Trends in Iraq

Are things really improving on the battlefields of Iraq, or not? There is plenty of room for debate about American policy even after we reach a clear answer to this question. But the problem is even harder if we cannot. Unfortunately, some recent reports have clouded the situation.

The latest confusion has arisen from the Pentagon’s own published reports and cannot be blamed on the media or anyone else. As Karen DeYoung has just reported in The Washington Post, the Defense Department’s Quarterly Report on Iraq, issued just after the recent Petraeus/Crocker testimony, shows only marginal improvement in the overall security environment in Iraq this year.

That contrasts with a clear trajectory in the right direction, toward a less violent country, displayed in Gen. David Petraeus’ graphs for Congress. For example, Gen. Petraeus’ numbers show about a one-third reduction in the nationwide civilian fatality rate this summer compared with last winter, a 50 percent reduction in ethno-sectarian killings nationwide, and a 65 percent drop in ethno-sectarian killings in Baghdad (admitting that violence levels still remain way too high even after all this).

What is most incomprehensible is that all these competing estimates presumably come from the same database of violent incidents in Iraq.

How can Gen. Petraeus show at least a one-third drop in violence rates since the winter, while Defense Department/Washington shows virtually no improvement over the same period? Resolving the issue is actually quite important. After all, if after more than six months of surging we have only marginally improved the security environment — matching the scant political progress Iraqi leaders have delivered — it is hard to hold out much hope for this strategy down the road.

My examination of the data convinces me Gen. Petraeus and his team in Baghdad have it right, and that the Pentagon needs to re-evaluate how it is assessing and presenting data. There are four main reasons I reach this conclusion, in increasing order of importance.

(1) Gen. Petraeus’ data are more current: This is not the primary explanation for the discrepancy, but Gen. Petraeus had another month or so of data reflected in his graphs. As the surge only reached full force in June, another month makes a difference — even if not a huge one.

(2) Gen. Petraeus’ data focus on civilians: The Pentagon database counts all casualties to all groups of individuals. It tabulates killed and wounded not just among Iraqi civilians, but among Iraqi Security Forces and U.S. security forces as well. Gen. Petraeus’ data focuses only on the Iraqi civilian population.

Because the surge has been designed to create more contact with the enemy, it has naturally led to more fighting and as such more casualties for American and Iraqi security forces. We all feel these losses deeply: They are tragic, and we must hope and pray they decline soon. That said, they are an inevitable consequence of the new strategy in its early months.

By contrast, protecting the Iraqi civilian population is central to the entire mission, as it must be in any counterinsurgency and stabilization mission. And it is the chief reason we are doing all this additional fighting. As such, Gen. Petraeus and his team correctly focus first and foremost on trends within this category of violence.

I am less persuaded of the importance of tracking ethno-sectarian killings, where Gen. Petraeus’ data show even more improvement. While somewhat useful as a metric, they are also somewhat hard to define. But overall civilian fatality trends are clearly of central importance.

(3) Gen. Petraeus’ data focus just on those killed, not all casualties: It is tragic whenever anyone is hurt in war. But relatively minor wounds from which one recovers are not nearly as bad as killings, for obvious reasons. Gen. Petraeus’ data focus on fatalities, the Department of Defense Quarterly Report for some reason focuses on all casualties, including killed and wounded. It is useful to examine both, but when prioritizing the relative importance of different metrics, the fatality figures are clearly more crucial.

(4) Data on wounded probably also are ‘softer’ than data on killings: While it is not always possible to count every dead body in Iraq, killings produce corpses. Information on the numbers of people wounded, by contrast, derives largely from paperwork in hospitals and clinics. Without being able to prove my hypotheses, I would surmise therefore that data on Iraqi wounded are softer and more subject to imprecision than data on killings.

Perhaps the recent reduction in killings on Iraqi streets makes it likelier that lightly wounded individuals will come to hospitals or clinics for treatment in the first place. In past years, they might have been too afraid to do so, leading to misleadingly low estimates of casualties in earlier periods such as 2006. This is admittedly just a theory, but I would not be surprised if it is at least partly right.

The bottom line, that must not be forgotten amid all the competing reports and confusion and politics, is that U.S. government databases show clear and significant reductions in Iraqi civilian fatalities over the course of 2007.

It is way, way too soon to talk of stability in Iraq, and the lack of political progress there makes our long-term prospects for even partial success modest at best. However, at least on the battlefields, we have clearly been headed in the right direction.