Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

  Pentagon tries to dump the disastrous news

The Bush administration, always bursting with embarrassing information, is famously addicted to the document-dump. I discovered long ago that the ritual dumps on Friday evenings had become so widely anticipated that the White House began experimenting with Thursday document-dumps. But any convenient day for burying the bad news will be welcome among this gang.

Given that Robert Gates was sworn in as the new Defense Secretary yesterday, I naturally went looking to see what information the Pentagon would be flushing out the back. The website did not make it particularly easy to discover where the trash was buried. No mention on the "Today in DOD" or the "News releases" pages.

But eventually I smelled it out. I knew there would be something, somewhere. It's the week before Christmas.

Yesterday, it turns out, the Pentagon released to the public its quarterly report on the situation in Iraq, as mandated by Congress. The study is dated November 30. So its public release had to wait a mere 19 days.

I got the distinct impression that the Pentagon would prefer if the information did not reach the public at all this quarter. Quite apart from how disastrous the situation in Iraq has become, there's also the undeniable fact that you really have to work a little harder to get any use from the report.

For one thing, it is an excessively large PDF file, with several blank pages, unnecessary use of color, and an active graphic on p. 31 (on which see below). Although the document is only 53 pages, downloading it without high-speed internet access is nearly prohibitively time-consuming.

Perhaps the Pentagon was just in the mood to lavish attention on the report this time around? Well, you wouldn't know it from the huge gaps in the discussion of the statistics collected from Iraq. What is missing? The statistics, that's what. The numbers usually aren't reported (except in the rare cases where the statistics seem encouraging). Generally you have to eyeball the multi-color charts and graphs, and assemble your own estimates of what the statistics would have been, had they been actually reported in the report. Often, when the situation is particularly dire, the breakdowns are so vague that you simply can't get close to an accurate picture via these charts.

Here is a collection of highly remarkable and inconvenient facts about Iraq that I've assembled from cross-examining the report (none stated explicitly anywhere in the document, however):

p. 27: Since January, sectarian executions have increased more than five-fold.

p. 25: Average weekly attacks are up more than 100% since summer 2005. Civilian casualties are nearly 3 times higher than they were a year ago. And as high as that rate was in the previous quarter, it continues to mount.

p. 45: The number of Iraqi battalions in combat dropped slightly during this quarter.

p. 42: Although the number of Iraqi security forces is said to have increased this quarter, the majority are Ministry of Interior forces, which have a phenomenally high (but unspecified) rate of absenteeism. Therefore the increased numbers are illusory.

p. 17-18: Since the start of the quarter, both oil production and electricity generation are down. Electricity is being generated at a slightly lower rate than in 2004, though unmet demand has greatly increased. Oil revenues are down since 2004.

p. 27: In every region of Iraq surveyed in October, the proportion of respondents who said they were somewhat or very concerned about the outbreak of civil war was never less than 25% (and perhaps a good deal higher, given the vagueness of the chart). That's substantially worse than the attitudes in a survey from November 2005.

p. 29: Between August and October, the confidence that Iraqis expressed in the ability of their government to protect them from violence dropped between 30 and 80% in many provinces. In most of the other provinces that did not witness steep drops, Iraqis already had virtually no confidence in the government.

Another feature of this report, on nearly every page, is the determination to find some way, any way, to put a more positive spin on the grim news. Typically, that involves finding a wider context in which the information appears less depressing.

For example, on p. 24 the chart depicting the average daily number of attacks by province manages to find two ways to draw the reader's attention to the fact that some of the most dangerous provinces have relatively low populations (as if that made matters better). There's even a bizarre "Population weighted map" of Iraq poking like a stick-pin into the center of the chart.

And when the report describes "the nature of the conflict", it begins by focusing on foreign fighters. It even claims that "a few foreign operatives are responsible for the majority of high-profile attacks" (p. 21), whatever the heck that means. Two pages later, the section concludes with a long discussion of the "foreign influence". Hence an understanding of the conflict begins and ends with those foreign meddlers.

There is a rather curious chart on p. 28 reporting how Iraqis responded to the question "How safe do you feel in your neighborhood?" Evidently the questioners did not feel safe enough to conduct the survey in Anbar province, but let's set that aside. In nearly half of Iraq, large majorities reported that they feel very safe. Wonderful news, then. Except, isn't it the case that neighborhoods are often the last bastions of safety in Iraq, that neighbors have cooperated in protecting each other and barricading their neighborhoods against outsiders—at least until the ethnic cleansing reaches such an intense pitch that the neighborhood is cracked open and the terror descends full bore upon people? So the question appears to be framed in such a way as to maximize the appearance of stability in certain regions that are beginning to be torn apart.

And then there are the weird maps on p. 31, which rapidly evolve in front of your eyes to drive home the point that during the last half year the Iraqi Army has taken the "lead responsibility" for "counter-insurgency operations" in much of the country. Except it is very far from clear that that is true, however, whatever "lead responsibility" could mean. Only in the fantasy world of the Pentagon's upper echelons do Iraqi Army units actually "take the lead" in joint operations with US forces. Mostly, they just fade away whenever things get tight. And in any case, the new provinces added since May, which the active little map draws such attention to, are mainly those that have few Sunni insurgents to begin with.

There's plenty of information in this report with which you could build a very grim picture of the situation in Iraq. But once you have actually obtained a copy of it, you've still got your work cut out for you. The Pentagon isn't much inclined, you see, to catalogue or explain the significance of facts it would really rather you didn't bother yourself with too terribly.


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