Wednesday, September 29, 2004

The Fog of War

The New York Times reports that violence in Iraq is 'sprawling' and 'sweeping' and 'widespread' and has the statistics to back it up -- maybe. James Glanz and Thom Shanker report:

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Sept. 28 - Over the past 30 days, more than 2,300 attacks by insurgents have been directed against civilians and military targets in Iraq, in a pattern that sprawls over nearly every major population center outside the Kurdish north, according to comprehensive data compiled by a private security company with access to military intelligence reports and its own network of Iraqi informants.

The sweeping geographical reach of the attacks, from Nineveh and Salahuddin Provinces in the northwest to Babylon and Diyala in the center and Basra in the south, suggests a more widespread resistance than the isolated pockets described by Iraqi government officials.

The "Times" source is the Special Operations Consulting-Security Management Group Inc, an outfit based in Las Vegas which MSNBC identifies as consisting largely of former Army Rangers.

"If you look at incident data and you put incident data on the map, it's not a few provinces, " said Adam Collins, a security expert and the chief intelligence official in Iraq for Special Operations Consulting-Security Management Group Inc., a private security company based in Las Vegas that compiles and analyzes the data as a regular part of its operations in Iraq.

Damning. Or is it? In the next paragraph Adam Collins is quoted as saying:

The number of attacks has risen and fallen over the months. Mr. Collins said the highest numbers were in April, when there was major fighting in Falluja, with attacks averaging 120 a day. The average is now about 80 a day, he said.

So what if the average number of attacks has fallen, part of the mixed signals which the "Times" argues constitutes the "fog of war"? Is it not undeniable that the insurgency was expanding and spreading as evidenced by the Special Operations Consulting-Security Management Group Inc list of 2,300 attacks throughout Iraq this month, with 1,000 in Baghdad alone. And in other areas:

During the past 30 days those attacks totaled 283 in Nineveh, 325 in Salahuddin in the northwest and 332 in the desert badlands of Anbar Province in the west. In the center of Iraq, attacks numbered 123 in Diyala Province, 76 in Babylon and 13 in Wasit. There was not a single province without an attack in the 30-day period.

Against this, the "Times" quotes those who argue that the security situation is improving.

Pentagon officials and military officers like to point to a separate list of statistics to counter the tally of attacks, including the number of schools and clinics opened. They cite statistics indicating that a growing number of Iraqi security forces are trained and fully equipped, and they note that applicants continue to line up at recruiting stations despite bombings of them. But most of all, military officers argue that despite the rise in bloody attacks during the past 30 days, the insurgents have yet to win a single battle. ...

In a joint appearance last week in the White House Rose Garden, Mr. Bush and Dr. Allawi painted an optimistic portrait of the security situation in Iraq. Dr. Allawi said that of Iraq's 18 provinces, "14 to 15 are completely safe." He added that the other provinces suffer "pockets of terrorists" who inflict damage in them and plot attacks carried out elsewhere in the country. In other appearances, Dr. Allawi asserted that elections could be held in 15 of the 18 provinces. Both Mr. Bush and Dr. Allawi insisted that Iraq would hold free elections as scheduled in January.

Critics might argue that evidence from the Special Operations Consulting-Security Management Group Inc make it hard to take the claims of President Bush and Prime Minister Allawie seriously.  But are they lying? The following table was constructed entirely from data contained in the "Times" article, as modified by the graphic posted on their site. (Hat tip CJR) The population and area of Iraq's provinces are taken from the World Gazeteer and a map of the Iraqi provinces can found at Global Security Org.

The first thing to notice is that 2,139 of the 2,429 attacks took place in 6 of the 18 provinces. The numbers don't entirely add up in the "Times" graphic but the discrepancy is small and may be due to errors in assigning some incidents. The real hotbeds are Baghdad and areas to the northwest -- the Sunni triangle. By far the greatest density of violence is in Baghdad, where 1,000 attacks have taken place in an 732 kilometers square.

Province 2004 Population Area Size sq km Attacks as per NYT article Attacks per 100,000 Attacks per 1000 sq km
al-Anbar                     1,260,200            138,501


                      26.35 2.40
Babil                     1,454,700                6,468           76                         5.22 11.75
Baġdād                     6,677,000                   734         997                       14.93 1358.31
al-Basrah                     1,916,000              19,070           87                         4.54 4.56
Dahuk                        496,100                6,553             1                         0.20 0.15
Di Qar                     1,458,500              12,900             6                         0.41 0.47
Diyalā                     1,397,500              19,076         123                         8.80 6.45
Irbil                     1,349,200              14,471             4                         0.30 0.28
Karbala                        731,500                5,034           76                       10.39 15.10
Maysan                        784,300              16,072 12                         1.53 0.75
al Mutanna                        537,700              51,740 2                         0.37 0.04
an Najaf                        954,100              28,824             7                         0.73 0.24
Ninawa (Niniveh)                     2,514,800              35,899         283                       11.25 7.88
al Qadisiyah                        924,900                8,153             1                         0.11 0.12
Salah-ah-Din                     1,113,400              26,175         325                       29.19 12.42
as-Sulaymaniyah                     1,677,500              17,023             1                         0.06 0.06
at Tamim                        927,200              10,282           83                         8.95 8.07
Wasit                        964,600              17,153 13                         1.35 0.76
Totals                     27,139,200             434,128      2,429    

So everything checks out just as the New York Times article reported it. All the facts are individually true, but Prime Minister Allawie's assertion that most provinces are "completely safe" and that security prospects are bright are also supported by those same facts. Such is the fog of war.