Washington May 2006

The Numbers War

In Washington, measuring the changing size of the Iraqi insurgency has become the battle to watch

One of the central dramas in Washington this year is how the expected drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq will affect voters. What’s vexing for President Bush and the Republicans is that their political problem with Iraq has come to match the military one: things look like they’re getting worse, not better. The tension between Bush’s many public assurances of success in Iraq and the public’s evolving perception that the insurgency is growing, not shrinking, could determine the party’s fate in November.

The current tension over the insurgency’s size is the product of a hazy understanding of the insurgent threat, coupled with the desire of pro-war politicians to portray Iraq as a success. Statistics, no matter how shaky their connection to underlying reality, are something politicians love. Impressively arranged numbers help bolster claims about anything from budget deficits to the insurgency’s “last throes.” But such data have a way of supplying a false—and in this case very perishable—sense of authority.

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Until recently, honest discussion about the insurgency’s scope and force has, for several reasons, been limited. It is difficult to measure the resistance with any real precision. The administration would prefer to downplay its very existence, since it repudiates their promises of a quick victory. And the usual bearers of bad news about the president—Democrats—either oppose the war or have no better plan for prosecuting it; they have nothing to gain by drawing attention to a fact that could delay a U.S. exit.

Instead, the best data and analysis have come from Washington think tanks, where two scholars in particular—Michael O’Hanlon, at the Brookings Institution, who maintains the Iraq Index (www.brookings.edu/iraqindex), and Anthony Cordesman, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, author of a series of papers on Iraq (www.csis.org)—compile painstakingly detailed reports that regularly offer the clearest outline of the insurgency’s basis, growth, and development. One of the earliest indicators of trouble in Iraq was the disparity between the tenor of the statements issued by the Bush administration (including the Pentagon) about how well the war was proceeding and the numbers O’Hanlon and Cordesman were, and are, compiling. Because Iraq is an issue of transcendent political importance, the lack of anything resembling incontestable statistical data on what is going well and what is going poorly has become a political issue unto itself.

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For most of the war, a kind of reprise of the Vietnam body-count dispute has been taking place over the size and strength of the insurgency. In the fall of 2003, the Pentagon hosted regular briefings for think-tank experts in which it put the insurgent strength at around 5,000. Even then there were signs that officials were not being fully forthcoming. At one such meeting, a participant noted the large number of insurgents being killed or detained (information tracked monthly in O’Hanlon’s Iraq Index) and asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld whether this showed that the insurgency faced clear annihilation. “I asked him, ‘Don’t the numbers look pretty good?’” the participant says. “But he declined to make that claim. He was acknowledging that things weren’t quite as they appeared.”

O’Hanlon’s and Cordesman’s statistics have often served as leading indicators of how the situation in Iraq is changing. Their estimates of the insurgency’s magnitude, juxtaposed with the number of fighters killed and detained, continue to indicate an opposition much larger and stronger than is being acknowledged. (Cordesman noted early on that, contrary to popular opinion in this country, the insurgency appeared to consist primarily of Iraqis and not foreign infiltrators.) Last year, for example, the Pentagon routinely estimated that there were around 20,000 insurgents under arms. The Iraq Index reported 23,500 insurgents killed or detained across 2005 alone—so had the insurgency been static, it would have been wiped out entirely sometime around early November. One can also find in these reports some of the earliest indications of how the pattern of violence has been evolving, as shown in the increase of IED bombings, the rise in assaults on oil facilities, and a shift in the targeting from U.S. troops to Iraqis.

As for the direction of things, there are indications of that, too. Cordesman’s chronology of violence against the Iraqi people has tracked mosque attacks since 2003, charting an ominous pattern that became front-page news in February and that now threatens to tip Iraq into civil war.

As suspicion grows that the insurgency’s strength has been willfully understated, a discussion once limited to policy intellectuals has become altogether more public, and the possibility of direct political consequences much greater. The Tet Offensive in Vietnam was so devastating to Lyndon Johnson’s policy because of the jarring counter it delivered to the official story line. A sharp rise in violence this year could have a similar effect on a public that has seemingly little patience left. This being an election year, the public has the means to make its frustration heard.

(Source for charts in this article: Iraq Index: The Brookings Institution)

Joshua Green is a senior editor of The Atlantic.
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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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