Op-Ed

Dueling Realities in Iraq

Michael E. O’Hanlon

In the forthcoming testimony of Lt. Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, a likely main story line has already emerged: Iraq’s military situation is improved, but its national political situation is not. Together these dueling realities make it hard to give up on the surge in one sense, yet hard to know how long we should keep risking young American GIs when Iraqi top leaders dither and quarrel in another.

At a more detailed military level, another theme seems likely to be discussed by Gen. Petraeus and Mr. Crocker — the distinction between different types of violence in Iraq. Some forms have declined more than others. While all are clearly important, it will be important to understand if some are more significant lead indicators of an improving security environment. That in turn will help us decide if the military progress is only modest or quite substantial.

Perhaps the key pairing of violence metrics in Iraq will be total civilian fatalities, on the one hand and fatalities from reprisal killings on the other. The first category are, of course, victims of car bombings. The second is primarily a function of the responses of militias and gangs to those car bombings, as well as of other types of targeted revenge killings. This type of violence is often labeled under the heading of “EJKs,” or extrajudicial killings.

Of course, there are other important metrics of security trends. One to mention in passing is the total number of trained and equipped Iraqi security personnel, on the one hand, versus the number believed to be generally dependable and trustworthy across sectarian lines on the other. This distinction is probably more important than the question of how many are in “tier 1” condition — fully capable of operating on their own, without even needing American logistical support, versus how many are “tier 2” — generally capable of leading operations on their own, but with some limited help required. (In the end, I doubt we can have enough Iraqi units that are trustworthy across numerous sectarian lines to permit a real U.S. exit strategy until national political compromise in Baghdad starts to reduce animosities among Sunni, Shia and Kurd. But that is a different if related story.)

However, it is the distinction of total fatalities versus EJKs that will likely get the most discussion this month. The reason is that car and truck bombings, like the terrible Aug. 14 bursts in northern Iraq that killed some 500 Iraqi innocents, are to some extent not indicative of the overall situation in Iraq. Of course, the more dependable Iraqi security forces at checkpoints, the more vehicle bombs will be stopped before detonating, and the more crack Iraqi special forces we can help train, the more successful raids we can conduct against car and truck bomb factories.

In addition, the intelligence information needed to counter vehicle bomb networks often comes from Iraqi citizens, and the more of them who want to help combined U.S.-Iraqi security forces, the better this information will be. Finally, as some 80 percent of suicide bombers in Iraq are believed to be foreigners, better border security will also at least somewhat dampen car and truck bombings. So broad security trends do of course influence the statistics.

Indeed, for all these reasons the rate of major vehicle bombings in Iraq is down perhaps a third over the course of 2007. But there is still a capriciousness that means single events can radically alter trajectories about the frequency and lethality of attacks. One day of bad luck like Aug. 14, one day when bombers find a prime target not protected enough, and trendlines can change overnight.

By contrast, EJKs are to some extent a reflection of the broader state of sectarian violence, less prone to aberration from single events. In 2006, after the first Samarra mosque bombing, they went way up as Shia militias took the gloves off after decades of Sunni Ba’athist oppression and nearly three years of Sunni-dominated lawlessness and terror in post-Saddam Iraq. The ensuing civil war made it patently obvious that our earlier strategy was failing and led to wide-scale ethnic cleansing as well as the widespread use of government ministries by Shia extremists who became largely inseparable from many Shia politicians.

This year, it appears the EJK tolls have declined a great deal in Iraq, especially in Baghdad. Gen. Petraeus recently told an Australian newspaper that there may have been as much as a 75 percent decline in the capital city over the course of 2007. We are sure to get more detail when he testifies.

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By contrast, while there has also been a reduction in the total civilian fatality rate in Iraq this year, the improvement is perhaps in the range of 15 percent to 30 percent, depending on which months are compared. There is of course imprecision in some of the data, but this would seem to be the overall trendline in the data. An improvement in that range is surely significant, but of course far less dramatic than what has happened with the subcategory of EJKs.

In the end, an Iraq marred by catastrophic vehicle bombings probably cannot stay calm, and the Iraqi citizens who die will themselves presumably care little if they were killed by a big blast or a bullet to the back of the head. So this EJK vs. car bombing distinction can be pushed too far.

Yet as we size up progress in a still relatively new strategy, the large progress in reducing EJKs may tell us something significant about the hopefulness of military trendlines and security conditions on the country’s streets.