Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Petraeus' Numbers Game

Mikey fired me up with his post below analyzing the recent U.S. fatality numbers. Undoubtedly, the right will try and spin this as a success of the surge.

Is it? Or is it as I suspect part of a spin-plan orchestrated by Petraeus to appear successful while failing to accomplish any political success in Iraq or any greater security success for the Iraqi people.

Let's take a look.

Here are some of the things that helped, in my opinion, to reduce U.S. combat fatalities:

(1) we decreased our presence in Anbar and parts of Northern Iraq. Of course, the Yazidi suffered the loss of more than 500 from a horrific bombing.

(2) We steered clear of of Karbala during a large Shiite pilgrimage knowing such an event was likely to draw extremists. The result was a violent bloodbath between Shiite sects. But hey, no Americans were being killed and if its Shia on Shia, it's not sectarian. If they're preoccupied killing each other, they can't be as effective at killing us. Another Petraeus victory. You also must wonder how many of the Shia fighters are turning to the coming fight in the South with the Brits pulling up their stakes.

(3) In Baghdad, Newsweek has a must-read on the success - not of the surge - but of ethnic cleansing since the start of the surge.
When Gen. David Petraeus goes before Congress next week to report on the progress of the surge, he may cite a decline in insurgent attacks in Baghdad as one marker of success. In fact, part of the reason behind the decline is how far the Shiite militias' cleansing of Baghdad has progressed: they've essentially won.

And in failing to have stopped the Shiite cleansing of Sunni's in Baghdad, we have unfortunately left the appearance of having aided the Shia. We are trading short-term neighborhood-by-neighborhood security for long-term animosity and an ever deeper sectarian divide. We are allowing massive internal displacement for the sake of troop security.

So, in my mind, Petraeus has made a number of strategic decisions that help reduce US troop fatalities in the short run, but which have further damned the prospects of political reconciliation. In fact, I believe Petraeus' actions will ultimately be counterproductive in leading to even longer term violent sectarianism and intra-Shiite hostilities.

Now, Petraeus is a smart guy. He knows he cannot manipulate the number of American fatalities. He has to get those numbers lower to sell the surge in September (after all, does anybody believe a General who created a plan is not going to claim it works? Has that happened? Ever?)

But to get those numbers lower, you need less confrontation, fewer hotspots, etc. But the downside of avoiding a number of fights is that more Iraqis are going to die.

Here's the rub. Petraeus also knows the Iraqi government completely controls the reports of Iraqi civilian deaths. They do not provide breakdowns of those numbers so they are not verifiable.

The American military was busted twice gaming these numbers - post-Golden Mosque bombing and in August '06 during Surge I - because the UN could independently double-check the numbers from all the various morgues and other reporters. That was cut off in October 2006.

So in July, Nouri Al Maliki's government reported 1,753 civilian deaths. Just have to beat that number, right? Except, oops, there were some big high profile civilian death events. The bombing of the Yazidi was yielding independent counts of 500 deaths and the Kerfuffle in Karbala was landing daily body counts in the news. Well, don't oversell,go with a number that looks like an increase but we can claim is a decrease but for some exceptional events.

1,773 is the number the government gave us. And the Righties cheered without any qualifications as to the number's lack of verification.

Until ...

The New York Times received a leak of the real numbers. The figures show a drop in deaths in Baghdad, from 896 in July to 656 in August. But overall, the numbers reveal 2,318 civilians died violently in the country in August, compared with 1,980 in July.

That's right. Civilian deaths didn't just increase by 20, but by 338 or 16%; and that is based only on counts that don't include the many who never pass through a morgue because of the Muslim tradition of burial within 24 hours.

Here's a quote from the NYT piece that let's us in on the obvious:
Colonel Garver acknowledged that as a result of the operations in Baghdad, militias and insurgent groups had been trying to establish networks north of the capital. “You see attacks up north in part because it’s harder to move around Baghdad if you’re a terrorist,” he said. “It’s harder to bring car bombs in.”

Damn, who would've thought the Iraqis could figure out the Wee Willie Killer strategy.

At 160,000 plus troops, I have no doubt we can flood a zone with marginal gains in that zone. We can also manipulate US fatalities downward depending upon when and where we want to take the fight. But please, don't pretend that this is succeeding in making Iraq more secure. Without 600,000 plus troops, the battles will rage largely wherever US troops cannot be.


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