either the U.S. estimates of casualties inflicted on the insurgents are vastly inflated, or the insurgents are able to recruit within Iraq at a level that at the very least keeps track with their losses, and even if they are losing large numbers of experienced, highly trained cadres, they are able to replace them almost immediately with no discernible strain on their ability to sustain their current level of operations. The latter explanation, while possible, appears unlikely. It is not hard for any insurgency to replace activists lost in attacks very easily and quickly in terms of absolute numbers. But the loss of combat veterans and leaders cannot be replaced overnight. This has always been the case wherever insurgencies have been totally defeated, as was the case in the British campaigns against the Arab revolt in Palestine in 1936-39, the communist insurgency in Malaya in the early 1950s, or against the Indonesian incursions into Malaysian-controlled Borneo in the 1960s.

It has also been the case where the counter-insurgency power inflicted devastating losses on the insurgency cadres, forcing them to either greatly curtail their scale of guerrilla operations, or settle for a compromise peace, as was the case when the British fought the Irish Republican Army in the Irish War of Independence in 1920-21 and again against the Provisional IRA half a century later in the 1970s.

It was also the case when the U.S. armed forces and their South Vietnamese Army allies inflicted devastating casualties on the Viet Cong through the Phoenix program and against the Tet offensive in the mid 1960s through 1968 and when the French Army fought the ferocious FLN guerrillas to a standstill in Algeria in the late 1950s.

This may yet prove to be the case in Iraq, but it has not happened yet. For not only have U.S. estimates of overall insurgent strength risen by 20 percent in only two months, but the overall level of casualties inflicted both on U.S. forces and the new Iraqi security forces has been remorselessly rising throughout this year too, as the IIP has documented and as reported in UPI's weekly "Iraq Benchmarks" analysis.

That can only mean that the insurgents have not been suffering devastating attrition rates over the past few months as the estimates of those killed and wounded suggest. And that in turn suggests that the estimates are very inaccurate, as invariably happens in all wars, given their scale, messiness and complexity. Therefore, either many of those being killed and detained are not insurgents at all or, far more likely, they are indeed, but in general they are just foot soldiers being scooped up.

Most alarmingly of all, the figures suggest that the insurgency is able to operate and organize among a far wider cross section of the Sunni Muslim minority in Iraq than the widely quoted estimates have suggested, and that it enjoys a far broader popular support base in the Sunni community This, in fact, is the conclusion reached by several U.S. military analysts, speaking on condition of anonymity to UPI.

It appears, therefore, that the figures quoted are as accurate and reliable as it is possible for them to be in such a situation. But it is the conclusions to be drawn from them that make the grimmest reading.

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