Estimating Casualties in a War to Overthrow Saddam

Is it possible to make meaningful estimates of the likely casualties that would be suffered by U.S. military personnel, Iraqi troops, Iraqi civilians, and other civilian populations in a U.S.-led war to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime? Answering the questions of whether Saddam can be deterred, whether he is progressing quickly towards a nuclear weapons capability, and whether he has any meaningful links to Al Qaeda are at least as critical as assessing casualties in deciding whether the United States should lead a war against him. But any decision about war would benefit from a general sense of likely war casualties. Indeed, it has been recognized for years that expected casualties are generally an important consideration when Americans make decisions about whether and how to go to war.

The analytical community has been more wary of estimating casualties in a possible future war against Iraq than it was prior to the initiation of Operation Desert Storm in 1991. At that time, a number of scholars, largely using models and databases developed for assessing the NATO-Warsaw Pact military balance during the Cold War, estimated the losses likely to result in a war to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Virtually all these estimates were too high, but they were also generally more accurate than those produced by the Pentagon before the U.S.-led war against Iraq began. Indeed, they were virtually all correct in predicting a short decisive conflict in which U.S. casualties would be far less than those of the Vietnam or Korean wars. In that sense, the flawed estimates were still useful. And it may now be possible, building on lessons learned from that experience, to improve the accuracy of predictions for a future war.

This article attempts such a prediction. Consistent with military and strategic logic, and with leaked Pentagon war plans from the summer of 2002, it assumes that such a war would involve about 250,000 American forces. The invasion might involve rapid ground-force strikes against Iraqi command-and-control assets as well as weapons of mass destruction (WMD) sites in the earliest hours of combat, even as main invasion forces march more slowly through Iraq towards Baghdad and other cities. By using these sorts of “inside-out” tactics, U.S. forces would avoid the delays inherent in a mechanized march from Kuwait and other neighboring countries to Baghdad, which would probably take at least several days and provide Saddam tactical warning that he was at risk. The U.S. forces would target Saddam, his palace guard, his elite forces, and his WMD, while avoiding attacks against regular army troops, to encourage their defections—and to leave them intact to help stabilize a post-Saddam Iraq. Given the differences between Iraq and Afghanistan—most notably, the huge size of Iraqi forces vis-à-vis the internal opposition, as well as Iraq’s familiarity with U.S. airpower and its ability to take shelter from it in urban settings—it seems unlikely that the “Afghan” model of modern warfare could be easily applied to overthrow Saddam with only U.S. Special Forces and airpower.