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Tilting at Windmills

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August 24, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

BOMBINGS IN IRAQ....Last night I was reading the report O'Hanlon and Pollack wrote after their recent trip to Iraq (not the NYT op-ed, the actual report) because I was curious to see if they provided any actual metrics indicating that the surge was working, as opposed to merely subjective judgment about things like morale and COIN effectiveness. The short answer is no, though more about that later.

As I mentioned yesterday, though, there's one piece of good news from Iraq these days: the number of bombings is down this summer compared to last summer. This is one metric that O'Hanlon and Pollack did mention, but look at how they do it:

Successful U.S. tactics have gone well beyond classic military measures. For example, coalition forces are now trying to remove nitric acid and urea from stores, since these are the ingredients for homemade explosives. As a result, when many car and truck bombs are detonated these days, they are often less powerful than before, further helping to explain the reduction in casualties....

This is crazy. The Brookings Iraq Index (author: Michael O'Hanlon) doesn't specifically track car and truck bombings anymore because "we are no longer receiving useful data on the number of car bombs in Iraq," but they do track "multiple fatality bombings" in general. Here are the numbers:

Feb/Mar/Apr

May/Jun/Jul

Change

Total # Bombings

160

124

-22%

Total Fatalities

2061

1579

-23%

Fatalities Per Bombing

12.88

12.73

-1%

This is the absolute best case for these numbers. In fact, they're cherry picked: the Feb/Mar/April period was unusually high for bombings, so any comparison with this period will produce the rosiest possible picture. Even at that, though, the lethality of bombings is the same post-surge as pre-surge. Conversely, if you compare apples to apples, and look at bombings this summer vs. last summer, the average number of fatalities per blast has gone up from 8.04 to 12.84. That's a huge increase, and suggests that bombs are getting more effective, not less.

Want more? The chart below shows the number of fatalities per bombing on a monthly basis since the start of 2006. If there's any kind of serious decrease in the effectiveness of Iraqi bombs over that period, I sure don't see it.

Kevin Drum 1:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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Comments

What do you have against cherries, Kevin?

When life gives you pickin's, make cherry pie!

Viva the liberal hawks!

Posted by: Gore/Edwards 08 on August 24, 2007 at 1:08 PM | PERMALINK

Good stuff, Kevin.

Great job sticking yet another fork in those two tools.

Posted by: Disputo on August 24, 2007 at 1:10 PM | PERMALINK

A more descriptive chart would be Total Fatalities vs. Time or Total # Bombings vs Time.

Posted by: robodruid hates spam on August 24, 2007 at 1:11 PM | PERMALINK

And, might I add, on their own pitard, no less.

Posted by: Disputo on August 24, 2007 at 1:11 PM | PERMALINK

The increase in lethality no doubt closely tracks the increase in Quds force activity in Iraq.

Posted by: Model 62 on August 24, 2007 at 1:11 PM | PERMALINK

Ah, but O'Pollahan are very Serious indeed, and their arguments must be dealth with on the Merits, and their intentions are Pure, and we mustn't stoop to name-calling.

Lying sacks of shit.

Posted by: pdp on August 24, 2007 at 1:13 PM | PERMALINK

Also, the spectacular Yazidi bombing (250+ killed), is gonna kinda screw up the statistics.

Posted by: Model 62 on August 24, 2007 at 1:13 PM | PERMALINK

Btw, Chicago public radio is right now having a historian fisk GWB's Iraq=VN speech on their "World View" program.

Nice stuff. If you can't stream it now, the podcast will be available later.

Posted by: Disputo on August 24, 2007 at 1:14 PM | PERMALINK

Two posts in a row wanting to drag facts into the Iraq Quagmire Extravaganza. What will the children think?!

Posted by: steve duncan on August 24, 2007 at 1:20 PM | PERMALINK

The sudden increase in August is probably due to the truck bombs that killed 500+/- people in the Nineveh area.

Posted by: charlie on August 24, 2007 at 1:44 PM | PERMALINK

So, basically, we're trying to destroy Iraqi agriculture, by making fertilizer unavailable.

And, I thought we had already pretty much destroyed every other element of the Iraqi economy. But, Bush never misses an oppotunity.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder on August 24, 2007 at 1:44 PM | PERMALINK

"remove nitric acid and urea from stores"...

Nice how he omits the looting of the Iraqi army weapons depots in '03.

Posted by: Peter VE on August 24, 2007 at 1:53 PM | PERMALINK

The increase in lethality no doubt closely tracks the increase in Quds force activity in Iraq.
Also, the spectacular Yazidi bombing (250+ killed), is gonna kinda screw up the statistics.

Jesus, I hope "Model 62" is being snarky here. Otherwise, we're gonna need a new model.

Posted by: ckelly on August 24, 2007 at 2:06 PM | PERMALINK

Completely apart from the question of whether military tactics are working, what was the point of following those military tactics?

http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2007/01/20070110-7.html
President Bush said this on Jan. 10, 2007:

A successful strategy for Iraq goes beyond military operations. Ordinary Iraqi citizens must see that military operations are accompanied by visible improvements in their neighborhoods and communities. So America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced.

To establish its authority, the Iraqi government plans to take responsibility for security in all of Iraq's provinces by November. To give every Iraqi citizen a stake in the country's economy, Iraq will pass legislation to share oil revenues among all Iraqis. To show that it is committed to delivering a better life, the Iraqi government will spend $10 billion of its own money on reconstruction and infrastructure projects that will create new jobs. To empower local leaders, Iraqis plan to hold provincial elections later this year. And to allow more Iraqis to re-enter their nation's political life, the government will reform de-Baathification laws, and establish a fair process for considering amendments to Iraq's constitution.

Let's see, November is only two months from the much ballyhooed September report. How close is the Iraqi government to taking over responsibility for security in all of Iraq's provinces? That will be answered in the report, right? When they do that surely we can withdraw a large contingency of U.S. troops.

And the Iraqi parliament has made how much progress passing legislation that will unify the nation? Hmm. They've regressed, actually.

The surge wasn't focused on Al Anbar, where the Sunnis are now well-armed to fight al Qaeda or whomever else looks like an enemy. The point of the surge was to allow legislative progress. It almost looks as though the more American troops are in Iraq, the less legislative progress they make. Or the Iraqi government is simply falling apart on its own timetable because there was no will or vigor there in the first place.

If Bush has any humanity at all, he's praying for the Democrats to save the troops from his own subborn refusal to admit that he's created a mess that Americans can't fix. Then he can walk away blaming someone else. But troops dying because the Democrats are too afraid to take the political heat of forcing an end to the occupation is a risk he's willing to take.

Bush is always willing to gamble with the lives and money of other people.

Posted by: cowalker on August 24, 2007 at 2:09 PM | PERMALINK

I think 62 has a point. The Yazidi bombing seems like an atypical event and it's impact in a graph like this should be taken into account if the goal is to present a true picture. I don't know where you draw that line, maybe eliminating all bombings with greater than 100? fatalities?

Posted by: Wooda on August 24, 2007 at 2:23 PM | PERMALINK

That said, I'm not ready to buy into the Quds malarkey with zero data to support it.

Posted by: Wooda on August 24, 2007 at 2:24 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, nice stats but might not the incidence of U.S. troop active interaction and going into the community in classic COIN actions (surge) expose both our troops and IA and I police to more casualties? Your numbers look real but might not give qualitative ananlysis of win/lose or maybe even gain/lose.

Posted by: Geno on August 24, 2007 at 2:33 PM | PERMALINK
The Yazidi bombing seems like an atypical event and it's impact in a graph like this should be taken into account if the goal is to present a true picture.

Surely you're not suggesting it's not true that the Yazidi bombing had ~500 casualties?
'Cause if you want a true picture, you have to include all the bombings that really happened.
It may be a statistical outlier insofar as the general trend is concerned, but that doesn't screw up the statistics - it just raises the mean casualty count per bombing.
Removing it from the data would screw up the statistics, by making them inaccurate.
I mean, it may be atypical, but it happened.

It would be like not counting some terminal lung cancer patients in a study of tobacco-related illnesses because they died in car accidents.

Posted by: kenga on August 24, 2007 at 2:38 PM | PERMALINK

Myself, I'm more inclined to believe Al QaaQaa malarkey than Quds malarkey.
Perhaps it's taken some time for the high grade military explosives looted from the depot to penetrate the market for bomb materials.

Posted by: kenga on August 24, 2007 at 2:43 PM | PERMALINK

As 62 chews on his "Quds" once again.

But, when were these facts assembled by the O'Hanlack comedy team? While they were for the war, or when they were against it, or when they were, once again, for it? Would make good running backs for the Shrubites.

Posted by: thethirdPaul on August 24, 2007 at 2:47 PM | PERMALINK

ttP - I think you meant to type "O'Hacklon"

Posted by: kenga on August 24, 2007 at 3:00 PM | PERMALINK

They point out that where there are a large number of US troops controlling an area that security has improved.

That is exactly the point that I would like to emphasize. I have opposed this war because I was sure it was going to end up in the mess we have because Bush refused to send enough troops.

This conclusion supports that argument completely.
The surge demonstrates that when and where we have enough troops we can establish security. But that also demonstrates that the reason we are losing the war is that we do not have enough troops in Iraq. We are still playing whack-a-mole.


that is completely the fault of the Bush administration.

So the success we are seeing just prove the points of the war critics that Bush's poor decision is the reason we are losing.

Posted by: spencer on August 24, 2007 at 4:08 PM | PERMALINK

I'm shocked, shocked I tell you, that war supporters would lie about what was happening in Iraq!

Posted by: anonymous on August 24, 2007 at 4:22 PM | PERMALINK

No, I'm not questioning whether the attack happened, but I believe it to be atypical of the majority bombings that make up the statistics. It's be like claiming violent crime jumped in NYC in September 01 without considering a single atypical event.

Posted by: wooda on August 24, 2007 at 4:25 PM | PERMALINK

You know, maybe it's just me but I see a Laffer curve in there somewhere....

Posted by: Stefan on August 24, 2007 at 5:04 PM | PERMALINK

It's be like claiming violent crime jumped in NYC in September 01 without considering a single atypical event.

Except that a massive car bombing in Iraq can no longer be considered an atypical event. While this one bombing may have been unusually effective, it was not "atypical."

Multipled individual murders versus one massive terrorist airplane attack -- yes, atypical. Multiple car bombs versus one more car bomb -- not atypical.

Posted by: Stefan on August 24, 2007 at 5:08 PM | PERMALINK

Why is it that using data from six consecutive months (no year provided, so it is reasonable to assume so) is "cherry picking?"

Posted by: Brian on August 24, 2007 at 5:21 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin Drum >"...If there's any kind of serious decrease in the effectiveness of Iraqi bombs over that period, I sure don't see it."

Well that`s because you are looking at the graph from the "liberal" side (your point of view is "below" the X axis) instead of the "one true side" (point of view "above" the X axis) so to get the "right" perspective you have to invert it from the way you are displaying it.

Always willing to explain things am I.

steve duncan >"...What will the children think?!"

Well they are gonna have to hire their own think tanks.

"Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day." - Thomas Jefferson

Posted by: daCascadian on August 24, 2007 at 8:15 PM | PERMALINK

Brian,

Whether or not you want to call it cherry-picking, it doesn't make any sense. When was the "surge" conceived as a way to reduce violence in Iraq? Back in December or January. So conceivably the goal was to reduce the level of violence to something below what it was when the plan was being devised.
The fact that violence then peaked unexpectedly after the surge plans were made and then levelled off back to the level they were during the period when the surge was being planned and executed obviously does not constitute a "success" by any reasonable measure. It is totally crazy that anyone puts any credence in this. Does no one have the slightest bit of memory in their heads?

The bar just keeps getting set lower and lower, and no one seems to notice it. Even Mark Shields was going on yesterday about how there have been some "positive" security results from the surge. But if we had the same level of violence before the surge occured this doesn't make any sense. If you were a pest control guy , you wouldn't say "Oh, well you have about 500 termites now. I can promise you that in the next ten months I'll reduce that number to 500. You see, five months from now you'll actually have 800 termites so getting you down to 500 is a real improvement."

Posted by: kokblok on August 25, 2007 at 8:22 AM | PERMALINK

We really need to look at the success of the surge on several fronts.

First, the surge was meant to create a certain level of stability which would permit the Iraqi government to attain certain political goals. Have we created more stability? We need to know whether the surge has reduced the number of attacks, deaths and injuries for both Iraqis and US personnel. This needs to be seasonally adjusted. (The summers are hell over there and attacks go down.)

Second, we need to measure whether attacks and stability have decreased in other areas of the country. The whack a mole concept does carry a certain amount of validity.

Third, there must be metrics to determine whether a more stable and effective local/national government is resulting from these efforts.

The primary problem with the entire war effort has resulted from the government and the press cherry picking figures to support a predetermined position as oppose to measuring actual progress and inform tactical/strategic decisions.

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