March 20, 2005

That's No Way To Measure Success...

Yesterday the New York Times reported on signs that the insurgency in Iraq might be fading:
The top Marine officer in Iraq said Friday that the number of attacks against American troops in Sunni-dominated western Iraq and death tolls had dropped sharply over the last four months, a development that he called evidence that the insurgency was weakening in one of the most violent areas of the country.
Good news, it would appear, and it led to some criticism that the Times didn't blare this information on page A1. That's not something I care much about (are the people who glance only at the front page for info really going to control the Iraq debate?), but for what it's worth, we've heard countless stories about the insurgency growing or sinking in the past, and the truth of the matter seems to be that no one has a very good idea of what's going on, not Marine Generals, not analysts in Washington, and certainly not bloggers sitting and watching from the comfort of their own couches. (Whatever; my room was too small for a desk and I found this bad boy on the side of the road…)

One thing to note, though, is that the Times there are still "40 to 50 attacks a day," roughly the same number as a year ago. So we've progressed from "completely out of control" to "very, very bad." Trends are important, of course, but insurgencies seem to wane and wax over time, and at best a short-term decline in fatalities is inconclusive.

One positive spin to put on all this, though, is that it's hard to foresee anything in the immediate future that will worsen the Sunni-led insurgency. The ongoing stalemate between Shiites and Kurds over forming a new government is bad, of course, but it's not something likely to piss off Sunnis who already feel left out. By which I mean it's not something likely to piss them off even more. Meanwhile, the United States, in theory, has slowly started to decrease its Godzilla-size footprint in Iraq, which should at the very least leave some room for the new Iraqi forces to swoop in and maintain order.

Ah, but that's the rub. One of the most striking parts of Gunner Palace was the scene in which U.S. troops were trying to train the Iraqi security forces. Most of the grunts looked overweight, middle-aged, and badly out of shape. Few seemed committed to fighting—hardly surprising in a country where signing up for the National Guard is something you do to get a paycheck and avoid eating garbage, rather than something you do because you're temperamentally inclined to kick ass and keep order. Compare with the insurgents, who are quite emphatically not overweight, middle-aged, and badly out of shape. Obviously the movie only showed a small, small subsection of the Army, and I have no doubt that a vast number of Iraqi recruits are brave, committed, and competent at what they do. The problem is that there aren't enough of them.

It's hard to find hard numbers on how quickly the troops are being trained, and when we do get them, it's hard to put them in context. A good rule to remember, though, is that simply training more troops doesn't count as absolute progress. The insurgency is getting bigger, the crime epidemic in Iraq is getting worse, and as that happens, the need for more troops increases. And it seems to be increasing faster than the U.S. can train those troops. Carnegie's Jeffrey Miller recently crunched some numbers and concluded that "the gap between the total number of Iraqi security forces and the total required is now almost twice the size of the gap reported fourteen months ago."

One of my biggest pet peeves about all the reporting on Iraq—and one of Anthony Cordesman's pet peeves, and now apparently one of Jeffrey Miller's—is that we have very few metrics to measure progress. It's nice that the top Marine officer in Iraq can throw out a few numbers to the Times and make us think that the insurgency is declining, but as Miller notes, there are so many other important numbers and facts that no one seems to have any sort of handle on:
The graphs reveal that Congress and the public need urgent answers to a number of questions. Just how difficult and expensive is this task going to be? Why has it gone so poorly? What needs to be done differently? How many years will it really take to reach the required numbers? Why has spending on this priority task been so slow? Are the "trained" forces trained in any real sense of the word? Or are men being put on the streets who are likely to desert with their new equipment at the first sign of serious threat? What are the desertion rates from each force and the infiltration rates by antigovernment insurgents?
Indeed. Now the problem is that when and how the U.S. eventually withdraws from Iraq will depend entirely on these sorts of metrics for success, and whether or not the coalition forces (and Iraqis) are meeting them. Ideally, the American public will have some input into the debate over withdrawal—given that we're a democracy and all—so we need these metrics too. But more to the point, lawmakers need these metrics, and it doesn't seem like they're getting them. At best, everyone gets random stories in the New York Times to inform the debate, which is really quite dangerous.

Continue reading "That's No Way To Measure Success..."
-- Brad Plumer 5:30 PM || ||