So How Bad Are Things in Iraq?

by Roger Alford

I have a tendency to be skeptical about reports regarding how bad (or good) things are going in Iraq. It is one of those subjects where it seems the messenger’s bias often influences the outcome of the message. For example, the Washington Post reported in October 2004 that “at least 100,000 Iraqi civilians may have died because of the U.S. invasion.” But then the website Iraq Body Count reports that as of August 2006 between 40,000 and 45,000 civilians died as a result of the U.S. invasion. What gives?

So at first I was thrilled when I came across this Brookings Insititution report that has a very interesting “Iraq Index” detailing how things are going in Iraq.

But if you dig deeper and read the footnotes frustration sets in. For example, a great chart on page 9 reports on the number of car bombs in Iraq. But it has this note: “Many numbers in this chart are estimates. Please see relevant footnote for details.” Then in footnote 10 on page 64 the report indicates that the author only had hard numbers (from news outlets) for eight months of the twenty-six months included in the chart. The rest are author estimates. How can you do a chart on car bombs when you only have real information on 30% of the months included in the chart?

In a similar vein, on page 10 there is a great chart on Iraqi civilian deaths by violence. The picture is quite bleak for July 2006 compared with January 2006. As the New York Times put it this week, “Iraqi government figures released this week said that nearly 3,500 civilians were killed in July — a death toll nearly double the count in January.” But read the footnote and it says that violent deaths are based on an estimate of bodies in Baghdad morgues. “In our assessment, … it is incorrrect to attribute to violence all deaths recorded at the morgue. The assistant director of the Baghdad morgue estimated that 90 percent of deaths in July were due to violence; therefore, we have decided to scale the morgue deaths by 90% for January through June as well.” So a staff person in a morgue estimated the number of individuals who died a violent death at the Baghdad morgue in July, and this estimate was scaled for all previous months reported. And from that we get a total for all violent civilian deaths in Iraq? Moreover, the footnote says that the report no longer differentiates all crime-related deaths from war-related deaths because “the conflict has blurred the distinction between these categories.” So all violent death in Iraq is now war-related death caused by the U.S. invasion?

One also could easily find positive news in the report if one so desired. But one rarely hears about this information. For example, as noted on page 16, there are 38,000 non-Iraqi civilian workers in Iraq as of the end of 2005, compared to approximately 15,000 in the early months in 2004. And yet as noted on page 15, non-Iraqi civilian deaths are far less frequent in recent months than they were in 2004. (206 in 2004, 102 in 2005, and 53 so far in 2006). More than twice as many non-Iraqi civilian workers, and yet half as many non-Iraqi civilian deaths.

Same goes for foreign kidnappings. As provided on page 17, there were 149 foreign national kidnappings in 2004, 99 in 2004, 25 so far in 2006. Equally interesting, of those kidnapped, 32 died in 2004, 10 died in 2004, and 7 died so far in 2006. What are we supposed to extrapolate from these numbers? That things are much more under control now than in past years?

I also find especially interesting the three charts on pages 19, 22, and 28. We now have over a quarter million Iraqi security forces, compared to 100,000 in 2004. That is combined with 150,000 international troops. And how large is the Iraqi insurgency? An estimated 20,000 insurgents. That’s 400,000 of our guys against 20,000 of their guys. That’s a 20-to-1 ratio.

I genuinely am not trying to make any larger point here with how bad or good the war is going in Iraq. I’m sure the positive data in the report have problems as well. I’m just suggesting that Iraqi statistics (and reports about Iraqi statistics) should be viewed with great skepticism.

Part of me wants to throw up my hands and say I don’t know how things are going in Iraq. Part of me wants to say it must be bad because everyone seems to be saying it is bad. But I certainly wish it were easier to find out the truth.

Austin Bay had it right when he said, “[g]uaging success in war … is iffy, more art than science.”

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