Tuesday, May 12, 2009

How much do 10,000 Americans killed or maimed matter?

Interesting question. For the longest time you have been able to get these little widgets that track deaths and casualties in Iraq. Mostly they were political toys to smack your opponents, and pretty much all references to them, or to our casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan have sort of ... disappeared from the MSM.

It's sometimes difficult to recall that by December 2008, combat operations in Iraq had killed 4,538 and wounded 30,930 troops, over 95% of whom were Americans. Likewise, combat operations in Afghanistan had taken 1,045 lives and maimed another 5,647 military personnel--again mostly Americans. [These statistics do not include American civilians, military contractors, or indigenous peoples.]

That's 42,160 combat casualties--as measured from Defense Department stats via casualties.org--under the Bush administration in two wars.

What does the future hold for our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan? Difficult to tell, as the situation in both countries is--to be as charitable as possible--fluid. Who knows if we will continue to withdraw from Iraq on an amended schedule, or if 2010 will find US troops actually in Pakistan?

But it is curiously easier to model possible statistical outcomes on casualties, because the assumptions beneath that modeling are not necessarily driven by winning or losing, but by troop numbers and operational intensity.

Of course, any such modeling starts with assumptions, and for my baseline study I have made four:

1) That statistics from January-mid-May 2009 will provide a reliable monthly indicator for yearly casualties. I'd prefer to use a weighted average, but a selection of more than a quarter yields pretty good numbers if you try it for the previous years.

2) That the Wounded in Action [WIA] figures for Afghanistan will occur at the same rate against Killed in Action [KIA] figures for Iraq, because the Defense Department has not released equally reliable stats for Afghanistan. I make the ratio that KIA accounts for 18.5% and WIA for 81.5% of all battle casualties, and that holds up pretty well in the technical studies.

3) I am assuming that casualty rates in Iraq will decline by 10%/year over the next four years as the US draws down to a 50,000-strong support presence. I actually think the straight-line, weighted decline will be closer to 12-14%, but modeling of the ups and downs of the previous five years of combat suggests that the 10% number is necessary to account for brief periods of more intensive operations. This is a middle-of-the-road projection: not extraordinarily rosey, but not pessimistic, either.

4) I am assuming that casualty rates in Afghanistan will increase by 10%/year over the next four years as the US increases its presence to the 60,000 level and engages in a population-oriented strategy. This is actually a pretty optimistic model; I personally suspect the per year increase will be in the 15-18% range, but there's not sufficient data to project that. So I won't.

Now that you know my assumptions, here are my projections:

In Iraq:

In 2009: 204 KIA and 900 WIA
In 2010: 184 KIA and 810 WIA
In 2011: 166 KIA and 729 WIA
In 2012: 149 KIA and 656 WIA
Totals: 703 KIA and 3,095 WIA= 3,798 casualties

In Afghanistan:

In 2009: 220 KIA and 1,189 WIA
In 2010: 242 KIA and 1,308 WIA
In 2011: 266 KIA and 1,439 WIA
In 2012: 292 KIA and 1583 WIA
Totals: 1,020 KIA and 5,519 WIA= 6,539 casualties

Total projected casualties, 2009-2012: 10,337

To get a fantasy case in which we completely pull out of Iraq and win in Afghanistan, drop 15% from that number.

To examine the potential nightmare if Iraq destablizes more quickly than we expect, or the war in Afghanistan metasticizes into Pakistan (or even Iran), add 30% to that number.

There would be your bounds over the next four years:

Lower bound: 8,786 total casualties
Middle bound: 10,337 casualties
Upper bound: 13,438 casualties

Do these casualties matter? What will be the political fall-out from another 10,000+ casualties in America's foreign wars?

I have this theory that there is somewhere a threshold level of politically relevant casualties. Below that number in a given period we can just percolate along and pretend it's not really happening, it's not really so bad. Cresting that level puts the casualties into the political caculations of both parties, and exceeding that level makes them potentially decisive. We have several data points that suggest this: LBJ in 1968 and Bushco in 2006/2008 [to compare with Reagan's ongoing little wars].

But where is that number? At what point would you personally stand up and begin to make your voice heard about the fact that we are still fighting imperial wars of choice to satisfy other interests than those of the citizens of the United States?

Would 10,000 killed or maimed over the next four years do it? Or are you personally ready to sacrifice them without much more than an occasional passing outrage of the treatment of veterans or the photographs of coffins at DAFB?

What number breaks the camel's back for you?

And when that happens, what are you planning to do about it?

No comments: