A Matrix of Metrics
Questions about the war in Iraq continue to divide America. What's going on, exactly? Is there good news that we aren't getting? Why can't we make even an educated guess about the effectiveness of the "surge?"
The bad news continues to come unabated -- last week's headlines blared about May being the deadliest month in years – and the fog of war endures, despite our efforts to make sense of what's happening on the ground. At last night's Republican presidential debate, Rudy Giuliani made this point about the surge:
And I'd just like to ask, I'd just like to ask one question I didn't get to ask before, when you said, if General Petraeus comes back in September and reports that things aren't going well, what are we going to do?Giuliani's media criticism occurred on the same day that the Associated Press held a panel discussion about Iraq in which AP Iraq Bureau Chief Steven R. Hurst said this:
But suppose General Petraeus comes back in September and reports that things are going pretty well. Are we going to report that with the same amount of attention that we would report the negative news?
It's hard to give a very positive report of what's going on in Baghdad right now for a number of reasons. I think, first and foremost, the United States puts a great deal of hope that the so-called troop surge would start having an effect. Immediately after it was announced, there was a significant drop in violence, in February and March, but that lasted a very short time. Now, we've seen a number of people being killed there, which is sadly the Baghdad story right now.On and on, the media and the military talk past each other, with politicians adding their two cents as well. The Associated Press chief's opinion is interesting, as he cites military dead as the way to measure America's military effort, despite the military insisting that the media not use this as an indicator of success. (The "things will get worse before they get better" approach to strategy.")
As long ago as 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld expressed frustration about the lack of "metrics" for success – quantitative information that could measure how the military effort in Iraq is proceeding.
Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror. Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?It's been over four years since "Shock and Awe" and our entrance into Iraq, and yet we still have not been able to develop a working definition of "success" or "progress" or even what it means to "win." (We can't even agree on what it means to "Support the Troops.") Without a vocabulary that the media and the military can agree on, its difficult to make a serious assessment and thus the reality in Iraq remains hard to grasp.
The media continue to focus on the number of military dead, and rightfully so. As the brother of an Iraq vet and the son of a Marine, I don't believe that the media should downplay the stories of soldiers who die in the line of duty. But there is the option of widening the lens from the casualties of war. I spoke with CBS Pentagon Correspondent David Martin earlier today about other options for military measurables.
"[The Pentagon offers] an endless array," Martin said. "They highlight some things some months – cell phones for awhile, satellite dishes – sometimes there's marginal progress with those, but then they drop them … To their credit, they've never in my knowledge cited a number and said 'see that says we've turned the corner.' The most they'll say is it's moving in the right direction."
Martin suggested I look at "Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq" – a quarterly report that the Pentagon puts out – for the different ways the military tries to quantify What's Happening Over There. Among the measurements:
While these categories can be useful, they underline how difficult it can be to effectively measure what is occurring over there. One thing that is important, though, is that people stick to particular measurements and not switch from cell phone usage to GDP to car bombs as indicators when they suit whatever notion they're trying to push.
It's far beyond this writer's capacity to determine what the best statistics would be. But a more coherent and consistent presentation of quantitative information would make it easier for people to cut through the rhetoric and try to make sense of the war.