Violence in Iraq is down – unless it isn't. The surge of US troops into Baghdad has eliminated havens for outlaws – or not. The Iraqi government has sent three brigades to help curb Baghdad violence – depending on the definition of "brigade."
As Washington enters a crucial period of debate about the Iraq war, Democrats in Congress and the Bush administration appear to differ on basic facts and numbers about the situation there, as well as on what policies to pursue.
Democrats are seizing upon a new report by the Government Accountability Office to illustrate what they say is the failure of the White House "surge" strategy, which began in January. The White House and Pentagon say the GAO study is often wrong – and that Gen. David Petraeus will set the record right with his report next week.
Some differences are real disagreements, say experts. Others simply reflect different time frames, incomplete data, or pass/fail judgments rather than a sliding scale of grades. But even as they argue, both sides agree on some important things: Iraqi violence remains high, extra US troops have done some good, and Iraq's central government has failed to promote sectarian reconciliation.
"Maybe there is a broader consensus on this than we think," says William Martel, an associate professor of security studies at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.
The GAO report, released in its final form Sept. 4, judges that Iraq has fully met three of 18 standards for progress and partially met four others.
On 11 benchmarks, Iraq has failed, according to the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress.
"Overall, key legislation has not been passed, violence remains high, and it is unclear whether the Iraqi government will spend the $10 billion in reconstruction funds it has allocated," said David Walker, comptroller general of the United States, at a Sept. 4 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
White House and Defense Department officials replied that the study was far too bleak. A preliminary administration report in July found that Iraq had met eight of the 18 benchmarks and partially met two more.
The administration and some independent experts were especially critical of GAO's findings on Iraq's overall levels of violence.
According to the GAO, it is difficult to say whether sectarian violence has decreased in Iraq, as that would require judging the intent of any attack.
Furthermore, while attacks on US and coalition forces have declined in recent weeks, the average number of daily attacks on civilians has stayed the same over the past six months, says the GAO study.
"It is unclear whether violence has been reduced," Comptroller General Walker told the Senate panel.
Signs of less violence
Yet according to Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution who has closely followed statistics on Iraq for years, the average number of daily attacks on Iraqi civilians and US/allied forces has declined from 160 in August 2006 to 120 in August 2007.
The GAO's data may not reflect the downward trend experienced last month, says Mr. O'Hanlon. During his recent tour through Iraq, he adds, every local briefing he received from the US military said that attacks in that particular sector were down.
In addition, for the GAO to decline to judge whether attacks are sectarian or not is to take an overly rigorous approach to the numbers, says the Brookings expert.
"I just think they were flat-out sloppy," he says of GAO.
Not that things in Iraq are going great, in O'Hanlon's view. Violence remains high, and political progress is nonexistent.
"The overall situation is quite mediocre," he says.
Dispute over Iraqi brigades
In another discrepancy between the GAO and the administration, the GAO judges Iraq's commitment to field three government brigades in Baghdad as only "partially met," while the administration marked it as "satisfactory."
The difference? The GAO cites its concerns about the training and readiness of those Iraqi troops – and whether they are truly a deployed force. Just 65 percent of Iraqi personnel are deployed in the field at any one time, for instance, says its report.
In a written response, the Pentagon objected to this figure, saying the real number was 71 percent.
GAO rejected the criticism.
"We are retaining the 65 percent in our report because it is from a published [Department of Defense] source and we do not have further documentation on the new figure," says the GAO report in an appendix.
A completely secure Baghdad?
Ejecting outlaws of various kinds from their Baghdad strongholds has been a major goal of the US surge. It's a goal the US military says has already been met.
GAO? Not so much. The key difference in judgment: The Shiite stronghold of Sadr City remains a redoubt of extremist Shiite militias, in the GAO's view.
It's true that US and Iraqi forces have conducted more than 80 operations in Sadr City this year. But there are no Joint Security Station forward outposts for US troops in the neighborhood itself – and only one on its border.
"There are no security bases in Sadr City, and that is an area that one can say is not totally secure by any means," Walker told the Senate panel.
Debates about details and exact force levels in Iraq are to be expected, given the high stakes and the nature of the political pressures involved, says Tufts University's Dr. Martel.
But most of the differences in assessment of benchmarks do not seem to involve order-of-magnitude discrepancies.
"The numbers are close enough where we are getting some basic representations of ground truth," Martel says.
In recent weeks, the debate over Iraq has shifted somewhat, as lawmakers from both parties have traveled home and received a dose of reality from constituents, he says. Everyone knows the hour is late.
The extreme positions on both sides of the political spectrum – withdraw troops now, and stay no matter what – have lost ground, he says.
Now is the time for everyone involved to look past political opportunism and the 2008 election, adds military expert Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, in a new report.
"Whatever the mistakes of the past, the US needs to look at its moral and ethical obligations and future strategic needs," writes Mr. Cordesman in "America's Last Chance in Iraq." "If Iraq can be made to work, it needs a bipartisan effort [in Congress] and a clear commitment from the next president."