Commentary Magazine


Correcting the GAO

The Washington Post gave front-page play last week to a leaked version of a draft Government Accountability Office report, claiming “Report Finds Little Progress on Iraq Goals.” Bill Kristol has already pointed out some of the report’s flaws—namely that it measures whether the Iraqis have “completed” (as opposed to simply made progress on) many irrelevant “benchmarks” mandated by Congress in an attempt to embarrass the Bush administration.

But I was still left wondering about one part of the Post’s front-page piece: “While the Baghdad security plan was intended to reduce sectarian violence, U.S. agencies differ on whether such violence has been reduced.” The Post article goes on about the GAO report: “While there have been fewer attacks against U.S. forces, it notes, the number of attacks against Iraqi civilians remains unchanged.”

How can it be, I wondered, that GAO claims that the level of violence in Iraq is unchanged when every observer who has returned recently from Iraq says otherwise? I put that question to a friend of mine, an officer currently serving in Baghdad. As he explains below in this email (see below the jump), the problem is that GAO is citing suspect statistics. The figures he presents—generated by the U.S. military using procedures that have remained consistent and are generally accepted throughout the U.S. government—paint a picture of impressive progress since the surge began. (I’ve added a few explanations of acronyms.)


We disagree with the methodology the GAO uses to calculate its statistics, and we told them so during their short visit here last month. As you note, the GAO statistics differ considerably from the data we have for the same periods.

The statistics we use come from MNF-I [Multi-National Forces Iraq] databases which are a carefully managed collection of both Iraqi and Coalition reports. We strive to be rigorous in our data collection and checking, so much so that the analysts from CIA and DIA who worked on the National Intelligence Estimate, after spending three days poring over our methodology and data, announced that MNF-I numbers are the most accurate and would be used for the August 2007 NIE [National Intelligence Estimate] on Iraq. We do use Iraqi data that is verified by our forces. And we also continue to update/reverify data after the receipt of “first reports” (which are, as you know, generally wrong) and subsequent reports. The death toll in the recent truck bombings against the Yezidi villages in northwest Iraq, for example, when verified by our Special Forces teams after the dust literally settled, was a good bit lower than original accounts reported, and we thus adjusted that report downward. Sometimes, as in many Baghdad bombings, the first reports are low and we adjust the numbers upward in subsequent days. Some statistics we are tracking follow:

-Throughout all of Iraq, since the height of the ethno-sectarian violence in December 2006 until the end of August 2007, the overall number of civilian casualties (killed and wounded) has dropped 71 percent. Just counting civilian deaths, by any means, the numbers are even more dramatic, with a 74 percent drop since December 2006.

-Ethno-sectarian deaths (e.g., AQI [al Qaeda in Iraq] bombing Kurds or Shi’a Arabs or Turkmen or Yezidis, etc., or JAM [Jaish al-Mahdi led by Moqtada al-Sadr] killing of Sunnis, etc.) in all of Iraq are down to less than one half of levels at the height of the violence last December.

-Attacks of any type in Anbar Province have gone from a high in October 2006 of more than 1350 per month to fewer than 250 per month now.

-The number of ammunition and explosive caches found has risen from a total of 2726 in 2006 to over 4350 this year (through the end of August).

-Overall incidents of violence against any target (ISF [Iraqi Security Forces], CF [Coalition Forces], civilian) in Iraq are down from a high of 1700 per week when we started the surge of operations in mid-June 2007 to fewer than 960 per week now. Overall incidents have declined in eight of the past eleven weeks. Last week’s number of incidents was the lowest in over a year.

-High profile attacks (car bomb, suicide car bomb, and suicide vest attacks) nationwide are down from a high in March 2007 of more than 170 per month to 88 in August.

-Since the intent of the surge was to secure Baghdad, which is the political heart of Iraq, here are some statistics focused on the ten security districts that comprise Baghdad from December 2006 to the end of August 2007:

-Car bomb attacks: 44 in December 2006, nineteen in August 2007 for a 57 percent drop.

-All IED’s [improvised explosive devices]: 240 in December 2006, 203 in August 2007 for a 15 percent drop.

-Explosive belts (Suicide vests): two in December 2006, zero in August 2007.

-Mortar and Rocket Attacks: 139 in December 2006, 98 in August 2007 for a 29 percent drop.

-Dead civilians (not just ethno-sectarian violence, but all categories): 2193 in December 2006, 575 in August 2007 for a 74 percent drop.

-Wounded civilians: 876 in December 2006, 302 in August 2007 for a 66 percent drop.

-Dead Iraqi security forces: 44 in December 2006, twenty in August 2007 for a 45 percent drop.

-Wounded Iraqi security forces: 136 in December 2006, 61 in August 2007 for a 55 percent drop.

-575 dead in Baghdad in August from all causes is still excessively high and we continue to work to drive down the violence. Nonetheless, by all of these measures there has been progress in bringing greater security to Baghdad.

Our methodology and numbers have been scrubbed thoroughly by the intelligence community and declared by the intel community the best available measures and data. We carefully examine both Coalition and Host Nation reports to ensure we have the most inclusive data available. Iraqi reports come from a variety of official governmental sources including the National Operations Center, the Baghdad Operational Command, the National Joint Operations Center, and Joint Security Stations. Unfortunately, the media and other agencies often use suspect data provided by the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, which is less rigorous and perhaps also motivated by a sectarian agenda.

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