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Blind in Baghdad

July 08, 2012

WASHINGTON: Something is stirring in Iraq. This week, car bombs killed 36 people. It was the latest tragedy in a bloody month — a prolonged political crisis has weakened the government in Baghdad, giving insurgent groups an opening to expand their operations. The consequent surge in violence has led some to fear that the country could once again be descending into civil war.But just as Iraqi politics heats up, the United States is rapidly losing its ability to decipher events in the country. "Half of our situational awareness is gone," an unnamed US official told the Wall Street Journal in June. "More than half," a serving US military officer told me when I asked about the accuracy of that statement.

To Iraq experts, these statements ring true: At the height of the "surge," the United States collected fine-grain data from the 166,000 US troops and 700 CIA personnel in Iraq, as well as a network of 31 Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Now, US embassy staff enjoy very limited freedom of movement — hemmed in by a suspicious government in Baghdad and a still-dangerous security situation. According to the Journal, the CIA station in Iraq may be reduced to 40 per cent of its peak levels because the Iraqi government is extremely sensitive about its intelligence work with the Iraqi security forces.

The information vacuum has led Iraq experts and officials in US President Barack Obama's administration to increasingly argue over basic facts. Note the hot exchange in Foreign Affairs between Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken and veteran Los Angeles Times journalist Ned Parker — two men who dedicated much of the last decade to Iraq's future — on the stability of the country. The fact that Blinken and Parker cannot agree on the basics — such as whether violence is increasing gradually, as Parker asserts, or sits at "historic lows," as Blinken claims — bodes ill for an informed debate on Iraq.

What a dramatic reversal from just a few short years ago. When the US presence was at its zenith, the US government developed what the Germans call Fingerspitzengefühl — fingertip feeling. Read the hundreds of cables from Provincial Reconstruction Teams released by WikiLeaks and you will be astounded by the granular knowledge the United States developed on Iraqi personalities and local conditions.

Although such insight into a foreign nation can be intoxicating — even addictive — it is not the normal state of affairs, and it ebbed with the military's withdrawal.

US awareness in Iraq began to decline as soon as the US-Iraq security agreement that determined American troops' departure date was signed in November 2008, and it accelerated as the slow drawdown of forces commenced. By the summer of 2011, US-collected Significant Activity (SIGACT) reports on militant attacks were becoming ragged — lacking detail, containing erroneous geospatial data, and only partially covering key parts of the country and certain classes of activity. In fall 2011, whole provinces began to "go dark" as the last US forces left. And at 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 15, 2011, the US military incident reporting system issued its last SIGACT report. As ordered by its political masters, the US military turned off the lights and locked the doors behind them.

The truth is that the United States is now flying blind in Baghdad. Since the US military exit, situational awareness has reached an all-time low. Despite the massive US Embassy in Baghdad, US government personnel have minimal freedom of movement due to security concerns and skyrocketing Iraqi government suspicion of any foreign information-gathering activities, however benign. As the Journal article noted, US intelligence agencies in Iraq have also found themselves unable to maintain relations with the prickly and increasingly powerful civilian intelligence agencies in the country.

The security metrics provided by the Iraqi government to the United States provide little help in deciphering what's happening on the ground. Baghdad's SIGACT data have more holes than Swiss cheese: They are incomplete, even compared with the incidents reported in the Iraqi press, and they systematically underreport violence in politically sensitive parts of the country. There is no system through which security incidents can be relayed by both the Iraqi military and the Ministry of Interior forces at ground level to a single headquarters.

How, then, is it possible to gauge trends in levels of violence within Iraq? The method used by most interested parties — including the US government — is to track Iraqi press reporting of violence, which has been fairly detailed in many parts of the country throughout the US drawdown. Yet this method has its drawbacks. For instance, press reporting in the vital city of Baghdad has been notoriously poor for years, in part due to the proximity to the government and the city's dangerous sectarian divisions.

The murkiness of assessing violence levels in Iraq leaves plenty of room for politics to enter the process. Analysts can count data differently according to whether they are under pressure to show improvement or deterioration in Iraqi security. An excessive focus on quantitative bean counting also sucks much of the marrow out of the analysis of Iraqi violence data, where the devil is in the details.

It may be true, for instance, that today's car bombs are significantly less destructive than in previous years and that greater numbers of roadside bombs are found before detonation — data that analysts often tout when they want to make the case that security is returning to Iraq. However, the fastest-growing class of violence comprises the "intimidation and murder" categories, including close-quarters shootings, under-vehicle bombs, fatal stabbings, punitive demolition of property, and the kidnap of children.

By arrangement with the Washington Post/Bloomberg News Service