Measuring Success and Failure in Iraq
The February 24, 1865 edition of the Augusta County, Virginia Vindicatorpoured out vitriol over the defeatists who claimed that Confederate armies were doing poorly in their war against the North. Warning that the" croakers" were causing more damage to the Confederacy than the enemy could, the newspaper argued that victory was just a matter of continued firmness in its pursuit:"Our military condition is really better now than it has been at various periods in the past...The spirit of our soldiers is unshaken...They only ask the people to be firm. The women are ready to make every sacrifice -- the very children show fight. The concentration of our troops is inevitable -- the success of our arms certain, if we will only put ourselves (we mean those of us out of the army) under the lead of our women."
Six weeks later, facing reality, Lee surrendered at Appomattox.
Societies that go to war don't like to consider the possibility that the costs they've paid have failed to purchase success. More particularly, neither do soldiers, who pay the highest costs of all. In a letter to the Stars and Stripes this month, an American sergeant in Iraq wrote that the military's overseas newspaper should not have published a cartoon mocking aspects of the ongoing war there."I find it offensive," he wrote,"to read a comic strip that tries to make our sacrifice seem as though it is all for nothing...Comics like this do not, in any way, help young soldiers see that what they do is making a difference in the world... No one joins the military with no faith in their country or country’s leadership, and it should not be negatively projected, especially by those who are not in the current situation servicemembers find themselves in, i.e., deployed to Iraq. Don’t say we are out here giving our lives for nothing."
Given the disinclination to face the hardrealities of war, we could expect that the United States would have significant difficulty recognizing a losing effort in Iraq. I have argued here previously that the United States military appears to have great difficulty reading ground-level facts in Iraq, struggling to identify enemies and enemy intent in a little-understood foreign society; and I have argued that the U.S. military, caught in long-established strategic and tactical habits, appears to be using forms of force that are unsuited to the nature of stability and support operations in Iraq. If those arguments are correct, then the U.S. is shooting in the dark, misdirecting inappropriate force in an opaque setting. The problem of judging success in such an environment -- where neither the means being used to act nor the thing to be acted upon are clear -- is even tougher than usual. (I noted in an earlier post, by the way, that a training NCO at Camp Shelby, Mississippi told my company in October of last year that the insurgency would probably lose steam when Saddam Hussein was captured -- an event that had long since passed, by then.)
Under those conditions, the American military appears to be having the success we might expect to see as it tries to guess at the actual state of the war in Iraq. In a January 29, 2005 briefing in Baghdad, for example, Brig. Gen. C.D. Alston told reporters that insurgents in Iraq were"showing little capacity to sustain numerous and persistent elevated attack levels." The U.S. trumpeted that good news around the world. A week later, insurgents launched a massive wave of attacks in several cities, killing hundreds of people -- including eleven American troops -- in the fourth bloodiest day of the war since the president declared the end of major combat operations. And the violence grinds on, as the insurgency (or the insurgencies) show a clear capacity to sustain numerous and persistent elevated attack levels.
Attempts to quantify success have skipped off into the weeds. The Iraq Index Project at the Brookings Institution, in particular, has produced some exceptionally strange numbers, as a recent UPI report explained:"The project also notes that the U.S. estimate of the number of insurgency combatants killed or captured remains very rough and approximate. The estimates are rounded off at 3,000 per month for the five months of August, September, October, November and December. There is good reason to question the accuracy of these estimates. If correct, they would mean that the insurgency lost 15,000 troops in only five months when other U.S. military estimates have calculated that there are never more than 20,000 insurgents active at any one time."
But it's even a little stranger than that, since U.S. military officials were estimating in February, 2005 that there were actually 13,000 to 17,000 insurgents in Iraq. You can add up the numbers of estimated insurgent deaths from the chart on page 15 of this Brookings report (PDF file). Total estimated insurgent deaths, February to October, 2005: 18,000. That's an estimated 18,000 insurgents killed out of an estimated insurgent population of 13,000 to 17,000 insurgents. By October of last year, we had killed 1,000 more insurgents than the insurgency had, raising the question of who was left to kill in November and December. Or who launched all those attacks in January, but never mind. This is, historians will recognize, a very familiar dynamic.
Be sure to then scroll down one page in the Brookings report I link to above. On page 16 of that report, you'll find an estimate of the number of insurgents in Iraq. In October, 2005, with 18,000 of the 13,000 to 17,000 insurgents killed, the insurgency had an estimated strength of (go ahead, guess)...15,000-20,000. (The footnote for this claim is plenty strange, giving as a source nothing more than"Author's estimate." I'll have to remember that technique when I write my dissertation.)
The Brookings Institution isn't the Department of Defense or the headquarters of the Multi-National Force in Iraq, of course, but neither of those organizations are attempting detailed numbers in public, apparently preferring broad pronouncements and (as Tim Cavanaugh recently noted) absurd declarations of picayune successes like the MNF-I press release titled,"Village dedicates new pump." Worth every life, that one.
So we have an ongoing military effort in Iraq that sweeps the same villages four and five times, declaring them free of insurgents and then returning later to clear the village of insurgents; we have estimates that show more insurgents being killed than the estimates of the number of insurgents that ever existed; we have generals declaring that the insurgents can no longer sustain operations, followed shortly by large-scale, coordinated insurgent operations that are now approaching the three-year mark, suggesting a substantial ability to sustain operations; we have insurgent attacks that climbed from 26,496 in 2004 to 34,135 in 2005. And we have a political and military establishment that has continuously claimed, since 2003, that the insurgency is desperate, on its last legs, and lashing out before it blinks out of existence.
Different people are addressing that list of apparent realities in different ways. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez has been telling soldiers that Iraq is"on the verge of a civil war"; his bosses are rushing to the microphone to announce that Sanchez is mistaken. And Christopher Hitchens is squaring the circle, announcing the good news that guerillas in Iraq are now shooting at each other in addition to shooting at Americans:"[Al Qaeda's] zealots are now being killed by nationalist and secular, as well as clerical, guerrillas." Nationalist, secular, and clerical guerillas: Success!
Say this for Christopher Hitchens, at least: He appears to be no more confused than everybody else.
One question, then: If we can't define or measure success, how would we attain it? An army that estimates it has killed more enemies than it ever faced would not seem likely to achieve great success at war. And the normal human tendency to hide from reality when a war is going badly would not seem likely to help us reach the necessary clarity.