As of today US forces in Iraq have suffered 73 fatalities during the month of October, already double the low casualty count of 30 reached during March of this year. These numbers in and of themselves do not present a clear strategic picture. March was the nadir of a six-month declining trend in US casualties, and pro-Bush pundits asserted that this was attributable to technological and tactical innovations that were frustrating efforts of the insurgents to target US soldiers. It now seems clear that that analysis was not sound, and that the trend from October 2005-March 2006 was conditioned primarily by a policy of "hunkering down" in fortified bases rather than sending US soldiers out on frequent patrols. After the Samarra mosque bombing of February set off an accelerating wave of sectarian violence, that defensive posture was no longer sustainable, and as US troops have been increasingly exposed to Iraqi society casualty figures have correspondingly risen.
Absent specific information about the frequency of US patrols, casualty figures do not provide concrete evidence of whether the risks to US soldiers in Iraqi society at large are rising or holding steady, and default assumptions would have to favor the latter case. The US infantry soldier enjoys such an advantage in training, armor, firepower, and logistical support that under the most perilous circumstances s/he is very difficult to kill. Though October's casualty figures are alarmingly high, they would have to double by the end of the month to reach the high casualty figures for April and November of 2004, the months when US forces launched frontal assaults on insurgent strongholds in Falluja. Unless Iraqi insurgents again achieve the same degree of territorial, social and political purchase acquired in Falluja 2004, they are unlikely to inflict the same kinds of high losses upon the US military as were suffered in the reduction of that defensive position.
A look at Falluja today explains why that is unlikely. Though the city was garrisoned by 3000 US soldiers in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 siege, today it is garrisoned mainly by Iraqi Army and Police, with only a "quick reaction force" of 300 Marines and a few dozen US reservists embedded as "military transition teams" among the battalions of the Iraqi Army garrison. Michael Fumento spent time observing joint US-Iraqi operations in Falluja in May 2006. He acknowledges that there are problems of tactical coordination between the Marines and their Iraqi Army partners- he describes one case of mistaken identity which almost ended with the Marines calling in a helicopter strike on IA soldiers. On the other hand, he speaks optimistically of the high morale of the IA forces- he reports one instance in which an IA patrol accompanied by only 3 US Marine advisors held off 50-80 insurgents until a Marine quick reaction team showed up to save the day with helicopter support.
Taken together, these incidents paint a picture of neither victory nor defeat for US forces in Falluja, but indefinite stalemate. As long as the Iraqi Army can be relied upon to cohere and patrol the city precincts (the units in question are mainly Shi'ite, so there is little prospect of them being infiltrated by/sympathizign with the local Sunni insurgents) the insurgents will not have the breathing space to consolidate control over the city's instititutions and infrastructure as they did in 2004. However, as long as the insurgents can summon the human resources to launch coordinated attacks of 50-80 combatants the IA will not be able to safely patrol the city without the backup of the Marine quick reaction force.
As the role of helicopters in both of Fumento's anecdotes conveys, in 21st century warfare infantry soldiers are in effect armed forward observers. The real combat power of a modern infantry unit resides in its ability to direct airpower, armor, or artillery to battlefield targets. Fumento reports that IA patrols can call in air support, but the coordination problems he describes suggest that only the Marines must have quick and unobstructed access to air power. Even if and when IA forces do successfully call for air cover, it is of course US planes or helicopters that respond. The IA has not been given heavy weapons of any kind, the Iraqi soldiers and officers Fumento spoke to lamented that they have not even been issued heavy machine guns for tactical use.
This is a situation that could persist indefinitely. The Bush White House and US Centcom is presumably hoping that civil society in Falluja will stabilize and state control will regenerate, displacing the resources of the insurgency. This is not a realistic expectation, however. As long as the IA is seen to be dependent on US support the residents of Falluja have no reason to totally withhold support from the insurgents. Fallujans have watched the US enter and leave their city several times, they have been conditioned to expect that the US will eventually depart. Were they to do so at a time when the IA remains dependent upon their fire support the insurgents might well regain control of the city, thus a Fallujan who is hedging his/her bets will continue to give at least passive support to the insurgency against the day when they potentially return to power.
The prospect for the US mission in Iraq for the near future thus might be read this way: in cities like Falluja a stalemate will hold, while in Baghdad and its environs civil unrest will force chronic exposure of US soldiers to mortal danger. If those circumstances could be counted upon to continue, US casualties would not be likely to again drop to the low level of this March, but nor would they be likely to rise again to the high levels of April and November 2004. Unfortunately, recent developments do not inspire confidence that current conditions will hold steady.
On Friday the Mahdi Army launched a (seemingly) abortive attempt to take over the city of Amarrah in southeastern Iraq. Though the Maliki government now claims that the situation has stabilized, even the prospect of such a takeover raises a troubling specter. Though the joint IA-US investment of cities in the Sunni triangle like Falluja have staved off the reemergence of an insurgent stronghold as had to be reduced in 2004, Amarah holds out the possibility that an analogous Shi'ite stronghold could be developed outside of the Sunni triangle, forcing the Coalition back to a strategy of frontal urban assault that would cause new spikes in ground force mortality. Moreover, the "hold" and "build" phases of those campaigns would present problems that have as yet not encumbered operations in the Sunni triangle. As IA forces are disproportionately Shi'ite, in a Shi'ite city such as Amarah IA units might not cooperate with Coaltion troops in the same kind of joint operational dynamic that currently prevails in Falluja. If Amarah is the thin edge of an advancing wedge the strategic situation of US forces in Iraq may be about to degrade drastically.
What is the best course of action with which to address this situation? Though it may seem counterintuitive, staged US withdrawal is still the best current option from the perspectives of both the US and the Iraqi people. As long as IA forces in the Sunni triangle remain dependent upon US support teams they will not truly be a national army, as they will not identify wholly with their mission or remain thoroughly invested in its success. However, if the IA were given complete control and responsibility for restoring order in cities like Falluja and Ramadi it would quickly be compelled to take a national perspective. If the IA were alone in policing Falluja they would realize that inflammatory behavior on the part of their Shi'ite coreligionists in other parts of Iraq cost them in local animosity and bloodshed in Falluja. Commitment to their strategic goal in the Sunni Triangle would bleed them of sympathy for provocateur forces like that of the Mahdi Army in Amarah.
The only force that has any hope of restoring unity and order to Iraq is the Iraqi government and the Iraqi Army. The Defense Ministry of the Iraqi government must be given true budgetary and strategic autonomy. They must be allowed to control their own fiscal resources and purchase the heavy weapons that will give the IA true combat superiority over insurgents in the Sunni triangle. Once that is done the US can withdraw completely from the Sunni triangle and focus on peacekeeping duties in Baghdad, Kirkuk, and other heavily mixed ethnic areas. Over the course of the next year US forces could then draw down throughout Iraq and transfer law-and-order duties to the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police. This is by no means a foolproof strategy- its success depends entirely on the commitment of Iraqi leaders to the genuine professionalization of the Iraqi security forces and the development of an authentically national policy in government affairs. Neither of those things might come to pass, but there is no alternative strategy that the US may employ that can accomplish what the Iraqis can not.