Calculating the surge

For a while, it seemed like the only people questioning the success of the surge were hard core anti-Iraq-war types like Bill Lind. Recently, however, even some doyens of the national media are beginning to express doubts. Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek and someone who has been giving the surge the benefit of the doubt, has now moved to the “not working” column:

It’s possible that the uptick in violence, the tensions in Diyala and other such signs are just twists and turns in Iraq’s troubled path. That is probably the way they will be read in the current atmosphere of self-congratulation in Washington. But they might also be signs that the architects of the surge-chiefly General Petraeus-were right all along when they said that the purpose of the military deployment was to buy time for Iraqis to make political progress. One year into the surge, five years into the war, those metrics have not improved. That’s why American troops remain stuck “in the loop” in Iraq.

It appears that the people proclaiming that the surge is working are either apologists for the administration, like the crowd at The Weekly Standard, or those soldiers on the ground who see that things in their areas aren’t so bad right now. As US Army Reserve Staff Sergeant (and recent master’s recipient from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies) Anthony J. Diaz puts it:

There is still much left to be accomplished in Iraq. But the successes of the men and women serving in this once explosive area of Baghdad cannot be overstated. Sitting here in Adhamiyah, one thing is certain: The surge has worked.

So who’s right? It would be a mistake to discount the experience of Sergeant Diaz — he sees what he sees — but how representative is it? We should not, of course, be making policy based upon anecdotes no matter how heartening, a conclusion with which a graduate of SAIS would agree. To reach a useful assessment, therefore, we need data that describe trends in the larger Iraqi society.

Because of the lack of political progress — its original purpose — the primary metric now cited by most proponents of “the surge is working” case is the decline in violence since the surge began. To verify this, however, we would need to be able to separate violence due to causes that the surge could have prevented from those due to all other causes. Some of these other causes are:

  • Completion of ethnic cleansing and the segregation of Baghdad into walled sectarian enclaves. “Much of Baghdad is now divided along sectarian lines defined by a patchwork of concrete walls, barbed wire and checkpoints. Indiscriminate killings, targeted murders and forced displacement have also left families emotionally scarred.” (A city is redrawn by the death squads, bombs, and beheadings, in the 17 March 2008 Times of London)
  • The standdown by the Mahdi Army, the Shi’ite militia loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr.
  • Suspension, at least for the time being, of attacks on Americans carried out by Sunnis in al-Anbar. “The Sunni defeat in the battle for Baghdad in 2006 and early 2007 was the motive for many guerrillas, previously anti-American, suddenly allying themselves with American forces. They concluded they could not fight the US, al-Qa’ida, the Iraqi army and police and the Mehdi Army at the same time. There is now an 80,000 strong Sunni militia, paid for and allied to the US but hostile to the Iraqi government.” Patrick Cockburn in The Independent, March 16, 2008.
  • The normal fluctuation of violence that characterizes any civil war.
  • Inaccuracies in the data, much of which is provided by an Iraqi central government whose ability if not their motivation to provide accurate data is questionable.

Let’s ignore the last two and accept that there has been a statistically significant decrease in the level of violence, that is, greater than can be explained by random variation. Then the question becomes: Can we credit the surge? As SSGT Diaz’s experience shows, additional troops on the ground in his “once explosive area” of Baghdad are containing the violence.

However, if we do some back-of-the-envelope calculations, the case for optimism becomes less clear. The “surge” put an additional 30,000 US troops into Iraq. Of these, only some fraction are out on patrol or in “combat outposts” as is SSGT Diaz. I don’t have any idea what that fraction is, but I’d be surprised if it were much over 1/3 (anybody have any real data?) This would mean that we added 10,000 actual trigger-pullers to the Coalition, replacing some number of other Coalition forces who are withdrawing (e.g., the British from around Basra).

Now, Iraq is a country of some 27 million people. Subtract the roughly 5 million Kurds and you get about 22 million non-Kurdish Iraqis. So essentially we added one combat soldier per about every 2100 Arab Iraqis (data from the CIA World Factbook). As SSGT Diaz’s piece shows, this can make a difference in a small number of areas for a limited amount of time, but was it a significant element in the overall decline in violence? It seems hard to believe, given such numbers, but we need real data in order to decide.

It also raises the question of what happens next.

Should the recent spate of bombings force al-Sadr to unleash the Mahdi Army (or cause large pieces of it to slip from his control) outposts such as Sergeant Diaz’s could be in serious danger, and the Shia - Sunni harmony that he is mediating would collapse in another wave of sectarian slaughter. One soldier per each 2,100 participants in such a communal civil war will just be swept up in the maelstrom.

So it is important that we understand what is going on and not ignore any favorable data just to prove that Bush was wrong or, on the other hand, grasp at any straw to prove that “the surge worked.”

[Comments are welcome; please observe our comment policy.]

3 Responses to “Calculating the surge

  • 1
    Fabius Maximus
    March 17th, 2008 23:49

    “We should not, of course, be making policy based upon anecdotes no matter how heartening, ”

    People on the spot are valuable sources of data, but personal involvement often results in a lack of perspective and objectivity. That is why we have players and scoring officials, executives and accountants. This division of labor is essential, and does not diminish the standing of the people on the front line.

  • 2
    Greg Lehmann
    March 18th, 2008 12:46

    Last week, I saw a replay of a CBC Ontario program. They were talking to retired Col. Doug MacGregor about the surge. Col. MacGregor stated that the decrease in US casualties was because we have been bribing the locals to leave us alone. He claimed that our people were circulating around passing out money to various people. If true, let’s hope they don’t run low on cash soon.

  • 3
    March 19th, 2008 16:22

    Perhaps the true costs of all this maynot been known, felt,
    or understood for generations yet.

    At some stage, pumping every single ounce of oil out of
    the ground in Iraq, may not cover the accumlated debt.

    Short term economics at work, and sadly these daze,
    there is no other kind.

    I get a kick out of the current headlines, proclaiming Americans
    have grown bored with the war(s) and turn thier focus and electorial
    aspirations towards the declining economy, AS IF they were not related,
    if not one and the same.

    And on, and on, and on it goes,,.


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