On the Surge, Airstrikes, Fewer American Deaths, but More Innocent Iraqis Killed

October 26, 2007 at 10:21 am | Posted in American politics, Bush Administration, General Petraeus, Iraq, Military | 3 Comments

So the Glorious Surge is supposed to REDUCE violence and death. It has succeeded in reducing Americans killed, but not for the reasons one would think. It’s not as if our enemies have stopped fighting us. It’s actually because our military has gone against their own counterinsurgency principles and are using airstrikes to kill “bad guys” which inevitably also kill numerous civilians. But using those airstrikes ensures fewer Americans killed.

To begin, let’s look at General Petraeus’ own Counterinsurgency field manual. There are several very important sections about dealing with the local population:

Sometimes, the More You Protect Your Force, the Less Secure You May Be

1-149. Ultimate success in COIN is gained by protecting the populace, not the COIN force. If military
forces remain in their compounds, they lose touch with the people, appear to be running scared, and cede
the initiative to the insurgents. Aggressive saturation patrolling, ambushes, and listening post operations
must be conducted, risk shared with the populace, and contact maintained. The effectiveness of establishing
patrol bases and operational support bases should be weighed against the effectiveness of using larger
unit bases. (FM 90-8 discusses saturation patrolling and operational support bases.) These practices ensure
access to the intelligence needed to drive operations. Following them reinforces the connections with
the populace that help establish real legitimacy.

Sometimes, the More Force Is Used, the Less Effective It Is

1-150. Any use of force produces many effects, not all of which can be foreseen. The more force applied,
the greater the chance of collateral damage and mistakes. Using substantial force also increases the opportunity
for insurgent propaganda to portray lethal military activities as brutal. In contrast, using force precisely
and discriminately strengthens the rule of law that needs to be established. As noted above, the key
for counterinsurgents is knowing when more force is needed—and when it might be counterproductive.
This judgment involves constant assessment of the security situation and a sense of timing regarding insurgents’

The More Successful the Counterinsurgency Is, the Less Force Can Be Used and the More Risk
Must Be Accepted

1-151. This paradox is really a corollary to the previous one. As the level of insurgent violence drops, the
requirements of international law and the expectations of the populace lead to a reduction in direct military
actions by counterinsurgents. More reliance is placed on police work, rules of engagement may be
tightened, and troops may have to exercise increased restraint. Soldiers and Marines may also have to accept
more risk to maintain involvement with the people.

Sometimes Doing Nothing Is the Best Reaction

1-152. Often insurgents carry out a terrorist act or guerrilla raid with the primary purpose of enticing
counterinsurgents to overreact, or at least to react in a way that insurgents can exploit—for example,
opening fire on a crowd or executing a clearing operation that creates more enemies than it takes off the
streets. If an assessment of the effects of a course of action determines that more negative than positive effects
may result, an alternative should be considered—potentially including not acting.

Some of the Best Weapons for Counterinsurgents Do Not Shoot

1-153. Counterinsurgents often achieve the most meaningful success in garnering public support and legitimacy
for the HN government with activities that do not involve killing insurgents (though, again, killing
clearly will often be necessary). Arguably, the decisive battle is for the people’s minds; hence synchronizing
IO with efforts along the other LLOs is critical. Every action, including uses of force, must be
“wrapped in a bodyguard of information.” While security is essential to setting the stage for overall progress,
lasting victory comes from a vibrant economy, political participation, and restored hope. Particularly
after security has been achieved, dollars and ballots will have more important effects than bombs and
bullets. This is a time when “money is ammunition.” Depending on the state of the insurgency, therefore,
Soldiers and Marines should prepare to execute many nonmilitary missions to support COIN efforts. Everyone
has a role in nation building, not just Department of State and civil affairs personnel.

And also:

An air strike can cause collateral damage that turns people against the host-nation government and provides insurgents with a major propaganda victory. Even when justified under the law of war, bombings that result in civilian casualties can bring media coverage that works to the insurgents’ benefits. … For these reasons, commanders should consider the use of air strikes carefully during [counterinsurgency] operations, neither disregarding them outright nor employing them excessively.

Now, as Fred Kaplan notes:

This month has seen the smallest number of Americans killed in Iraq than any other month since March 2006. But the reasons may have less to do with progress in the war than with the way we’re now fighting it.

Just 29 U.S. military personnel have died in Iraq in October so far—down from 65 in September, 84 in August, 78 in July, 101 in June … You get the picture: Fewer, in most cases far fewer, than half as many American soldiers have died this month than in any previous month all year.

However, some perspective is warranted. First, all told, 2007 has been a horrible year for American lives lost in this war—832 to date, more than the 822 lost in all of 2006, and, by the time the year ends, almost certainly more than the 846 killed in 2005 or the 849 in 2004.

What’s the reasoning behind this? Well, it seems the military has resorted to far more airstrikes over having its soldiers go into dangerous areas to be killed. Makes good sense when you are trying to protect your own. But as we read above in the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, it is counterintuitive. As Fred Kaplan continues to write:

On Sunday, U.S. soldiers were searching for a leader of a kidnapping ring in Baghdad’s Sadr City. The soldiers came under fire from a building. Rather than engage in dangerous door-to-door conflict, they called in air support. Army helicopters flew overhead and simply destroyed the building, killing several of the fighters but also at least six innocent civilians.* (The bad guy got away.)

In other words, though the shift means greater safety for our ground troops, it also generates more local hostility. Striking urban targets from the air inevitably means killing more innocent bystanders. This makes some of the bystanders’ relatives yearn for vengeance. And it makes many Iraqis—relatives, neighbors, and others watching the news of the attack on television—less trusting of the American troops who are supposedly protecting them.

In a conventional war, these consequences might be deemed unavoidable side-effects. But in a counterinsurgency campaign, where the point is to sway the hearts and minds of the population, wreaking such damage is self-defeating.

Indeed it is self defeating. That doesn’t stop our military from doing it anyways, as we see:

From January to September of this year, according to unclassified data, U.S. Air Force pilots in Iraq have flown 996 sorties that involved dropping munitions. By comparison, in all of 2006, they flew just 229 such sorties—one-quarter as many. In 2005, they flew 404; in 2004, they flew 285.

In other words, in the first nine months of 2007, Air Force planes dropped munitions on targets in Iraq more often than in the previous three years combined.

More telling still, the number of airstrikes soared most dramatically at about the same time that U.S. troop fatalities declined. (Click here for month-by-month figures.)

It’s not clear how many Iraqi civilians have been killed or injured as a result of these airstrikes. (Estimating civilian deaths is a difficult enterprise in any war, especially this one, where so much of the country is inaccessible.) However, it’s a fair assessment that the numbers have risen substantially this past year.

The military refuses to concede that it harms or kills civilians with its airstrikes (or even with its ground forces). Take this incident this past Sunday that had 49 Iraqis killed:

For Sadr City residents in the areas where the fighting was under way, at least some of whom appeared to have nothing to do with Mr. Sadr’s militia, the gunfire was terrifying. Two cousins, Murtada Saiedi, 8, and Ali Saiedi, 11, were walking home at 6:15 a.m. after buying fresh samoun for their families. Samoun is a triangular bread beloved by Iraqis for breakfast.

“I was holding the samoun in my arms in a big bag,” said Ali Saiedi, adding that he was taking the bread home for his eight siblings and his parents. “Then I heard a big sound and I tried to run, I wanted to reach my home, but I couldn’t.

“And then when I woke up, I was here,” he said, as he lay in a bed at the Imam Ali Hospital with bandages on his arms from shrapnel cuts.

His cousin, Murtada Saiedi, in the next bed, would not speak. He winced as he shifted his weight in the bed and looked up silently at his father and uncle, who were leaning over the child. The doctor had just come by to say that he thought Murtada might have some internal bleeding.

An official at the hospital, Abu Ibrahim, said an elderly woman whose midsection had been nearly severed by shrapnel died Sunday evening, bringing the total dead at the hospital to 16. There were 38 wounded who were admitted to the hospital, he said. Officials at a second hospital in the neighborhood reported one dead and two wounded.

The military said it did not believe there were any civilian deaths as a result of the fighting. “Ground forces reported they were unaware of any innocent civilians being killed as a result of this operation,” the military statement said.

Note the difference in the language of the military and the civilians with shrapnel in their sides, or bullets in their legs, etc. The military doesn’t believe any civilians were killed (only “insurgents” or “bad guys”), while there are people at the hospital injured who don’t look at all like combatants.

(Courtesy of Hadi Mizban/Associated Press)

In another incident, just Thursday:

Iraqis voiced outrage Friday over a U.S. military airstrike that killed an estimated 15 civilians — nine children and six women, one of the highest reported civilian death tolls from an American bombing in months.

The bombing occurred Thursday evening after U.S. troops raided a suspected leadership meeting of the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq that was taking place south of Lake Tharthar, near the city of Samarra in western Iraq. The U.S. military’s account of the violence said troops were shot at during the raid and called in an airstrike in self-defense. In addition to the civilians killed, the U.S. military estimated that 19 suspected insurgents died.

“This could have been done through the infantry,” said Ibrahim al-Khamas, a Samarra city council member. “But the American Army prefers the easiest solution, which is the air bombardment.”

The bombing came just before Eid al-Fitr, the religious celebration that concludes the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

“This airstrike was excessive, as usual, which led to the fall of civilians,” Khamas added. “People here are now carrying great hatred against the Americans after the raid. This airstrike turned their Eid to grief.”

The U.S. military provided little further information Friday but said it was investigating the incident with local officials and tribal leaders. A U.S. military spokesman, Maj. Winfield S. Danielson III, said the initial death tolls of combatants and civilians were estimates. Of the 15 civilians initially reported killed, all were women and children, and it was unclear whether the U.S. military considered all the males killed to be insurgents.

This is what the Counterinsurgency Field Manual General Petraeus wrote himself warned against. Why are his soldiers not following their own manual?

Juan Cole analyzes the situation:

It is, however, not clear why exactly US troop deaths have fallen so much in October. It is possible that they are being given few military missions and spending more time on base.

Indeed, the sort of ground missions that might involve hand to hand fighting and high US casualties may have been replaced by air strikes against suspected insurgent targets. US air strikes on Iraq are up by a factor of four in 2007 over 2006, according to Newsay. The US launched 1,140 bombing missions in 2007 through the end of September, as opposed to 229 in all of 2006. The US has flown as many as 70 such air missions a day this October, more than at any time since the November, 2004, assault on the Sunni Arab city of Fallujah.

Obviously, for an Occupation military to bomb a densely-populated city that it already largely controls is a violation of human rights law. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq has just condemned the US for using this tactic, which inevitably kills children, women and other non-combatants. You can’t drop a bomb on an urban apartment building without killing lots of people, not only inside the building but also all around it. The bomb turns bits of the building into deadly projectiles. I am told that the US Air Force takes no responsibility for these aerial strikes when they are called in by army troops on the ground, and makes no assessment as to whether proportional force was deployed or excessive civilian casualties were incurred. So you have a convoy of soldiers in humvees driving through deeply hostile Sadr City, and someone starts sniping at them from a building. Obviously, running into the building is dangerous; it could be booby-trapped, or snipers could have set up there. I wouldn’t want to do it. So the tendency would obviously be to take out the snipers by taking out the building they are using. That makes military sense. It doesn’t make sense in the international law of occupations.

The US military spokesmen are always going on about precision strikes and reducing civilian casualties. I know they are sincere in thinking they can do that, but they just aren’t dealing with a simple reality. They are bombing apartment buildings in densely populated cities!

The US military, then, may be artificially keeping US military deaths down this fall by resorting to many more aerial bombings. These bombings have repeatedly drawn forth powerful condemnations from the elected Iraqi political authorities and are unlikely to be viable much longer.

And this of course is very much against the Counterinsurgency Field Manual the military is supposed to be heeding.

Max Bergmann writes at Democracy Arsenal:

Last week I wrote about how Blackwater and aggressive private security firms were undermining Petraeus’ counter-insurgency strategy – an argument recently supported by a State Department panel reviewing its use of contractors. The basic premise was that violent action that causes civilian deaths is bad, really bad, especially when you are attempting to uproot an insurgency…

All this talk about a new counter-insurgency strategy – adopting less kinetic approaches, emphasizing the security of Iraqis, the need for U.S. Soldiers to take more risk and operate under stricter rules of engagement, etc., etc. – seems really hollow if at the same time, we are lobbing four times as many bombs from the air then we were before.

A strategy needs to be coherent. And Petraeus’ clearly isn’t.

He added today:

As I wrote yesterday, the quadrupling of airstrikes, along with the continued use of overly aggressive security contractors, totally undermines a counter-insurgency approach that emphasizes “protecting Iraqis.” It seems that Petraeus has quietly abandoned his strategy in favor of the 2004 focus on force protection that got us nowhere.

So what exactly is Petraeus doing? Is this just another example of a sycophant General so concerned with public opinion that he is abandoning his stated strategy? At the very least he should explain why airstrikes have quadrupled.

Matthew Yglesias adds:

Max Bergman and Fred Kaplan both note that the Army’s increased reliance on air power in Iraq is probably helping to produce the welcome decrease in American casualties. The only problem, as they both note, is that this seems to imply a shift away from a counterinsurgency strategy, which requires more risk-taking on the part of soldiers (i.e., dead Americans) in order to rely less on firepower (i.e., fewer dead Iraqis), back toward the failed force protection policies of 2005-2006.

Not, however, that I think we should go back to high casualty counterinsurgency tactics. Rather, the tendency of our commanders in Iraq to keep shifting back to low casualty strategies reflects politicians’ perfectly accurate view that there’s nothing left in Iraq such that it’s both actually achievable and worth asking lots of people to die for. That, though, means we should adopt the ultimate casualty-reduction strategy of ending the war. Remaining in force while saving lives by adopting immorally destructive and ultimately counterproductive strategies is a very bad idea.

Indeed. Steve Benen also adds:

It’s tempting to think this approach is the answer we’ve been looking for. We bomb the bad guys from the air, the bad guys die, and the U.S. troops come home safely. Piece of cake.

Except, it doesn’t quite work that way. In an urban environment, dropping a bomb from the air inevitably leads to civilians — innocent bystanders — dying, too. As Kaplan noted, “This makes some of the bystanders’ relatives yearn for vengeance. And it makes many Iraqis — relatives, neighbors, and others watching the news of the attack on television — less trusting of the American troops who are supposedly protecting them.”

Kaplan concluded, “The old adage about warfare — that it’s easy to kill people, hard to kill a particular person — is doubly true of aerial warfare. And in counterinsurgency warfare, the consequences are counterproductive.”

In other words, it’s certainly good news that U.S. fatalities are dropping, but if the trend is a result of a policy that will simply prolong the war, we’re not getting any closer to our goal.

We’ve been shooting ourselves in the foot in Iraq since before the invasion began. We never needed to go in. But we did anyways. We should not have disbanded the professional army (putting thousands of angry well trained soldiers on the street), but we did anyways. We should not have begun the Glorious Surge with not anywhere close to enough troops, because we wouldn’t succeed, but we did anyways. We should be following the Counterinsurgency Manual to a T, but we’re not anyways. That’s the way it goes with our adventure in Iraq. We protect American lives more than we protect Iraqi lives. The more we do that the more we will lose.

Such a shame.


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  1. […] “The drop in U.S. military casualties is because we are RAINING HELL FROM ABOVE, resulting in MORE INNOCENT IRAQIS KILLED.” Steve Benen at the Carpetbagger is spreading the meme […]

  2. there are no good democrats you are all commie traitors to the republic and should be treated as such.

  3. Yes Bruce you’re right, but as Fascist traitors, Republicans are worse.

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