August 30, 2010: With only 50,000 American troops left in Iraq, and none of them committed to full time combat operations, one can get a sense of what the human cost of the seven year war was. Foreign forces lost 4,735 troops (93 percent American). Iraqi security forces lost about 6,000 police and soldiers. About 100,000 Iraqi civilians died, but over a third of these were members of terrorist groups (mostly Sunni, including al Qaeda). Another ten percent were members of various anti-terrorist militias. The U.S. tried to identify as many dead enemy fighters as it could, but those numbers are currently classified. Based on information that did leak out, it's clear that the terrorist groups lost over 30,000 people. Most of the civilians were killed by terrorists, most of the terrorist deaths were caused by American troops.
Some 19 percent of the American fatalities in Iraq were from non-combat causes. Most of the non-combat deaths were from accidents and disease. One of the major categories of non-combat death is vehicle accidents. In 2007, 20 percent of the non-combat deaths were from vehicle accidents. But in 2008, overall deaths declined by two thirds (from 904 in 2007, to 312 in 2008), but vehicle accident deaths went from 37 to 19. That trend continued to the present. Most of the 46 American troops killed in Iraq this year were from non-combat causes.
There are still a lot of vehicle accidents. Many of these are the result of the fast driving tactics troops were encouraged to use to get away from roadside bombs and ambushes. Ask the NCOs, and they will often complain that the sharp reduction in combat has removed the incentive to stay sharp and pay attention. Not a unique situation in a combat zone, and despite the energetic exhortations of the NCOs, too many troops do not stay alert enough to avoid accidents. Ask the troops, and they complain about the heavier traffic. With peace breaking out all over central Iraq, and the economy continuing to boom, more Iraqis have cars. Iraqis drive like they're from Boston, with abandon and indifference.
Meanwhile, military experts around the world are still trying to make sense of how the United States has kept its casualties so low in Iraq and Afghanistan. To put it in simple terms, you were three times more likely to be killed in Vietnam (or World War II), than you were in the current Iraq and Afghanistan operations. And then there is the mystery of higher non-combat deaths in Afghanistan. In Vietnam, and Iraq, 19 percent of the deaths were from non-combat causes (accidents, disease, for the most part.) During World War II, 25 percent of the dead were non-combat. In Afghanistan, 29 percent of the deaths were non-combat, although that is rapidly changing as combat deaths increase. Afghanistan does have a greater variety of diseases, and nasty terrain (including the atrocious roads).
What the U.S. did was put in well trained, led, armed and motivated troops and then supported them lavishly. Civilians were hired to do a lot of the menial jobs. Much effort was put into getting to know the local culture, and avoiding civilian casualties. That eventually won over enough Iraqis to undercut support for Islamic radicals (mostly Sunni Arabs angry at no longer being in charge, and minority Shia groups keen on setting up a Shia religious dictatorship). The solution in Afghanistan may be more difficult, as that part of the world has always been lawless and chaotic.