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Saturday, September 29, 2007

The debate about the surge

Red S Tater is back (see comments here) and has issued a "challenge" for me to revise my comments about the report General Petraeus delivered to Congress a couple of weeks ago.

Red is touting a blog post by "Professor Engram," which purports to show that civilian violence in Iraq is down since the surge began. In other words, Petraeus is right and the surge is working.

Specifically, Red claims that Engram
"refuted the claim and analysis completely. You DO agree with the ad in terms of it's claim that the "books were cooked"..?" I could be wrong but it seems like that was your basic take over at Minerva a while back.
At first I was going to ignore Red since I've said nothing about MoveOn and I did not specifically argue that the books were cooked. Mostly mindless "discussions" involving people calling each other names are not of much interest to me.

Nonetheless, I looked at Red's link and readily noticed that Professor Engram doesn't address, let alone refute, most of my specific comments.

Yes, Engram compares the summer decline in violence 2007 to the same time period in 2006, but where is the data for 2005 or 2004 or 2003? Using only the data Engram highlights, it is clear that the August 2007 violence is now down to roughly the level of January through April 2006. This very strongly suggests that civilian violence in Iraq remains very high and that the surge will have no meaningful long-term effect. After all, the surge is about to end for lack of troops and the goal was not merely to return the violence to an already high level.

Moreover, I would add that nobody who looks at this kind of evidence focuses too much attention on a single data outlier. What if August 2007 proves to be a genuine anomaly? There are going to be peaks and valleys in the casualty data over a period of years. Generally, Iraq continues to be an unsafe place to live (only Sudan ranks below Iraq on the failed state index).

Engram says nothing about refugees. Iraq's population is about 27.5 million; yet, over 100,000 people are apparently fleeing Iraq per month. Over a one year period, that's over 4% of the population. We would expect nearly 100 fewer monthly dead civilians in Iraq just from a reduced population base.

Past ethnic cleansing has also likely contributed to the decline in violence. The potential victims have segregated themselves.

And, of course, none of the body count data addresses the social issue I highlighted in my critique. Most Iraqis think it is OK to kill American troops -- and the number saying that has increased significantly since the surge started. Counterinsurgency cannot succeed in that context.

One has to look at the big picture, Red. There's no evidence that the surge is winning the "hearts and minds" of Iraqis. There's been almost no genuine political progress in Iraq and even the American generals say that the insurgency won't be defeated militarily. The civil war has to end politically.

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