Military “Fuzzy Math”

September 15th and the long awaited Petreus report is coming.  Advance buzz rivals the release of the last Harry Potter book, although in this case “spoilers” abound. So has there been progress in Iraq, or not? One of the better articles, Experts Doubt Drop In Violence in Iraq by Karen DeYoung, showed up in yesterday’s Washington Post. Unfortunately, it showed up on page 16.

The U.S. military‘s claim that violence has decreased sharply in Iraq in recent months has come under scrutiny from many experts within and outside the government, who contend that some of the underlying statistics are questionable and selectively ignore negative trends.

Reductions in violence form the centerpiece of the Bush administration’s claim that its war strategy is working. In congressional testimony Monday, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, is expected to cite a 75 percent decrease in sectarian attacks. According to senior U.S. military officials in Baghdad, overall attacks in Iraq were down to 960 a week in August, compared with 1,700 a week in June, and civilian casualties had fallen 17 percent between December 2006 and last month. Unofficial Iraqi figures show a similar decrease.

Others who have looked at the full range of U.S. government statistics on violence, however, accuse the military of cherry-picking positive indicators and caution that the numbers — most of which are classified — are often confusing and contradictory. “Let’s just say that there are several different sources within the administration on violence, and those sources do not agree,” Comptroller General David Walker told Congress on Tuesday in releasing a new Government Accountability Office report on Iraq.

Senior U.S. officers in Baghdad disputed the accuracy and conclusions of the largely negative GAO report, which they said had adopted a flawed counting methodology used by the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency. Many of those conclusions were also reflected in last month’s pessimistic National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq.

Pause the tape! So the military is saying the CIA and DIA use flawed methodology. What might theirs look like? Well, if you do this work for the military,

  • You get to exclude deaths depending on where the victim was shot.  “If a bullet went through the back of the head, it’s sectarian,” [a senior intelligence]official said. “If it went through the front, it’s criminal.”
  • You also get to exclude attacks between rival Shiite militias, which are not included in the military’s statistics.
  • And Sunni on Sunni violence.
  • And attacks by U.S.-allied Sunni tribesmen — recruited to battle Iraqis allied with al-Qaeda, also get to be excluded from the U.S. military’s calculation of violence levels.

Further evidence of what then-Governor Bush liked to call “fuzzy math” (and for why that blooper should have tipped us all off, look here):

When Petraeus told an Australian newspaper last week that sectarian attacks had decreased 75 percent “since last year,” the statistic was quickly e-mailed to U.S. journalists in a White House fact sheet. Asked for detail, MNF-I  (Multi-National Force-Iraq) said that “last year” referred to December 2006, when attacks spiked to more than 1,600.

By March, however — before U.S. troop strength was increased under Bush’s strategy — the number had dropped to 600, only slightly less than in the same month last year. That is about where it has remained in 2007, with what MNF-I said was a slight increase in April and May “but trending back down in June-July.”

Petraeus’s spokesman, Col. Steven A. Boylan, said he was certain that Petraeus had made a comparison with December in the interview with the Australian paper, which did not publish a direct Petraeus quote. No qualifier appeared in the White House fact sheet.

Just  a few things to keep in mind when the noise machine really revs up.

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