Iraq War's Statistics Prove Fleeting

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 19, 2007

The U.S. war in Iraq enters its fifth year today. That, and 3,197 U.S. military deaths reported by the Pentagon as of 10 a.m. Friday, are among the few numerical certainties in a conflict characterized from the start by confusion and misuse of key data.

In the fog of modern counterinsurgency warfare, statistics have replaced conquered territory as measures of success. Then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld once dismissed questions about the level of combat-ready Iraqi troops by saying that numbers are only numbers and "misleading" as to the truth, but the Bush administration has supplied a steady stream of them.

The administration began quantifying the conflict long before the U.S. invasion on March 19, 2003, warning that Saddam Hussein had not accounted for "29,984" chemical munitions and "tens of thousands of teaspoons" of anthrax. "Nearly two dozen" al-Qaeda extremists were said to be operating in Baghdad. Alternative counts on these and other subjects were rejected as partisan or uninformed.

In January, after years of fluctuating deployments, President Bush told the nation that an additional 21,500 U.S. troops were needed to quell escalating violence in Baghdad. As of Friday, that total had reached 28,700.

Since the war began, Congress and the public have demanded precise accountings -- often of things that are difficult or impossible to quantify. Critics have sometimes misused data to argue that things were getting worse.

Some government calculations have been meticulous, even when belying claims of progress. Weekly tallies of oil produced, electricity supplied and construction projects completed have invariably fallen below stated goals. The military has provided public accounts of failing troop readiness and recruitment.

But the administration and the military have also muddied bottom lines by altering targets and categories of data. Multiple regular and special accounts have made it difficult to compute total war spending. Detainee numbers have oscillated, depending on whether the objective was to tout achievements or conceal secret prisoners. Convenient guesses have at times been offered as fact.

"In February, Iraqi and coalition forces conducted just over 200 operations against al-Qaeda objectives, having killed over 100 terrorists and capturing over 400 terrorists," Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq, told reporters in Baghdad last week.

Later in the briefing, Caldwell said he was sure about the 100 killed but said the 400 captured "will go through a screening process" to determine "whether or not they in fact were associated with the terrorists . . . or whether they were perhaps just innocent bystanders."

Two categories of data -- insurgent and civilian Iraqi deaths, and the training and deployment of Iraqi security forces -- illustrate how flexible the numbers can be.

"We don't do body counts on other people," Rumsfeld said during the war's ninth month, a tacit reference to the statistical excesses of Vietnam. Yet that rule has been bent repeatedly, with scant explanation of how figures are compiled.

On April 6, 2003, the Pentagon listed 61 U.S. soldiers and Marines killed or missing in action, while officers in the midst of battle estimated that "2,000 to 3,000" Iraqi combatants had been killed during a single tank incursion into central Baghdad. A year and a half later, as the U.S. death toll topped 1,000, Rumsfeld observed that in August 2004 alone, U.S. and coalition forces "probably" killed between 1,500 and 2,500 terrorists and criminals. In January 2005, Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., then the top U.S. military officer in Iraq, estimated that U.S. and Iraqi forces had killed or captured 15,000 enemy fighters in 2004 -- three times as many as an estimate by Gen. John P. Abizaid, then-Centcom commander, of the total size of the insurgency about one year earlier.

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