The U.S. military's claim that violence has decreased sharply in Iraq in recent months has come under scrutiny from many experts within and outside the government, who contend that some of the underlying statistics are questionable and selectively ignore negative trends.Via Scott Horton, who wrote a letter to the editor of the Washington Post for burying this important story on numbers manipulation in deep inside the newspaper just as whether the US stays in Iraq is the dominant political issue of the day. Walker also notes, as I did with some alarm a few days ago, that the Post appears to be going to its bad old 2003 ways with regards to Iran, notably by publishing this attack on Mohamed al-Baradei several days ago.
Reductions in violence form the centerpiece of the Bush administration's claim that its war strategy is working. In congressional testimony Monday, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, is expected to cite a 75 percent decrease in sectarian attacks. According to senior U.S. military officials in Baghdad, overall attacks in Iraq were down to 960 a week in August, compared with 1,700 a week in June, and civilian casualties had fallen 17 percent between December 2006 and last month. Unofficial Iraqi figures show a similar decrease.
Others who have looked at the full range of U.S. government statistics on violence, however, accuse the military of cherry-picking positive indicators and caution that the numbers -- most of which are classified -- are often confusing and contradictory. "Let's just say that there are several different sources within the administration on violence, and those sources do not agree," Comptroller General David Walker told Congress on Tuesday in releasing a new Government Accountability Office report on Iraq.
For a more general take on Iraq, George Packer has a long piece in the current New Yorker that touches on how compliant the media continues to be:
This week, Ryan Crocker, the U.S. Ambassador in Baghdad, and General David Petraeus, the commander of the multinational forces in Iraq, will give their assessment of the surge to Congress—an event that, in Washington, has taken on the aura of a make-or-break moment for the Administration’s policy. But their testimony is likely to be unremarkable. Administration officials, military officers, and members of Congress described their expectations of it in strikingly similar terms, and a few said that they could write it in advance: military progress, a political stalemate among Iraqis, more time needed.The Packer piece also looks at some suggestions, from an American perspective, of long term strategic issues that will have to be dealt with as a consequence of the Iraqi civil war. One of the more pessimistic views:
The Petraeus-Crocker testimony is the kind of short-lived event on which the Administration has relied to shore up support for the war: the “Mission Accomplished” declaration, the deaths of Uday and Qusay Hussein, Saddam’s capture, the transfer of sovereignty, the three rounds of voting, the Plan for Victory, the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Every new milestone, however illusory, allows the Administration to avoid thinking ahead, to the years when the mistakes of Iraq will continue to haunt the U.S.
The media have largely followed the Administration’s myopic approach to the war, and there is likely to be intense coverage of the congressional testimony. But the inadequacy of the surge is already clear, if one honestly assesses the daily lives of Iraqis. Though the streets of Baghdad are marginally less lethal than they were during 2006, sixty thousand Iraqis a month continue to leave their homes, according to the International Organization for Migration, joining the two million who have become refugees and the two million others displaced inside Iraq. The militias, which have become less conspicuous as they wait out the surge, are nevertheless growing in strength, as they extend their control over neighborhoods like Ahmed’s. In the backstreets, the local markets, the university classrooms, and other realms beyond the reach of American observers or American troops, there is no rule of law, only the rule of the gun.
Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at Queen Mary College of the University of London, who also served on the strategic-assessment team, told me, “What has defeated America in Iraq, apart from the failure of the state and its own incompetence, are a bunch of radicals with nothing more sophisticated than reëngineered artillery shells and rocket-propelled grenades. That is a loss of cataclysmic proportions.”One thing that I would like to see is some local Arab perspective on the long-term impact of the invasion of Iraq. Do Syrians, Jordanians, Saudis, etc. believe it can be contained? Will a country like Egypt, that is not a neighbor of Iraq but an important regional player, also have to suffer the consequences (perhaps losing strategic importance compared to powerful players in Iraq such as Saudi Arabia and Iran)? Will the regional focus shift eastward? Will we have to deal with, from Syria to Morocco, with continuing jihadist agitation and recruitment to fight Americans, or Shias, in Iraq? And, if Iraq today is turning into the Afghanistan of the 1990s, what happens when the veterans of Iraq come back to their countries of origin?
Dodge comes out of the British left and vehemently opposed the war. But this summer, when we met at his London office, he spoke of withdrawal as a prelude to catastrophe. “What are the U.S. troops going to leave?” he said. “They’re going to leave behind a free-for-all where everyone will be fighting everyone else—a civil war that no one actor or organization will be strong enough to win. So that war will go on and on. What will result in the end is the solidification of pockets of geographical coherence. So if you and I were mad enough to jump in a car in Basra—pick a date, 2015—and we tried to drive to Mosul, what we’d be doing is hopping through islands of comparative stability dominated by warlords who, through their own organizational brilliance, or more likely through external support, have managed to set up fiefdoms. Those fiefdoms will be surrounded by ongoing violence and chaos. That looks a lot to me like Afghanistan before the rise of the Taliban. Or Somalia. That’s where Iraq goes when Americans pull out.”