Troubling Numbers

This is a weeks-overdue post to recommend that you check out Mike Spagat’s piece on the myth that “economic sanctions aimed at Saddam Hussein and his regime killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children in the 1990s and early 2000s.”

Spagat explains how, despite the retraction of the results by the original researcher, mistaken findings on Iraqi child mortality were a prominently cited justification for the war in Iraq. He also makes the worrying point that the seemingly-permanent place in the discourse occupied by these erroneous estimates is part of a larger phenomenon wherein shocking statistics become dogma, regardless of their accuracy.

I’m filing this one under “reasons to keep fretting about the relationship between evidence, advocacy, and policy-making.”

p.s. For another riff on the same theme, check out the NYTimes’s “Revisiting the ‘Crack Babies’ Epidemic That Was Not.”

WTF Friday, 3/22/2013, Iraq Warlord Pet Edition

In honor of the 10th anniversary of the war in Iraq, we bring you a very special edition of our long-abandoned Warlord Pets series.

RIP Barney, Dubya’s White House Dog:

Barney the terrier lived at the White House during both of George W. Bush’s terms.  He died of lymphoma six weeks ago.  It is not known whether he was a supporter of the Iraq war, but he was certainly a constant companion to the guy who started it.

(Perhaps Dubya’s dog paintings are really therapy to help him ease his grief at Barney’s passing?)

(Barney photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Hilarity from the Vaults

From the Iraqi Perspectives Project, a description of a 2002 Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) internal review:

“The final page of the M8 annual report lists IIS failures during the year and enumerates several handicaps the IIS faced in trying to do its work: (1) not enough sedans were available to give one to each key officer; (2) foreign intelligence officers were not given permission to leave the country to study their areas of responsibility; and (3) the lack of an Internet connection within IIS caused them to miss many news events. They suggest allocating the office an Internet connection so that they do not have to rely on others to tell them the news. The IIS did claim the establishment of a single e-mail account as one of the year’s significant accomplishments.”

Among the many challenges of running a brutal dictatorship at odds with most of its neighbors: There are never enough sedans.

H/T: Erica Borghard. Thanks Erica!

Kibitzing the New York Times

Alert reader Sacha Guney sent in this New York Times article on the discovery, in an Iraqi junkyard, of 400 pages of records of the Marines’ internal investigation of the 2005 Haditha massacre.

As Sacha points out, the reporting’s a little… weird. For an article about the clear commission of an atrocity, there’s shockingly little reference to any concept of individual criminal responsibility. Instead, we get a story about the negative mental health consequences of combat. Specifically:

“Others became so desensitized and inured to the killing that they fired on Iraqi civilians deliberately while their fellow soldiers snapped pictures, and were court-martialed.”

I don’t doubt that war is hell, or that American soldiers in Iraq were indeed under “extraordinary strain”, but another way to write that sentence would have been: “Others were mass-murdering psychopaths.” But you know, you say “potato”…

So I’m ultimately unsure what to make of this piece. It’s clearly not intended as an apologia for the commission of mass atrocity, and it offers an illuminating exposition of the conditions that made “use force first and ask questions later” feel like the only possible approach to the civilian population.

But, imagine this story were about an African army, or really any other military in the world. Is there any way it doesn’t involve the phrase “war crimes”?

Who’s Revolting?

After a chorus of “Egypt isn’t Tunisia” and “___ isn’t Egypt” it has become apparent that popular revolution is kind of contagious. In case you’re having trouble keeping track, here is a list of places where news happened today:

Algeria – Pro-democracy protesters plan to demonstrate against the regime tomorrow (Saturday) in spite of a promise from the government to repeal the 1992 emergency law.  Police flooded the capital city Algiers to prevent demonstrations last weekend.  According to the New York Times, the protest movement does not have widespread support, but “[c]onditions are ripe for revolt.” Stay tuned…

Bahrain – Security forces opened fire on protesters tonight, killing at least four people and wounding many more in the capital, Manama.  Police have already shot and killed at least five protesters this week in an attempt to crack down on demonstrations calling for political and economic reform.  A large crew of foreign journalists are on the ground there, reporting that the city’s main hospital is overwhelmed with casualties.  For our American readers:  Please note that the Fifth Fleet, which oversees all U.S. naval operations in the Middle East, is headquartered in Bahrain.  This may explain the deafening silence from the U.S. over the last few days. After tonight’s incident, however, President Obama gave King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa a call to let him know that gunning down unarmed protesters is not the kind of behavior we like to see from our allies.

Djibouti – Thousands of people (in a country of under a million) hit the streets today to call for the resignation of president Ismail Omar Guelleh.  Things got ugly tonight when stone-throwing protesters were tear-gassed by the police.  Opposition leaders allege that police also fired on the crowd.

Iran – The government cracked down forcefully on rallies in support of Egypt’s revolution earlier this week.  Following calls in Parliament for the arrest and/or execution of opposition leaders Hussein Moussavi and Mahdi Karroubi, Moussavi’s daughters report that they have not heard from their parents since Tuesday and fear they have been detained.  The regime has called on its supporters to demonstrate against the protest movement today.  In turn, the opposition has asked its followers to rally on February 20.

Iraq – The New York Times reports protests “calling for better government services, including more electricity, and in some cases, for local government officials to resign” in several cities throughout the country. While things have generally remained peaceful, as many as five people lost their lives yesterday when private security guards fired on the protesters in Sulaimaniya. For an eyewitness account, head on over to The Moving Silent.

Jordan – The ongoing protests turned violent today as pro-government forces clashed with demonstrators calling for constitutional reforms. Al-Jazeera reports that police stood by as government supporters attacked and beat peaceful protesters.

Libya – Following the arrest of human rights attorney Fathi Terbi on Tuesday (he was subsequently released) Libyans have taken to the streets to protest the Qaddafi regime. Initial reports in the international media suggested that the protests were directed against Prime Minister Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi, but it’s pretty clear from the statements of local activists that they are in fact demonstrating against Qaddafi, who has been in power for a staggering forty-two years. As Najla Abdurrahman explains, the inaccurate reporting is “indicative of a much larger problem that Libyans have struggled with for decades.” She argues that the “virtual vacuum of information” created by Qaddafi’s “strict censorship policies, highly restrictive press laws, and uncompromising repression of even the slightest expression of dissent” poses “considerable obstacles for Libyans both inside and outside the country attempting to communicate their struggles to the world.”  Despite the difficulties confirming information, it is clear from the most recent reports that the regime is violent repressing the protests.  The death toll figures being mentioned are growing every few minutes (Amnesty International confirmed 46 deaths earlier today, Human Rights Watch now says 84), and the current word is that the government has turned off the internet.  It’s not looking good.

Yemen – Despite concessions from President Ali Abdullah Saleh following opposition-organized protests in late January and early February, popular protests have continued, and have become increasingly violent.  The official opposition has held back on affiliating itself with the movement, but has denounced the excessive force of the Saleh regime’s response.

Note:  If you don’t have time to sit in front of Al Jazeera English all day or continually refresh Twitter, you can follow event using Blogs of War’s nifty crisis monitoring service.  I like the general “revolution” feed, but you can specialize by country if you prefer.

Soylent Green is People, But the NY Times Thinks that the Jury is Still Out on Iraqis

When I checked the New York Times online this morning, the main story on the front page* was “Baby Rescued From Wreckage of Car Bombing in Iraq.” It featured a photograph of a woman holding a baby on her lap, and the following lede:

“The rescue of a baby from the wreckage of a bombing that killed eight seemed to be proof that Iraqis were still capable of extraordinary acts of humanity.”

I think my favorite part is the “seemed to be” qualifier. Just to let us know that it could be a false alarm -Iraqis might not actually be capable of extraordinary acts of humanity.

*(If the home page has changed by the time you read this, the line is in the fourth paragraph of the story itself.)

Are you there, Congress? It’s me, Amanda.

Umm, Congress? It’s me. Amanda. How’s things?

Why am I calling? No reason. I just thought, you know, we haven’t really talked in a while. I know, I moved away, and things just haven’t been the same since then. And of course you’ve been busy too, what with the economy headed straight down the pooper and no one having any idea what to do about it. So it makes sense. No hard feelings.

What’s that? General Petraeus’s testimony? Well, now that you bring it up, I do have some thoughts.

So. Here’s the thing. I opposed this war from the start. (Like Barack Obama! Except different!) And I think that General Petraeus is an extremely intelligent, capable general who is doing an excellent job in a difficult situation. (Like Angelina Jolie! Except different!) Cool, right? See, I opposed the war not because I didn’t believe in the WMDs (I didn’t really have any information on that -just like you!), but because I was pretty sure that regardless of the presence of WMDs in Iraq, the war would turn out badly.

I knew that Saddam Hussein had done a remarkably effective job of ensuring that his Baathist party was the only established power structure in the country. And that meant that when we took him out, there would be a power vacuum to be filled. And in the absence of any kind of peaceful political or social structure to fill said power vacuum, conflict would. If you can’t get yourself into power peacefully, you can always try doing it violently!

Hmm? Sure, I’ll hold for snack time. I wouldn’t want them to run out of apple juice and graham crackers before you get there, Congress.

Back now? Great. Where was I? Oh, right. The inevitable power vacuum and the civil conflict that would follow it. That’s where Gen. Petraeus comes in. Because it turns out that one thing our Very Modern Military is pretty lousy at is controlling insurgencies. Everything about our military -from spending, to training, to fighting- is based on our ability to use overwhelming force against slightly-less-overwhelming force. And that turns out not to be much help when you’re trying to protect a town full of civilians against terroristic warfare. To mistquote the great philosopher Cher Horowitz: Oops! Your bad!

General Petraeus, however, is one of the army’s top experts on counterinsurgency warfare (he literally wrote the book on it). He has always been upfront about the resources that would be needed to fight a war like this one, and he has never actually gotten them. The “surge” we’ve all heard so much about? Barely meets his standards for the troops necessary to fight a war like this in the first place.

So we can’t really be surprised that things haven’t gone that well, can we Congress? Of course there has been terrible violence. Being able to command armed fighters gets you a seat at the table. More fighters get you more seats. (see: Moqtada el Sadr, see also: Kenyan powersharing agreement). With enough troops, the U.S. can control the violence. But as soon as it looks like we’re leaving, the violence will surge as the different interests jockey to be in the top position once we’re gone. (You’ve noticed how often the attacks target the police and army, right? Hint: this is not the behavior of leaders with a stake in a peaceful society)

Should we just stay, and wait it out? That’s tricky. To have a lasting effect, we’d have to keep troops stationed until the Iraqis work out a power hierarchy that is stable, and able to process change through civil political processes. Or at least sets up one group that is so firmly dominant that there won’t be change for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, the groups in play are fairly well matched, so that just isn’t very likely. And our presence taints the political process: groups we support are damned by association, and the prospects of those we oppose are unreasonably inflated. So that’s not great.

But if we leave, it will get worse, at least for a while. And the way that it gets worse will be particularly horrible. The different power groups have broken down along ethno-religious lines, so we can assume that the violence against civilians will do the same. So it’s almost certain that civilians will be targeted for harm based on their religion or ethnic group, and very likely that this targeting would escalate into full-scale ethnic cleansing for the same reason. On the other hand, American soldiers wouldn’t be dying there anymore, we would save an estimated 40 squillion dollars, and we could turn our attention to Afghanistan.

Are you still with me? I know this is hard. Maybe next time we have this discussion before we have a war, yes? Wait, what? Iran what?

Let’s recap: two choices. (1) stay the course, prevent large-scale ethnic cleansing, but probably not make any substantial progress. (2) pull out, ethnic cleansing explodes, Iraq becomes a much sadder place.

No more wars for YOU until you can come up with a better idea.

Memo to the Media: Not Suicide Bombings, Just Extra-Murdery Bombings

It has been widely reported that the Iraqi Interior Ministry has ordered the police to “round up beggars, vagabonds and mentally disabled people” to prevent insurgents from using them as “suicide bombers.”

The impetus for this new policy appears to be the double bombing of a Baghdad pet market on February 1st, which is estimated to have killed over 50 people. The bombers in that case were two mentally disabled women known in the market by fond names like “the crazy woman.” (several reports say that they had Down Syndrome.) It appears that insurgents strapped bombs to them, sent them into the market, and then detonated them remotely.

Iraqi officials are worried that this tactic could become more widespread. According to Time Magazine, U.S. and Iraqi troops have detained the director of a psychiatric hospital for questioning about whether he supplied Al-Qaeda in Iraq with information about mentally-impaired women at the hospital who could be used for bombings.

So, a few observations:

1) The media MUST stop calling these “suicide bombings.” They are “homicide bombings,” or maybe just “One bombing, extra murder!” It is not “suicide” when the person who is supposed to be responsible for your safety gives you to a terrorist group so that they can blow you and many other people up. It is not “suicide” when a terrorist organization remotely detonates a mentally disabled person. Repeat after me, mainstream media: These are not suicide bombings. These are brutal and creepy murders. (I wasn’t sure it was possible to make a terrorist attack that kills dozens of innocent people MORE gross, but apparently it is.) Oddly enough, it appears that only Fox News managed to grasp this: their headline is “Mentally Disabled Female Homicide Bombers Blow Up Pet Markets in Baghdad, Killing Dozens.”

2) Why are Al-Qaeda in Iraq using this new tactic? Have they run out of regular suicide bombers? If so, that is actually pretty good news. It suggests that ordinary Iraqis are not nearly as into becoming “martyrs” as some have suggested.

3) Of course, it’s possible that this is just a variant on the U.S. media’s original explanation for the pet market bombings: that women were used because they would be less likely to attract suspicion and be thwarted from completing the attack. The New York Sun, for instance, says that vulnerable populations are being used “to avoid suspicion and searches at checkpoints.” However, I’m not sure that makes much sense. Surely the result of this new tactic is that people will be even more hostile to mentally-disabled women than they might have been before, making them less likely to be successful bombers? I doubt these women were welcomed with open arms before, and presumably now it will be much worse.

4) This is just so, so, sad.

That is all.