Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

Isn’t there some way to tell if we're winning or losing in Iraq?

ASK THIS | May 25, 2005

The White House says that when there's less violence in Iraq, it means we're winning. And when there's more violence in Iraq, it also means we're winning -- because the opposition is getting desperate. Are there some objective benchmarks that would let us determine for real if we're winning or losing?

By Dan Froomkin



Q. President Bush won't set a target date for the withdrawal of troops --  but can someone in the administration at least describe in general  terms what our exit strategy is militarily, and sketch out some milestones?


Q. Is there a certain level of readiness that Iraqi forces must reach before we can consider withdrawal? What is it? How close are they? Can we check that regularly?


Q. When should we expect Iraqi forces to be taking a more substantive role in military operations?


Q. Is there any way to deny the insurgency explosives? How many explosives are out there? Can that be measured?


Q. How much of a step forward would capturing certain leaders of the  insurgency be? Who are those leaders? Would they not be replaced?


Q. What do returning soldiers say about whether we are winning or losing,  and how that can be measured?


Here’s how Bush described our exit strategy in February: “Our strategy is clear. We're going to help the Iraqis defend themselves. We'll accelerate training. We'll make sure there's a chain of command so that the troops that are trained can effectively operate. We'll help them stand up a high-quality security force. And when that mission is complete, and Iraq is democratic and free and able to defend herself, our troops will come home with the honor they have earned.”


Let’s start quantifying this. And let’s start routinely holding the Bush administration accountable for improvement in those numbers. Alternately, if the Bush administration says it can’t be quantified, then let’s tell that to our readers. After all, what defines quagmire better than a situation in which you cannot convincingly describe how you get out?


The media dutifully report the civilian and military death count, which certainly tells part of the story. But overall, the press has been too quick to let the issue of how things are going in Iraq become a matter of random anecdotes and hyperbole.


On CNN recently, Wolf Blitzer asked none other than John Burns, the respected New York Times Baghdad bureau chief, how things are going.


Here's the transcript 

Blitzer: Give us some perspective. We get the impression things are really sliding out of control almost in Iraq. Is that -- is that your sense? Or are we just seeing snapshots that could be misleading?


Burns: "There are shades of light and dark in this situation, Wolf, as you know, and there have been for a very long  time. On the one hand, we see considerable progress on the political front with the new Shiite majority government, which today, through the  constitutional committee of the national assembly, has laid down a  program to try and reach agreement on a new constitution by August the  15th for fresh elections in December.


“On the other hand, we have a surge of insurgent violence. At least 600 civilians dead this month, about 60 U.S. soldiers. That's way up on last month, but way down on January.


“It's extremely difficult in all of this for me, or, indeed, I would  guess, for the commanding American general here or ranking American  civilian officials, to come up with a reliable ledger of the way things  are going. It's true that things are not at all as good as had been hoped immediately after the elections. But everyone knew from the first months after the American occupation began here that this was going to be a long slog. And we're talking not months, but I think years, before  there could be an American withdrawal from Iraq and any hope of a truly  stable political situation here.”

In other words, neither Burns nor his sources can tell -- although they have a bad feeling.


Phebe Marr, a Senior Fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace wrote recently on this  Web site: "The U.S. military has never been strong in developing  counter-insurgency, peace-keeping and peace-enforcing training. It  prefers to stick to its ‘warrior’ role. But the U.S. must be following some sort of strategic and tactical plan to reduce violence and  gradually draw down U.S. troops and get out of Iraq. We need to know what it is, and we need to know what is being done on the ground in support of that plan. And we need to have some way of assessing whether it is working."


What could be more important? We should all be covering this war as if it were our sons and daughters, and husbands and wives, over there.


And here’s something to keep in mind: The public is increasingly angry and cynical. In a recent Gallup poll, 57 percent of Americans said they did not believe it was worth going to war; 56 percent said they thought things were going very badly. (Here's a May 3 CNN story.)


Let’s give them some real data and see what happens.


The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.