Attrition: The Surge Offensive in Iraq

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April 6, 2007: The current "surge offensive" in Iraq is being accomplished with remarkably low casualties. In March American and Iraq security forces had 290 dead, of which 28 percent were American. Civilian losses were 1,872, giving a total of 2,162. As usual, over 95 percent of the dead were Iraqi. The United States has refused to release official numbers on enemy dead, not wanting to get into the "body count" business that was so unpopular in Vietnam. The problem with getting numbers on enemy dead is that the bad guys don't wear uniforms, and it's often difficult to determine if a dead civilian, even one found holding a weapon, was a terrorist, or a someone fighting the terrorists and caught in the cross fire. By law, each Iraqi household is allowed to have one firearm, usually an AK-47, for self-defense. Most of the time, these weapons are only used to fire a few rounds into the air during celebrations, a local tradition in this part of the world.

The terrorists have tried to keep their casualties down, mainly because they are not well trained or led, and get slaughtered when they fight American, or even Iraqi, troops. Firefights between American troops and Iraqi terrorists tend to go very badly for the Iraqis, so the terrorists avoid those kinds of actions. Moreover, many of the Iraqi (but not the foreigners) terrorists are paid for their work, and look at it as a job, not a form of suicide. Even so, at least a third of the "civilian" deaths are believed to be hostile gunmen or suicide bombers.

Most American casualties are from roadside bombs and snipers. For this year so far, American dead have been around 80 a month. During the height of the Vietnam war, that was a typical daily American death toll. In Vietnam, American troops were about three times more likely to get killed or wounded. Better body armor, training, leadership and medical care has reduced the number of deaths even more in Iraq. But it's still a dangerous war. The enemy is forced to use ambush and booby traps, and has gotten quite good at it. This is not a winning strategy, but it is a deadly one for both sides.

 


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