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September 25, 2007

The Numbers Go On
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Karen DeYoung breaks down the way the military counts “ethno sectarian violence.”  A number of observations and questions still remain:

1.  My biggest question is still about Petraeus’s own testimony and its contradiction with Pentagon data.  DeYoung explains that the inconsistency is due to the fact that Petraeus used both Iraqi and American data.  The Pentagon didn’t. 

Civilian casualty numbers in the Pentagon's latest quarterly report on Iraq last week, for example, differ significantly from those presented by the top commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, in his recent congressional testimony. Petraeus's chart was limited to numbers of dead, while the Pentagon combined the numbers of dead and wounded -- a figure that should be greater. Yet Petraeus's numbers were higher than the Pentagon's for the months preceding this year's increase of U.S. troops to Iraq, and lower since U.S. operations escalated this summer…


…the numerical differences are still stark, and the reasons offered can be hard to parse. The Pentagon, in a written clarification, said that "Gen. Petraeus reported civilian deaths based on incidents reported by Coalition forces plus Iraqi government data. The [Pentagon] report only includes incidents reported by Coalition forces for civilian causality data."

But why did he do that if according to his own testimony the most reliable data was American data?  Here’s what he said during his testimony

In fact, two U.S. intelligence agencies recently reviewed our methodology and concluded that the data we produce is the most accurate and authoritative in Iraq… Civilian deaths of all categories, less natural causes, have also declined considerably, by over 45 percent Iraq-wide since the height of the sectarian violence in December -- this is shown by the top line on this next chart -- and the decline by some 70 percent in Baghdad is shown by the bottom line.

Why would you pollute that data with notoriously inconsistent Iraqi government data. In fact, other Iraqi government data actually indicates a rise in violence.  So which Iraqi government data is being used here?  This makes little sense. 

2.  The article also shows how subjective this measure is.  It might be useful as one measure, but all the grandiose assertions being made by the military and the administration, using this particular statistic as definitive proof, need to stop.  The measure that matters is civilian casualties because it is objective. 

"Everybody has their own way of doing it," [Chief Warrant Officer 3 Dan] Macomber, [the Team Leader] said of his sectarian analyses. "If you and I . . . pulled from the same database, and I pulled one day and you pulled the next, we would have totally different numbers."

It is important to note that Macomber didn’t take the lead on this project until February, the month that the numbers started to drop.  I do not think he was manipulating anything on purpose.   But according to his own definition, a lot of the claimed progress could just be the result of a new team of analysts who defines sectarian violence more rigidly.  We can never know.

3.    The car bombs controversy is finally explained.  Apparently they didn’t used to count car bombs in “sectarian violence” but have now added that count.  I do not know if the change came before or after there was a public outcry about how ridiculous not including car bombs might be.

The most recent increase came when the Pentagon decided to include Iraqis killed in vehicle and suicide bombings, the most obvious forms of sectarian violence. Baghdad had always tallied those numbers along with other killings, Macomber said, but the Pentagon had always taken them out in compiling its own graphs.

4.  As Spencer Ackerman has recently explained all attacks on Iraqi security forces and Government Officials don’t count as sectarian violence, even if they were motivated by sectarian ideology.

The killing of seven Iraqis on Aug. 25 in the predominately Shiite Baghdad neighborhood of Kadhimiya was judged sectarian. The victims were Shiites, and the method and location -- a car bomb in a marketplace -- pointed to Sunnis.


Two Iraqis killed by a car bomb on Sept. 3 were not included in the sectarian database, however. The attack occurred on a road near Ramadi, not far from where President Bush was meeting with government officials that day. But the victims, regardless of ethnicity or sect, were Iraqi policemen. They were counted elsewhere.

5.    Finally, and perhaps most importantly

What the Iraqis perceive" about their country and their daily lives "may be more important than what the numbers are," said a senior intelligence official

He’s absolutely right.  In the case of counterinsurgency the perception of security is more important than the actual metrics.  People need to know that the government, and not the insurgents or local militias, is going to keep them safe. Only in that case will they cooperate with the government and participate in the political process.  Unfortunately, according to a recent survey of Iraqis conducted by the BBC and ABC 70% believe that the surge has failed.

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