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When the Data Don't Really Measure Up

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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

As part of his presentation to Congress yesterday, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus displayed 11 multicolored charts to demonstrate progress in Iraq. A close look at the facts indicates that the data often lacked context or were misleading. Here is a guide:

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WHAT IT SHOWS: This chart, showing steadily rising Iraqi security expenditures and lower U.S. expenditures, suggests that the Iraqis are beginning to pick up much of the tab for their own security.

ANALYSIS: The lines on this chart through 2008 closely track the Iraqi budget and previous testimony by U.S. officials. The figures for 2009 appear to be based on guesswork, and Petraeus's office declined to provide supporting information. But all the data are so oddly defined that the comparison is not meaningful.

The Iraqi expenditures reflect the budget for running the Interior and Defense ministries, meaning that at least half of the amount is salaries for soldiers and police. The numbers have increased because the personnel in those ministries has skyrocketed in recent years.

The U.S. expenditures are just for the Iraq Security Forces Fund, which provides for the training and equipping of Iraqi forces; the line on the chart does not include the billions of dollars spent on the salaries of U.S. troops assisting the Iraqis and the cost of the extensive logistics that the U.S. military provides to Iraqi forces.

When the Government Accountability Office last year asked for the total-cost figure, the Defense Department said it could not provide an estimate.

Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik told lawmakers in January that Iraq might be able to provide for its own internal security by 2012 but could not defend itself for another 10 years.

"The truth is that right now they simply cannot fix, supply, arm or fuel themselves completely enough at this point," he said. The Defense Department inspector general recently faulted the handling of the management of the Iraq Security Forces Fund, saying there was no assurance that intended results were achieved or that resources were protected from waste and mismanagement.

GENERATION OF IRAQI COMBAT BATTALIONS

WHAT IT SHOWS: The number of Iraqi combat battalions, particularly those "capable of taking the lead," has steadily grown.

ANALYSIS: This chart uses imprecise language to suggest an improvement in the capability of Iraqi forces when there may well be little or no improvement.

Only a small sliver of the battalions, perhaps 10 or 12, are rated at the top category of operational readiness (green in the chart). But the diagram reaches part of the way into the group of third-level readiness battalions (orange in the chart) to achieve its total of "112 battalions in the lead."


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