The New York Times
In the Heat of Battle and Politics, the Hard Facts Melt
By JAMES GLANZ
BEWARE the benchmarks of Iraq.
As Congress and the American public begin to ask for tangible and quantitative measures of whether the troop increase in Iraq is creating improvement or presiding over failure, it would be wise to remember the kind of place where the United States is dispatching — metaphorically, at least — its statisticians.
Iraq is the place where there are still wildly conflicting estimates of something as fundamental as how many civilians have died as a result of the war. It is a place where some government officials will swear that there are 348,000 wonderfully trained, motivated and equipped Iraqis in the security forces and other officials will tell you that most of those troops and police either have questionable loyalties, lack equipment or simply do not always report for duty.
The precision is very important: 348,000, according to Wednesday’s update from the Pentagon. Or, perhaps, hundreds of thousands less. And the disagreements do not go away even when various groups agree on basic facts — say, that the United States has now spent $8.9 billion of its own and Iraq’s money on rebuilding the electricity and oil sectors, according to the latest figures from the Government Accountability Office.
In those same numbers, oversight agencies see a rebuilding program that has fallen short of virtually all of its performance goals and had little impact on Iraqis’ lives, while organizations that are heavily involved in the program, like the United States Army Corps of Engineers, see a huge success that has not received due credit.
“Nationwide, and since the time of sovereignty in 2004, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has completed over 3,000 of the original 3,786 projects in the Iraq Reconstruction Program,” according to a recent news release from the corps.
How can a single country look so kaleidoscopically different depending on the point of view?
Part of the answer is clearly that competing political entities strain with all their might to see a reality that fits their convictions — and that includes official entities that are determined to show progress, said Justin Logan, an analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute. “You can always show progress,” he said. “Somewhere in Iraq, something is better than it was three months ago, and you can go and get somebody to write that story.”
That method survives after four years in Iraq, Mr. Logan said, through “a mixture of wishful thinking and selective disclosure.”
Mr. Logan’s analysis finds support among some of the oversight officials who have looked most closely at the reality of Iraq.
Take, for example, those 348,000 Iraqis in the military and police forces. Joseph A. Christoff, director of the international affairs and trade team at the Government Accountability Office, who has made repeated trips to Iraq to carry out his research, said that the figure enormously overstates the actual readiness of the forces.
“Half of them don’t show up for work each day,” he said. “They have divided loyalties — many of the people are loyal to Shia militias. And they are dependent on the United States for their movement, their equipment, their ammunition and their life support.”
There is a related problem, he said, when the United States attempts to show that it has made progress against what it sees as the main foe in Iraq, Al Qaeda, by killing or capturing the organization’s leaders or disrupting its operations. In fact, he pointed out, it has long been known that the violence in Iraq stems not from one source but from a mishmash of conflicts, including purely criminal gangs working with both Shiite and Sunni armed groups, which in turn battle each other and fight among themselves.
“And all of them have the general goal of getting us out of there,” Mr. Christoff said.
Several other factors have recently made it even tougher to obtain solid information about what is actually happening on the streets of Baghdad, a notoriously opaque environment even before the fog of war set in.
First, as the often desperate security situation has damaged the normal functioning of parts of the government, information that used to flow quickly through chains of command at the Interior and Defense Ministries is no longer as readily available. And most Iraq analysts have concluded that the rise of sectarian powers in Iraq has weakened the office of the prime minister, which had previously functioned as a sort of information clearinghouse during crises.
A second problem is that by necessity Iraqi government officials are surrounded by thicker and thicker blankets of security where they operate, within the strange menagerie of the Green Zone. That prevents them from making their own observations of life in the rest of Baghdad, said Laith Kubba, who was the spokesman for Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari until Mr. Jaafari left office in early 2006.
“The gap has gone too wide,” Mr. Kubba said. “Many of those people have insulated themselves from what’s out on the streets.”
Another difficulty for the United States is the remarkable weakness American officials seem to have for people who say what Americans want to believe about whatever country they happen to be in. The effect has been obvious at least since “The Quiet American” by Graham Greene, set in 1950s Vietnam, and Iraq has been fertile ground for this particular brand of bad information.
Yet even for Iraqis with no motivation to shade the facts, exactly what effect the recent American troop buildup has had on the streets remains unclear. Mishkat al-Moumin, a former Iraqi environment minister in close touch with family in Baghdad, says the buildup has already increased security and allowed people to lead slightly more normal lives in some neighborhoods.
But Louay Bahry, a former Iraqi academic, says that his contacts are telling him that the so-called surge has been a failure and has not improved security. Both Ms. Moumin and Mr. Bahry are now affiliated with the Middle East Institute, a research organization in Washington.
Still, even Mr. Bahry says that there are tenuous indications that all is not lost.
“In certain areas of Baghdad,” he said, “real estate has revived itself. People are buying and selling houses. People would not do this if there were not some good signs for the future.”
Sunday, May 20, 2007
The New York Times