Over the past 18 months, Washington's estimate of the number of trained Iraqi security forces has gyrated up and down as if it were a stock market index.
Last spring, for instance, the Defense Department's number for Iraqi police and military personnel plunged from 206,000 to 132,000. In September, the number was revised downward again - to 90,000.
Critics complain that the variation in this number reflects the fact that the White House has no exit strategy for the Iraqi intervention, and is simply groping ahead, blind. But the Pentagon defends its training effort, and some outside analysts say that after a slow and troubled start the US may now be making progress in its bid to build an entire nation's means of security from scratch.
That step is essential to stabilizing Iraq and bringing US forces home, which commanders now say could begin next year.
"The key policy issue is not how many mission-capable Iraqis there are right at this moment, but rather: Is there a system in place to ensure that capable Iraqi military and security forces continue to develop over time," Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in a congressional appearance earlier this month.
Pentagon officials have long said that any prospects for withdrawal of large numbers of US troops depend on the presence of indigenous units capable of taking their place. Today there are 145,000 Iraqi security personnel, organized into 52 army, and 44 police battalions, Secretary of the Army Francis Harvey told a Pentagon briefing last Wednesday.
These forces operate across Iraq, both with US troops and independently, said Sec. Harvey. "As proof of their growing capability, an Iraqi brigade recently assumed responsibility for a large portion of Baghdad, a significant milestone in the history of the new Iraqi army," he said.
But critics have long been wary of such glowing reports about Iraqi capability. They point to past instances in which local troops abandoned their posts, or refused to fight. And past reports on troops numbers have indeed proved overly optimistic. "Data on the status of Iraqi security forces is unreliable and provides limited information on their capabilities," said Joseph Christoff, director of international affairs and trade at the US Government Accountability Office, at a House hearing on March 14.
In April of 2004, for instance, the Defense Department estimated that 206,000 Iraqi security forces were in place. But that number simply reflected personnel on the payroll - many of whom were either administrative officials, or otherwise unprepared to fight. So a year ago the Pentagon revised its Iraqi force figure downward, to 132,000.
By September of 2004, the number had crept back up to 160,000. But further investigation proved that this figure included substantial numbers of people who protect facilities - in essence, night watchmen. In addition, some trained forces did not have equipment rendering them able to fight.
So last fall the number was revised downward again, to 90,000, Rear Adm. William Sullivan, Vice Director for Strategic Plans and Policy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a House hearing. "We are just now beginning ... a qualitative assessment of how the various Iraqi security forces are doing, modeling it after the kinds of systems we use for our own military to measure unit readiness," said Adm. Sullivan.
Yet there may still be some flaws in the system, according to critics. Take the current estimate of 142,000 trained and equipped Iraqi troops.
This figure includes no adjustment for Iraqi military forces that may be absent without leave - a continuing problem in a nation where insurgents attempt to intimidate troops into leaving.
"This is like fantasyland. This is as fictive as the weapons of mass destruction," former presidential candidate Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) of Ohio complained at the House hearing.
Yet such focus on the numbers per se may be missing the point. It's true that Iraqi forces differ sharply in capability - and that not even the best army units are the equal of their US counterparts, according to Mr. Cordesman.
But pay and leave policies present problems, too. Iraqi military installations generally do not provide housing for troops, and this leaves their families vulnerable. Many soldiers have to visit their families and turn over their pay in cash, which means that a high percentage will be on leave at any time. Consequently, they are not always available for duty, and they are vulnerable to insurgent attack.
But Cordesman said that many Iraqi officials themselves say that virtually every element of their military and police forces can perform some function, and that the situation is steadily improving as new and better forces come on line. "From their perspective, the issue is not whether the glass is two-thirds empty or one-third full, it is how rapidly it is filling," he said.
Due to missteps and a misjudgment about the strength of the insurgency at its onset, the US really did not begin a concerted training effort until 10 months ago, said Cordesman. "The Iraqis actually involved in shaping Iraq's new forces are not pessimistic," he noted. "Most believe that Iraqi forces are growing steadily better with time, will acquire the experience and quality to deal with much of the insurgency during 2005, and should be able to secure much of the country by 2006."
Enough progress has apparently been made that US officials are becoming more explicit about when American troops might start coming home. On Sunday, the top US military commander in Iraq, Army Gen. George Casey, predicted on CNN's "Late Edition" that the US should be able to make a "very substantial reduction" in the number of forces within a year.