Iraq, September 2008

You might not recall, but there’s still a war going on in Iraq.

It’s been a year since the dramatic drop in the US casualty rate, and I still haven’t heard a real explanation. I know, I know—the Surge™. the Sunni Awakening, ethnic cleansing, Sadr’s order to stand down, improved COIN tactics. I’m sure these have all helped reduce the casualty rate. But what I want to know is why it suddenly dropped in September of last year.

Since I plot only monthly figures, September looks like a transition month, with casualties reduced, but not drastically. But if you look at the day-to-day figures for that month, you’ll find that about ⅔ of US deaths came in the first half of the month. Had that trend continued, September 2007 would have looked like August 2007. It was in the latter half of September that the casualty rate took the plunge that’s held for just over a year now. It’s as if someone reached into Iraq in mid-September and turned some magical valve.

So I’m not persuaded by the Surge™ or any of the other common glosses because they don’t explain the suddenness of the improvement. I have a sense that when we’re well out of Iraq and the history of the war is written, this past year will be described in terms that none of us are using now.

There is apparently a hint of that in Bob Woodward’s new book, The War Within. I haven’t read the book and don’t intend to, because I find his position as the insider’s insider vaguely distasteful. But I heard him flogging the book on NPR’s Fresh Air last month, and one of the reasons he gave for the improvement in Iraw was a “newly developed,” “top secret” technique for targeting and killing insurgents and other enemies. Which, of course, as a member of the Washington power elite, he’s not at liberty to discuss with the nation’s citizens.

Putting aside Woodward’s strange journey from a being a reporter who exposes the government’s secrets to one who keeps them, this secret technique may be the explanation I’ve been looking for. Woodward compares it to the tank and the airplane of World War I and the atomic bomb of World War II, which suggests it’s a technological development rather than a procedural or tactical change. There’s a logic to rapid improvement being tied to new technology. I’m surprised it’s not being written about and discussed more widely.