Monday, April 9, 2012

Which Direction Is Violence Heading In Iraq?


The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in December 2011, the upswing in violence in January 2012, and the on-going political crisis in Baghdad had many in the West declaring that not only was security deteriorating in the country, but that it might be heading towards a new civil war. Several commentators have recently taken up this argument, including Michael Knights of the Institute for Near East Policy, James Dubik and Kimberly Kagan of the Institute for the Study of War, and Becca Wasser of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. These predictions seem to be premature, because while attacks and deaths went up as the United States withdrew its forces at the end of 2011, they have since dropped back down to their previous level. Most trends in violence continue a downward spiral.

Many of those critical of Iraq’s current security situation have focused upon a few main factors, namely the increase in violence just before and after the U.S. troop withdrawal in December 2011, and the country’s political situation. Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote an article entitled “A Violent New Year in Iraq” for the National Interest in February 2012. In it, he blamed U.S. policy, more than the troop pullout for the worsening security at the end of last year. He believed that the insurgents like Al Qaeda in Iraq were targeting not only government officials and members of the security forces, but traditional hotspots in the country, such as Mosul in Ninewa province, mixed sectarian areas of Baghdad and the surrounding governorates, as well as the disputed territories such as Kirkuk. He also wrote that the United States’ support for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who has been centralizing power in his hands, and taking on his political rivals in the Iraqi National Movement, was the main cause of a deteriorating situation overall in the country, by disenfranchising the country’s Sunnis. That could lead to renewed support for insurgents. In terms of attacks, he quoted figures collected by the Washington Institute that showed that there were 36 mass casualty attacks in January 2012 compared to 23 in December 2011, and deaths going from 155 in December to 340 in January. Becca Wasser wrote another report for the International Institute for Strategic Studies about an increase in bombings in the last several months. According to her numbers, there were 204 bombings from December 18, 2011, the date that the U.S. announced its military withdrawal from Iraq, to March 18, 2012. That compared to just 120 from the same period a year ago. In January 2012 for instance, there were 81 explosions, compared to just 45 in January 2011. Wasser believed that insurgents picked up their attacks just as the American troops left. Finally, Kimberly Kagan and Retired General James Dubik of the Institute for the Study of War testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on March 21, 2012 claiming that violence was up in Iraq. Kagan went as far as to warn that Iraq was at a precipice of a new civil war. Kagan quoted the Knight piece, and Iraqi Body Count that recorded January 2012 as the deadliest month since August 2010. Kagan testified that militant groups like Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Baathist Naqshibandi were increasing their activities across the country, especially in their former strongholds such as in Diyala province, Fallujah in Anbar, Taiji in Salahaddin, Abu Ghraib in Baghdad, and Jurf al-Sakhr in Babil. Like Knight, Kagan also blamed Maliki’s confrontation with the Iraqi National Movement as increasing insecurity and sectarianism in the country. She was the most partisan, openly blaming the Obama administration for the turn of events, because it decided upon a full troop withdrawal, supported Premier Maliki, and claimed that the White House led to the disintegration of the Iraqi National Movement as a viable opposition party. Kagan represents a common view amongst those on the Right in America, arguing that the Bush administration was able to stabilize the country with the 2007 Surge, only to see Obama squander those gains. She closed her remarks by saying, “Iraq is more violent, less democratic, and the U.S. less engaged than it was six months ago. And it is poised on the knife’s-edge of a civil war.” All four of these commentators shared one to two common factors. First, was that attacks and deaths went up as the U.S. withdrew. Second, that the deterioration in politics could turn Sunnis towards insurgents. There was some attempt to look long-term at the security statistics by these writers, but not enough. A more precise analysis revealed a far different picture of the situation in Iraq.
A chart from Becca Wasser's article comparing bombings from December 2010-March 2011 to those same months in 2011-2012 (International Institute for Strategic Studies)
There are three organizations that provide reliable and public figures on attacks and deaths in Iraq. Those are the Iraq Body Count, the United Nations, and AKE, a British risk management company. 2008 was the last year of the civil war, so that would be a good starting off point for an analysis of security in Iraq. That year saw a steady decline in both attacks and casualties. In the first half of the year there was still heavy fighting going on as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched several operations against Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia in Basra, Maysan, and Baghdad. That led to anywhere from 1,200 to 2,100 security incidents per month from January to October according to the U.N.’s Inter-Agency Information and Analysis Unit. The worst two months were January with 2,175 attacks and April with 2,116. In the last two months however, there were only 935 in November and 801 in December.  Casualties were roughly congruent with a high of 2,011 deaths in March according to the U.N. From June to December however, deaths dropped to below 1,000 with 821 in June and 504 in December. Iraq Body Count had a similar pattern with 764 deaths in January, then picking up to a yearly high of 1,565 in March, before dropping to below 1,000 with May’s 783, and then going further down to 529 in December. The cause of the improvement in security in the second half of the year was due not only to the defeat of the Shiite militias, but also to the upcoming provincial elections in January 2009. Many Sunnis, including insurgents decided to join that round of balloting after largely boycotting the last vote in 2005. The results of that change were seen in 2009. There was not a single month that year where either deaths or attacks surpassed 1,000. January had the most attacks with the U.N. reporting 859, August the most deaths at 517, compared to November with only 600 incidents and 163 deaths. There was a 52% decline in violence between the two years with attacks going from a total of 18,688 in 2008, an average of 51.1 per day, to just 8,909 in 2009, for an average of 24.4 per day. The U.N. had deaths going from 11,536 in 2008 to 4,307, while Iraq Body Count had a decline from 9,385 in 2008 to 4,713 in 2009, again marking a roughly 50% drop. In 2010, violence was largely the same. There was only one month, March, where attacks topped 1,000 at 1,043 according to the U.N. The total number of attacks did go up from 8,909 in 2009 to 9,213 in 2010. That year was the first where AKE provided full figures as well. It had a high of 680 incidents in March with a low of 194 in December. A quick note, AKE does not provide exact figures for its incident reports on Iraq. Rather they provide charts of weekly attacks, so the figures quoted in this piece are best guesses based upon those graphics. The United Nations had deaths going up slightly to 4,855 for 2010, while Iraq Body Count had a decline to 4,045. 2011 saw another precipitous drop. The U.N. had a total of 4,927 attacks, 46% below the previous year’s count. AKE went from 5,401 incidents in 2010 to 2,931 the next year, a 45% decline. The U.N. did not have much of a difference in deaths however with 4,855 in 2010 and 4,150 in 2011. Iraq Body Count had a very slight increase going from 4,045 in 2010 to 4,087 in 2011. In 2012, there was a spike in deaths in January, which has not carried over to the following months. The U.N. had 500 deaths in January, followed by 254 in February, and 294 in March. Iraq Body Count went from 464 in January to 293 in February, and preliminary figure of 295 in March. The U.N. and AKE noted a similar drop in attacks with the former going from 330 in January to 299 in February to 239 in March, and the latter reporting 194 in January, 131 in February, and 161 in March. Looking back over these four plus years, three important trends are discernable. One is that the insurgents have grown far more effective in the number of casualties they can inflict with each attack. Based upon U.N. figures, militants went from 0.61 deaths per attack in 2008 to 0.48 in 2009, but then went back up to 0.52 in 2010, and 0.84 in 2011. Beside the mass casualty bombings, much of the violence today is much more targeted, going after government officials, usually with sticky bombs and pistols with silencers. That has meant that while the overall number of attacks has generally gone down, the deadliness of the insurgents has gone up. That might be a reason why the average number of deaths in Iraq has not changed much from 2009, starting with11.8 that year, then 13.3 in 2010, 11.3 in 2011, and 12.5 in the first three months of the new year. Two, there are increased political tensions in Iraq between the premier and the National Movement, but they have been going on since 2010 when the nation held parliamentary elections. All of the statistics show that the arguments between Iraq’s leaders have not transferred over to the security field. That’s because attacks and deaths overall have been on a steady decline. Every group and organization has different figures, but what’s important is that the United Nations, Iraq Body Count, and AKE all follow the same general trend. That’s showing attacks and deaths all going down.

Monthly And Average Daily Attacks In Iraq 2008-2012
Months
U.N.
Avg. Per Day
AKE
Avg. Per Day
Jan. 08
2,175
70.1
-
-
Feb.
1,705
60.8
-
-
Mar.
1,932
62.3
-
-
Apr.
2,116
70.5
-
-
May
1,574
50.7
-
-
Jun.
1,675
55.8
-
-
Jul.
1,455
46.9
-
-
Aug.
1,362
43.9
-
-
Sep.
1,665
55.5
-
-
Oct.
1,273
41.0
-
-
Nov.
935
31.1
-
-
Dec.
801
25.8
-
-
TOTALS
18,668
51.1
-
-
Jan. 09
859
27.7
-
-
Feb.
853
30.4
-
-
Mar.
775
25.0
-
-
Apr.
830
27.6
-
-
May
765
24.6
-
-
Jun.
729
23.5
-
-
Jul.
669
21.5
-
-
Aug.
711
22.9
-
-
Sep.
805
26.8
-
-
Oct.
661
21.3
-
-
Nov.
600
20.0
700
23.3
Dec.
652
21.0
599
19.3
TOTALS
8,909
24.4
-
-
Jan. 10
703
22.6
541
17.4
Feb.
707
25.2
493
17.6
Mar.
1,043
33.6
680
21.9
Apr.
863
28.7
605
20.1
May
909
29.3
608
19.6
Jun.
684
22.8
460
15.3
Jul.
800
25.8
500
16.1
Aug.
829
26.7
455
14.6
Sep.
736
24.5
316
10.5
Oct.
631
21.0
329
10.6
Nov.
708
23.6
220
7.3
Dec.
600
19.3
194
6.2
TOTALS
9,213
25.2
5,401
14.7
Jan. 11
392
12.6
132
4.2
Feb.
363
12.9
215
7.6
Mar.
569
18.3
243
7.8
Apr.
467
15.5
329
10.9
May
561
18.0
274
8.8
Jun.
545
18.1
307
10.2
Jul.
404
13.0
277
9.2
Aug.
376
12.1
208
6.7
Sep.
283
9.4
236
7.8
Oct.
406
13.0
198
6.3
Nov.
268
8.6
210
7.0
Dec.
293
9.4
302
9.7
TOTALS
4,927
13.4
2,931
8.0
Jan. 12
330
10.6
194
6.2
Feb.
299
10.3
131
4.5
Mar.
239
7.7
161
5.1
TOTALS
868
9.5
286
5.3


Monthly And Average Daily Deaths In Iraq 2008-2012
Months
U.N.
Avg. Per Day
Iraq Body Count
Avg. Per Day
Jan. 08
1,064
34.3
764
24.6
Feb.
1,304
46.5
1,021
36.4
Mar.
2,011
64.8
1,565
50.4
Apr.
1,869
62.3
1,273
42.4
May
1,000
32.2
783
25.2
Jun.
821
27.3
689
22.9
Jul.
688
22.1
599
19.3
Aug.
628
20.2
605
19.5
Sep.
625
20.8
545
18.1
Oct.
559
18.0
526
16.9
Nov.
463
15.4
486
16.2
Dec.
504
16.2
529
17.0
TOTALS
11,536
31.6
9,385
25.7
Jan. 09
308
9.9
280
9.0
Feb.
284
10.1
349
12.4
Mar.
338
10.9
416
13.4
Apr.
476
15.8
494
16.5
May
350
11.2
329
10.6
Jun.
522
17.4
492
16.4
Jul.
333
10.7
396
12.7
Aug.
517
16.6
586
18.9
Sep.
326
10.8
301
10.0
Oct.
282
9.0
404
13.0
Nov.
163
5.4
209
6.9
Dec.
408
13.1
457
14.7
TOTALS
4,307
11.8
4,713
12.9
Jan. 10
265
8.5
260
4.5
Feb.
347
12.3
297
10.6
Mar.
517
16.6
334
10.7
Apr.
554
18.4
380
12.6
May
540
17.4
377
12.1
Jun.
440
14.6
375
12.5
Jul.
565
18.2
424
13.6
Aug.
521
16.8
516
16.6
Sep.
345
11.5
252
8.4
Oct.
260
8.3
311
10.0
Nov.
294
9.8
302
10.0
Dec.
207
6.6
217
7.0
TOTALS
4,855
13.3
4,045
11.0
Jan. 11
265
8.5
387
12.4
Feb.
270
9.6
250
8.9
Mar.
275
8.8
307
9.9
Apr.
279
9.3
285
9.5
May
319
10.2
378
12.1
Jun.
424
14.1
385
12.8
Jul.
381
12.2
305
9.8
Aug.
455
14.6
398
12.8
Sep.
421
14.0
394
13.1
Oct.
416
13.4
355
11.4
Nov.
264
8.8
272
9.0
Dec.
381
12.2
371
11.9
TOTALS
4,150
11.3
4,087
11.1
Jan. 12
500
16.1
464
14.9
Feb.
254
8.7
293
10.1
Mar.
294
7.7
295
9.5
TOTALS
1,048
11.5
1,052
11.5

Avg. Deaths Per Day In Iraq 2008-2012 (U.N. and Iraq Body Count)
Average Deaths Per Attack In Iraq 2008-2012 
2008: 0.61
2009: 0.48
2010: 0.52
2011: 0.84
2012: 1.19
(Based upon U.N. attacks and deaths)


An analysis of security in Iraq for the last fifteen months largely undermines the specific arguments of Knight, Kagan, et. al. Both the United Nations and AKE noted an uptick in militant operations in the middle of 2011. That started in February, and peaked in June, before taking a large drop. The U.N. for instance, had 363 security incidents in February 2011, before jumping to 569 in March, 467 in April, 561 in May, and 545 in June. After that, attacks went down to 404 in July, 376 in August, 283 in September, 406 in October, and 268 in November. Then there was another rise as the United States pulled out its last troops from the country. There were 293 attacks in December, and 330 in January 2012. Since then attacks have dropped back down to 299 in February and 239 in March. According to the U.N.’s figures, the period surrounding the U.S. withdrawal had fewer attacks than during the earlier surge in militant activity at the beginning of the year. AKE followed a similar pattern. It too recorded an increase in attacks in the beginning of the year going from 132 in January, to 215 in February, 243 in March, and peaking at 329 in April, before slowing going back down to 208 by August. At the end of the year security incidents picked back up going from 198 in October to 210 in November to 302 in December, before going down to 194 in January 2012. Deaths showed a similar rise in the middle of the year, but with a dip during the summer. Iraq Body Count had 250 deaths in February 2011, followed by 307 in March, rising to 378 by May, 385 in June, before dipping to 305 in July, then picking up pace again at 398 in August, 394 in September, and then declining to 355 in October, and 273 in November. Casualties then went back up to 371 in December, and 464 in January 2012, before falling back down to 293 in February and 295 in March. The rise in attacks and deaths in the middle of the year has been something seen in Iraq since the beginning of the conflict in 2003. The hotter months simply bring out the militants. There was then a sharp increase at the end of the year to coincide with the American withdrawal. After January however, violence has gone back down to the lowest levels of last year. What reports like Knight’s and Kagan’s seem to do is focus largely on the period of the U.S. troops leaving Iraq, instead of looking at the long-term trends before that, and the figures since January 2012. If they did they would see that today, security is just about the same situation it was at the beginning of 2011 rather than showing signs of increased civil conflict.

Monthly Deaths In Iraq 2011-2012 (U.N. and AKE)


Instead of Iraq being on the verge of a new civil war, security is largely unchanged. Instead of Sunnis becoming disillusioned with their country and turning to violence, they largely seem to be limiting their disputes to the political realm. While there was a spike in violence as the U.S. forces withdrew and the month afterward, the overall trend in deaths and attacks are all going downward. This shows that after eight years of war, the insurgency is in a slow decline. Al Qaeda in Iraq and others such as the Baathist Naqshibandi group are still able to carry out daily operations, deadly bombings, and mass casualty attacks every couple months, and the number of deaths they are able to achieve with each one is growing, the aggregate numbers are all in decline. Militants simply lack the support and material to carry out the same level of violence over a full twelve months. Not only that, but an entire category of attacks, those committed by Shiite militias and Special Groups has largely disappeared now that the American forces are out of the country. That means for the average Iraqi, they can largely return to their regular lives without the worry of getting killed or wounded. The next time a spate of bombings occur, there will be another splash of articles and remarks about Iraq falling into chaos, but those short-term comments ignore the positive direction the country is heading in.

SOURCES

Drake, John, “Weekly Security Update for 6th April 2012,” Iraq Business News, 4/6/12
- “Weekly Security Update for 22nd September 2011,” Iraq Business News, 9/22/11
- “Weekly Security Update for 26th March 2011,” Iraq Business News, 3/26/11
- “Weekly Security Update for 30th March 2012,” Iraq Business News, 3/30/12

Dubik, James, “Halting the Descent: U.S. Policy toward the Deteriorating Situation in Iraq, Testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia,” Institute for the Study of War, 3/21/12

Kagan, Kimberly, “Halting the Descent: U.S. Policy toward the Deteriorating Situation in Iraq, Testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia,” Institute for the Study of War, 3/21/12

Knights, Michael, “A Violent New Year in Iraq,” National Interest, 2/16/12

Olive Group, “Weekly Security Update,” Iraq Business News, 6/15/10
- “Weekly Security Update for 23rd September 2010,” Iraq Business News, 9/23/10

Wasser, Becca, “Bombings rise sharply in Iraq,” International Institute for Strategic Studies, 3/21/12

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