How can we tell if we are making progress in Iraq or not? If you already know what answer you want, it is easy to find someone to provide it. If you oppose the war, locate a prominent Democrat; if you prefer good news, find a Bush Administration official. In both cases, you are likely to hear accurate but, alas, highly selective and incomplete data. How do we move beyond the war of competing factoids to assess actual progress and to know when policies need to be adjusted?
One of the main obstacles to this is that the Bush Administration has been suffering from a perceptions gap of its own making. Prior to the war, administration officials frequently portrayed post- Saddam Iraq as a land of milk, honey, oil and bouquets being thrown at the feet of American soldiers as they packed their bags to head home quickly after the war. Another obstacle to a clear understanding of postwar Iraq, however, is the media. Negative news reports about individual acts of violence that are not placed in perspective by reporters, political analysts or the public at large greatly complicate matters. What is needed, therefore, is a framework within which we can assess trends over time, suggesting a means of monitoring future progress.
To be sure, this approach has its limitations, and they are stark. The Vietnam experience should remind us that assessing progress in any counterinsurgency through use of statistical measures is dangerous: the data can be incomplete, wrong or simply unrepresentative of actual progress in the broader political struggle that any counterinsurgency operation must wage. Body counts and estimates of “crossover points” at which one is killing the enemy faster than it can regenerate its ranks are particularly problematic. But by establishing as broad a portfolio of data as possible, scrutinizing it for accuracy and remembering caveats about how it should be interpreted, one can still do better with data than without it.