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More Numbers

August 24th, 2007

Recently, I posted about the Iraq War and noted that right wingers have touted a “drop” in Coalition troop fatalities as evidence that the Surge™ is working and things are getting better in Iraq. I pointed out that a July dip in casualty numbers has been a pattern that has held true over three years and so it does not have anything to do at all with the “Surge.”

A frequent visitor who gamely carries water for the Bush administration pointed me to an article in USA Today which seemed to support the idea that the “Surge” is working: that “major attacks” have declined since the “Surge” began. That, plus a claim that tips from local Iraqis about insurgents have quadrupled, were the only “hard” evidence that things were getting better in Iraq. My visitor challenged me to read that and answer to it.

My reply: it was cherry-picking data, choosing just two figures from two dates each, out of a virtual galaxy of statistics, and claiming that they represented the whole of the image:

If your source showed *all* the data, I would take it more seriously. Instead, it is an example of the administration releasing a story through indirect agents (in this case, military officials including a retired general friendly to Petraeus) who uses cherry-picked numbers to make his case. For all we know, the trend could be increasing–and the reporter, like so many these days, simply reports what he’s fed. Did he investigate the whole dataset, get all the numbers and facts and figures, so as to confirm or deny the numbers he was given as accurately portraying a trend? Apparently not–he most likely just accepted what was set before him and wrote it up like a good little puppy.

Show me the level of said violence each month over the past one or two years. Add the number of people killed as opposed to simply the number of attacks–were the 130 in March killing just a dozen on average and the 70 in July killing 50 on average? Then add the *total* number of attacks of all types, and the total number of Iraqis killed–also month-by-month over the last year or two.

Well, ask and ye shall receive. Kevin Drum just happened, a few days after those comments, to post an entry that had far better data–not all that I asked for, but a lot further along those lines than the USA Today article provided. Here is the data as provided by Drum (from The Brooking Institute [pdf file]):

Violence Metrics


Iraqi Military and Police Killed 349 429 Up 23%
Multiple Fatality Bombings 110 82 Down 25%
# Killed in Mult. Fatality Bombings 885 1,053 Up 19%
Iraqi Civilians Killed
(All violent causes)
6,739 5,300 Hard to say1
U.S. Troop Fatalities 104 187 Up 80%
U.S. Troops Wounded 983 1,423 Up 45%
Size of Insurgency 20,000+ ~70,0002 Up ~250%
Attacks on Oil and Gas Pipelines 8 143 Up 75%

1Methodology changed dramatically between 2006 and 2007, so numbers are highly suspect.
2Number is for March 2007.
3Numbers are for June only. No July numbers are available.

Infrastructure Metrics


Diesel Fuel Available 26.7 Ml 20.7 Ml Down 22%
Kerosene Available 7.08 Ml 6.3 Ml Down 11%
Gasoline Available 29.4 Ml 22.2 Ml Down 24%
LPG Available 4,936 tons 4,932 tons Down 0.1%
Electricity Generated 8,800 Mwatts 8,420 Mwatts Down 4%
Hours Electricity Per Day 11.7 10.14 Down ~14%

4No numbers available for June/July. Figure is extrapolated from May and August numbers.

As you can see, the numbers support the USA Today claim that there has been a decline in the number of multiple-killing attacks… but confirms my suspicions that the number of people killed in those attacks has increased. And almost every other figure presented shows things getting worse, not better.

Is this absolute proof? No, of course not. There’s a lot more data in the Brookings report, not all of it bad–but only if you ignore general trends and believe that all immediate downward ticks (just one or two months’ turn as opposed to four+ years of numbers) will continue that way, when they never have in the past. As I have pointed out, there has always been a July dip in those numbers, and the real picture cannot be well-understood until perhaps the end of the year or further beyond. Looking at the whole of the situation in terms of long-term trends, it seems impossible that laying a few tens of thousands of troops on the problem for a few months is really going to turn the war around and put us in a position where we could “win,” where it would be at all worthwhile to stick it out for another three or ten years. As I said yesterday:

The theory is that if we can just apply enough pressure to dampen violence in Iraq for a while, then Iraq can heal itself, pull itself together, become a unified whole, pick itself up and banish the insurgents. That’s all, not much.

And that, my friends, is the extent of the pipe dream. The Iraqi government cannot pick its nose without falling apart at the seams; the insurgents, even if suppressed, are still there and are not going anywhere; the Iraqi militia, when they are not giving their weapons to insurgents or actively participating in the insurgency, are incapable of policing Iraq on their own; there is no solution in sight for solving the problems of sectarian division; and so many, many other problems.

I stand by that. If the data says anything, it says that there is a short-term dip in bad news that coincides with July patterns over time, and that the long-term prospects are dim at best, with violence up significantly over last year even after the short-term dip.

But that’s not what we’ll hear in the report about the “Surge.” The White House, always claiming that “the generals” tell them what to do and they just follow those brilliant men in uniform, is actually writing the script for General “Sock Puppet” Petraeus, and the USA Today article is almost certainly just a pre-report softening-up PR campaign to try to get the impression out there that, het, maybe the “Surge” is working.

If only it were true. If only there was hope in this situation. If only there were something we could do at this point. I wish it too, folks–but wishing don’t make it so, and I for one am not willing to sacrifice another thousand of our young soldiers on a self-serving, Bush-perpetrated pipe dream.

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  1. cc
    August 31st, 2007 at 04:57 | #1

    The way Washington Monthly spins these numbers is very problematic.

    A 250% increase in the insurgency sounded suspicious to me. So I specifically looked at the Brookings Index for that number, and I found it on page 26. Very interesting. Up until 10/06, the estimated number was always app. 15,000-20,000. Then there is NO data reported until 03/07. Suddenly, the number balloons to 70k. And there’s a note in this entry that says the number doesn’t include “non-operational supporters”. What does this all mean? It means, the 70,000 in March should IN NO WAY be compared to the 15,000 figure from prior months.

    Good thing I saw that. At least Brookings was honest about it. But Washington Monthly either didn’t notice or didn’t bother to mention the error. And the error has made its way onto this blog.

    And if you look at page 4 of the Brookings report, it reads: “In short, civilian fatality levels in Iraq now seem to have declined substantially more than previous Pentagon reports or data had indicated. In particular, the monthly civilian fatality rate from sectarian violence appears about one-third lower than in the pre-surge months. That is still far too high, and remains comparable to violence levels of the 2004-2005 period, but it nonetheless reflects progress.”

    No, not all the news is good. But the news is getting better in Iraq. What about the near complete turnaround in the Anbar province? The counterinsurgency is making great progress over there.

  2. Luis
    August 31st, 2007 at 09:44 | #2


    The single error you point out simply proves the point I made–that cherry-picking numbers out of context makes things look exactly like you want them to. As for all the other figures, dismissing them with a simple “not all the news is good” is hardly honest in responding to the matter as a whole. It assumes that most of the news is good–something which you have not by far demonstrated.

    As for Anbar Province, from today’s news:

    BAGHDAD — A suicide bomber detonated a vest packed with explosives in a Sunni Arab mosque in Fallouja on Monday, killing 10 worshipers, including the imam, and shattering what had been a period of relative calm for a region that was once the most volatile hotbed of Iraq’s insurgency.

    The attack at the end of evening prayers was blamed on the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq by American military officials and a Fallouja police official.

    The blast, which killed Imam Abdul-Sattar Jumaili and nine other men and injured 11, underscored the persistent violence gripping Iraq despite the recent U.S. troop buildup and a fresh pledge by contentious Iraqi government officials to work together.

    This, of course, does not mean that we’ve lost Anbar, or that there hasn’t been progress–but it does underscore that you can’t take anything for granted.

    More to the point, you can always point to this location or that one to show a decrease–but the I can always point to this other location or that one to show an increase. As I have stated before, it’s a whack-a-mole game; pour troops into City A, the insurgents move to City B.

    So you point out Anbar, I point out Kirkuk, which has become more violent as insurgents seeing more soldiers in Baghdad have moved to the new city and pick up where they left off.

    Again, this goes against the idea that the “Surge” is making progress when taken as a whole, and not just focusing on specific locations to the exclusion of others.

    As for the comment on page 4 of the Brooking Report, that’s not data, that’s opinion/commentary. Brooking is a good source for numbers if you are refuting rose-tinted appraisals because the Brooking Institute favors and supports the war in Iraq. The data I will accept as conservative (in effect, guaranteed not to be leaning anti-war, so the bad news coming from it can be accepted as legit), but commentary in the report does not receive the same weight. You got numbers and trends, show them to me, and we’ll debate. But opinion is not fact.

    AND, let me note, you have still not addressed something which I have addressed repeatedly: even if the amount of violence overall were to fall by a certain percent, this does not address the underlying problems of failing Iraqi leadership, a sustained insurgency that will never be extinguished even if it is forced to move around a bit, an Iraqi military/police that can’t do squat and whose members all too often work for the insurgency or for sectarian death squads, and the sectarian feuding which underlies the entire crisis.

    In short, even if violence in Iraq is cut by say, 20%, it is nothing more than a tiny stitch in the gushing open wound that is Iraq. If it requires us to spend $200 billion a year and stretch our military beyond its limits to just obtain that small, temporary improvement, kindly explain how we will accomplish the rest?

  3. cc
    October 28th, 2007 at 13:55 | #3

    Now that the surge has been going on for many months now, perhaps now you will be willing to concede that the surge has worked?

    “BAGHDAD, Oct 22 (Reuters) – Violence in Iraq has dropped by 70 percent since the end of June, when U.S. forces completed their build-up of 30,000 extra troops to stabilise the war-torn country, the Interior Ministry said on Monday.”


    “BAGHDAD, Oct 1 (Reuters) – Civilian deaths from violence across Iraq fell by 50 percent in September from the previous month to the lowest level recorded this year, government data showed on Monday. ”


    “Sixty-three U.S. military deaths were reported in September, the lowest monthly toll since July 2006, according to U.S. forces and a preliminary count by The Associated Press.”


    And according to the most recent Brookings report, multiple fatality bombings are at the lowest level since Samara, Iraqi military and police deaths are at their lowest levels, and electricity production has now reached pre-war levels.

    Time to face it. We’re actually winning in Iraq. That’s why there aren’t huge protests anymore. There were some over the weekend, but the participation numbers were tepid compared to the past. Because the critic’s are now silenced. Everyone believes we can’t lose in Iraq now. The opposition can’t play that game anymore. The remarks denouncing the troops and the war have proved to be an embarrassment to the Democrats. They know it’s a losing proposition. And if things continue to improve, the political dynamics will adjust accordingly. In fact, it’s starting already.

    And putting aside the politics of the matter, we should all be hoping our troops are successful. And an acknowledgment that they are making success would be a good start. Is it really such a stretch to say our very existence may be at stake?

  4. Luis
    October 28th, 2007 at 15:18 | #4

    It is fantastic news that casualties among our troops have been dropping; I have been happy to watch the numbers fall over the past two months, and I hope that it continues to drop.

    To say that this and lower civilian casualties is equivalent to “winning the war” is supremely naïve, however. There could be a multitude of causes aside from that. For example, the drop in civilian casualty rates is mostly attributed to the fact that there are few people left to kill; neighborhoods in Iraq and elsewhere have thinned out and violently segregated to the point where there is a lot less chance for sectarian violence of the kind you are thinking. THis is not a “victory,” however; it is, as best, a Pyhrric victory, and at worst, a minor lull before the segregated populations start fighting over distance concerning territory or a multitude of other causes.

    As for lower troop deaths, it is wishful thinking of the most dangerous order to believe that this is a victory of any kind. Some of the causes are much more mundane:

    UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon recently said that September witnessed the lowest number of Iraqi casualties in any month this year. He added that there had been a decease in violence in general due to a cessation of attacks by the Mahdi Army, led by Shia religious leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who in August ordered a temporary freeze of his followers’ activities, including attacks on US troops.

    Additionally, insurgents may have decided to pull back and save their resources on the idea that America is due to pull out soon. Or they may be savvy enough to know that the appearance of America “winning” could faster prompt a pullout. Or there might be a repositioning of U.S. forces that caused the lower casualties without actually accomplishing much. Or, as you posit, it could be a sign of things getting better. The chances of the latter being true, however, are sadly and unfortunately slim. Not to mention that the death toll has reached numbers this low before, only to flare up again. 69 U.S. soldiers died this September, compared to 77 last September. While better, 69 U.S. troop deaths in a month is hardly “winning” nor a cause for celebration.

    As I said in this post and several others, the levels of violence are only one small part of success in Iraq, and thinking otherwise is wishful at best. I would like you to be right, I wish you were right. But you’re not.

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