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September 13, 2007

Putting Your Best Foot Forward
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Spencer Ackerman has been doing some great work on trying to figure out the methodology behind the sectarian violence and civilian casualty numbers.  And today the LA Times also has a piece with MNF-I’s explanation.  I’m still looking for a clear breakdown, but my overall observation is that  all these numbers would have been much more credible if the military and Administration hadn’t gone out of their way to dramatize success.  Three examples

Image002_2 First, rather than emphasizing the change in civilian casualties from December (2 months before the surge began) to August the General should have just said there has been a 15% decrease in violence since the surge began.  From February to August.  That’s still a little misleading because numbers go up and down every month. For example, between July and February there was almost no drop at all and between when the surge was “fully in place” in June and August there was no difference in civilian casualties.  But he sold it so hard and he used the absolute highest data point. 

Then there is the argument that many others have already made that ethnic cleansing in Baghdad had already caused Shi’a and Sunni to separate, which meant that they were no longer as easily able to kill each other.  Again, General Petraeus’s slides don’t tell the whole picture.  Compare his maps below with those that the Jones report used.  Jones actually shows July 2006, when the city was still very much mixed.  As the maps indicate, by the end of 2006 the Shi’a and Sunnis had completely separated giving credence to the argument that a central reason for the drop in violence was the ethnic cleansing.  Unfortunately, you don’t get that understanding by looking at General Petraeus’s slides.

Jones Maps

Image002_3

Petraeus Maps

Image002_4

Finally, why did the Pentagon and Administration spend so much time emphasizing “sectarian violence” and touting it as a huge success?  Why did General Petraeus push sectarian violence is down by 75% statistic?  Trying to figure out the intent behind a killing is dubious.  Many victims in Iraq are found dead on the street.  There are some specific signs that indicate that a killing was likely sectarian nature, such as finding a body blindfolded and bound at the wrists, but there is no way to no for sure.  That is where the front of the head/back of the head controversy came from in the Washington Post.  So why didn’t the Administration and the military just come clean with civilian casualties from the start? 

The question is not whether or not they are flat out lying.  I don’t think they are.  But in these cases they have continuously gone out of their way to use incomplete data to show the most positive picture possible and then they ask us to believe all the source data and get indignent when we don’t.  If they don’t want their source data questioned they shouldn’t blatantly massage these statistics.

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Comments

If you notice, the delta between the red and the blue lines is getting larger. So while Baghdad is "safer" using these measurements, the rest of the country is becoming more dangerous.

For example, in Jan 06, there were 300+/- killed a month in the hinterlands. Now that number is upto 1,000. To be fair, this is the same level as August 2006, so the surge did not really impact the violence in the non-urban center. Maybe this is because everyone leaves Baghdad for the summer and takes their killings to the vacation spots (like the areas attracting vacationing Iraqi parlement members).

why did the Pentagon and Administration spend so much time emphasizing “sectarian violence” and touting it as a huge success?

Because the story is that after the US liberated Iraq the Sunnis and Shi'ites, historic enemies, were unleashed to go after each other, pure and simple.

Actually, while there were differences between Sunni and Shi'te, they generally got along, lived on the same streets, worked together and intermarried. The chaos resulting from the poorly administered US invasion and occupation, as chronicled in No End In Sight, and the complete breakdown in civil authority as well as a brutal US military occupation have resulted in a lawless situation with civilian casualties resulting from not only sectarian differences but general lawlessness, uncontrolled government militias, violence against occupation collaborators and military action against the occupation resistance.

The US government prefers the simpler story because it signifies a need to maintain a US military presence and gives them a reason to manipulate the numbers in their favor.

Wait... how are they not lying?

I disagree with your statement "The question is not whether or not they are flat out lying. I don’t think they are. " It is true that not all of the figures and statements by Petraeus which you contest are flat out lies. For example, comparing August 07 to December 96 is not a lie. However the maps presented by Petraeus are falsified. I consider them to be lies.

Petraeus could have put his best foot forward without lying if the legends in his maps had been "majority Shia in July '07" , "majority Sunnin in July '07" and "mixed in July '07" but the only date in the maps he showed is in the title. Thus the legend can only be interpreted as a statement about the sectarian composition on that, the only date in the map. The colors on the map constitute false claims on a matter of known fact, that is perjury.

Now if Petraeus had presented maps with "in July '07" in the legends, he would not have lied, but he would not have managed to mislead while telling the truth, since it would be obvious that the fixed data was used to hide change over time. That's the reason people lie, telling the truth makes it hard to deceive people.

The cleaver way to mislead without committing a felony would be to present sectarian breakdown as of December '06. Anyone who didn't know of Jones's maps would assume that the out of date information was presented as more current information is unavailable even if Petraeus made no such false claim.

The question of whether an area of Baghdad was majority Sunni or majority Shia in january 2006 is a question of fact, not of presentation or interpretation. The claims of fact presented by Petraeus are known to be false by MNF-I. They chose to present false claims, and some of the people who worked on the graphs know it.

There are other falsehoods being spread by MNF-I including sworn testimony by Petraeus. It has been argued that figures for ethno-sectarian violence do not include deaths from sectarian motivated bombings. Petreaus swore this is not true. However, he was obviously lying. We know this because there were over 500 such killings on August 14 2007 http://tinyurl.com/yvynoe. This huge event does not appear at all in any of Petreaus's figures. The claim that bombings are counted implies that the mass killings of Yazidis was arguably not sectarian. This is clearly false. Petraeus did not put his best foot forward when he said the figures showed "acts taken by individual by one ethno-sectarian grouping against another." and added that "it's not that complicated" and said that if "al-Qaeda bombs a Shiite area, it's sectarian violence." That is not putting his best foot forward. That is a false claim made under oath.

OK. I was too nice and not clear enough in my post. What I meant to say is that they are fudging the numbers, playing with statistics and being dishonest. Technically, you can't say this is lying, it's just omitting parts of the truth. In a court of law it wouldn't hold up as perjury. Even if it is deplorable. That's all I meant by "not lying."

"Trying to figure out the intent behind a killing is dubious. Many victims in Iraq are found dead on the street. There are some specific signs that indicate that a killing was likely sectarian nature, such as finding a body blindfolded and bound at the wrists, but there is no way to no for sure."

Typically, we had people in the areas around the COP called "confidential informants." Finding out how a body arrived at a particular place involved a high-tech operation called "asking." The primary weapon platform for this was unique Coalition "voice" and "ear" working jointly, so as to achieve "conversation," which often translated into a working knowledge about violence in one's AO.

Much of the time, the highly sophisticated "Ask Question-Listen-Ask Another Question" SOP isn't even employed with CIs, but rather with targets we've code-named "Ordinary Iraqi People" who curiously enough live in places where dead bodies end up and, indeed, also near where living OIPs were turned into dead bodies. Often, they know how the transformation transpired, who initiated the process, and why it was done.

While notions of "lying" and "honesty" amongst the MNF-I staff might be within the competence of our resident military "expert" (still can't get over the arrogating of that title, perhaps its a perk at the brokerage house because it rarely is mentioned amongst others of his generation currently toiling in the US Army), perhaps understanding how combatants termed, for our purposes, "Soldiers" and "Marines" interact with "neighbors" in Iraq might prove too complex.

Hilarious.

Looking back on this decision, it seems to be well- intentioned, but poorly executed. Much of the promotional efforts for the Puerto Peñasco flights in Los Angeles did not swing into full gear until well after the flights had already started. The flights also began during the traditionally slower seasons instead of beginning in March (Rule of thumb: every Puerto Peñasco business should have its grand opening in February or March). It has proven difficult to coax a population of people- who already have...


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