Numbers, Sources and Assertions
Here's a riddle: Why would the New York Times cite Iraqi sources to give the number of alleged defections in the Iraqi officer corps, while an American source is used to give the overall number of defections among both officers and servicemen?
James Glanz, the author of this front-page article today, quotes numbers given to him by anonymous “Iraqi military officials” whose estimates ran from “several dozen to more than 100” officers “who refused to fight during the Basra operation”, but Glanz never explains the discrepancy in these varying estimates. Furthermore, Glanz does not get these Iraqi sources of his to give him an overall number for all officers and servicemen who refused to fight, and he doesn’t provide a breakdown for how many of these officers served in the police force and how many others served in the Iraqi Army.
For an overall number, Glanz relies on an anonymous “senior American military official” who wishy-washily says “that he understood that 1,000 to 1,500 Iraqi forces had deserted or underperformed.” Glanz then gleefully tells us that “would represent a little over 4 percent of the total” yet never tells us how many actually ‘deserted’ and how many actually ‘underperformed’.
Readers ought to be told these things, preferably backed-up by
And then the story does something funny by downplaying its own opening sentences:
The senior American military official said the number of officers was “less than a couple dozen at most,” but conceded that the figure could rise as the performance of senior officers was assessed.What is this? Is the New York Times trying to mess with our brains?
But most of the deserters were not officers. The American military official said, “From what we understand, the bulk of these were from fairly fresh troops who had only just gotten out of basic training and were probably pushed into the fight too soon.”
“There were obviously others who elected to not fight their fellow Shia,” the official said, but added that the coalition did not see the failures as a “major issue,” especially if the Iraqi government dealt firmly with them.
Maliki, for his own part, is promising to deal firmly with any signs of wavering:
“Everyone who was not on the side of the security forces will go into the military courts,” Mr. Maliki said in a news briefing in the Green Zone. “Joining the army or police is not a trip or a picnic, there is something that they have to pay back to commit to the interests of the state and not the party or the sect.”Interestingly, Ambassador Ryan Crocker back-paddled today in Glanz’s piece on what he had been quoted as saying to Michael Gordon in yesterday’s piece regarding the authorship of the Basra tribal plan. I don’t know if he did that because Talisman Gate called him out on it, but anyway here’s the accurate version:
“They swore on the Koran that they would not support their sect or their party, but they were lying,” he said.
“The tribal element [Maliki] managed himself, as far as I can see,” he said. “You may recall he had a series of meetings with different tribal leaders, three or four of them, maybe more. That was something he focused on almost from the beginning, and pressed it hard straight through and has seen it pay off. Did he have counsel to do it, I don’t know. But he is the one who did it.”Here’s how I see it: about 550 policemen (around 50 of them officers) are up for disciplinary action across all of Iraq, not just Basra. As for the Iraqi Army, less than 250 are facing various forms of legal action or reprimands; I don’t have a reliable number for how many of those are officers though I’ve been led to believe that it is less than 20.
Overall, we’re talking about a total of 800-900 across all of Iraq, and not just Basra as the New York Times tried to obliquely portray it. That’s 800-900 out of the estimated 700,000 soldiers and policemen who now serve in Iraq’s various security and military outfits. I’m no math wizard, but I think that’s about 0.12 percent. Speaking for myself, I can live with these numbers.
But what I really want to tackle today is The Washington Post’s front-page story today by Sudarsan Raghavan and Ernesto Londono. Oh my, oh my, I can't believe that anyone would seriously write something like this up without having a perversely masochistic yearning for getting all tarred and feathered. My own theory is that the WaPo bureau in Baghdad was so envious of all the attention—more accurately described as ridicule—that Talisman Gate had focused on what Glanz and his colleagues over at the NYTimes bureau were reporting that an incensed Raghavan was determined to write something so outlandish so as to draw my notice.
Well, it worked.
Take these unattributed, unqualified stand-alone paragraphs for starters:
The offensive, which triggered clashes across southern Iraq and in Baghdad that left about 600 people dead, unveiled the weaknesses of Maliki's U.S.-backed government and his brash style of leadership. On many levels, the offensive strengthened the anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.Errmmm, didn’t your own WaPo editorial cast doubts on such assertions just yesterday?
The United States has spent more than $22 billion to build up Iraq's security forces, but they were unable to quell the militias. Hundreds of Iraqi soldiers and police deserted the fighting, a senior Iraqi military official said. Maliki had to call on U.S. and British commanders for support. In some areas, such as Sadr's Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City, U.S. forces took the lead in fighting the cleric's Mahdi Army militiamen.
And it was Iran that helped broker an end to the clashes, enhancing its image and illustrating its influence over Iraq's political players.
It seems that Raghavan is so convinced that the false narratives that he wrote during the first days of the Basra operation are unassailable and are here to stay that they do not need to be backed-up any further with sourcing and qualifiers.
When it comes to the numbers game, the WaPo not only goes overboard but contradicts itself within the span of the same article:
Hundreds of Iraqi soldiers and police deserted the fighting, a senior Iraqi military official said.Then:
A senior official in Iraq's Defense Ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to discuss military operations publicly, said Iraqi troops were overwhelmed by the second day of fighting.There were 45,000-50,000 soldiers and policemen operating under Operation Cavalry Charge in Basra. But let’s take Raghavan’s source at face value and compute what 30 percent of 15,000 comes up to: 4,500 soldiers and policemen ‘defected’ in Basra, according to the Washington Post.
"I was afraid the Iraqi forces would break," he said.
The official said he estimated that 30 percent of the Iraqi troops abandoned the fight before a cease-fire was reached. He also said that soldiers had been hindered by ammunition and food shortages and that some Iraqi police troops, who were supposed to be backing the Iraqi army, had actually supported the militias.
The official said the militias had 12,000 to 15,000 fighters -- roughly the same number as Iraqi troops.
If that’s the case, then why write earlier in the piece that “hundreds of Iraqi soldiers and police deserted the fighting” when the assertion is closer to the thousands?
Then Raghavan pulls the oldest trick of Baghdad’s journalistic sub-culture: quoting Mahmoud Othman, an old and grumpy Kurdish MP. Othman is a reliable go-to guy for the craziest on-the-record quotes because he’s been insane for many decades now. This is not a hidden secret among Iraq’s political elite.
Here’s another of Raghavan easily challenged and unreliable assertions:
But Iraqi security forces, whose leaders are widely believed to be members of the Supreme Council and, less so, Dawa, have been detaining hundreds of Sadr's followers, prompting allegations of torture and other abuses.Oh really? Give me some names then of Supreme Council and Dawa cadres who lead Iraq’s security forces. It wouldn’t be Defense Minister Abdel-Qader al-Obaidi, since he’s Sunni. It won’t be the Chief of Staff of the Armed Services, since he’s a Kurd. And it won’t be the Deputy Chief of Staff since he is a wine-imbibing, highly-polished Shia. How about Division commanders? Or even Battalion commanders? How about the head of Military Intelligence? How about the head of the Iraqi Intelligence Service?
Moving on to the Ministry of Interior, we find that Jawad al-Bolani, the minister, ran on Ahmad Chalabi’s slate in the last election, and if anything he’d be considered a fellow-traveler of the Sadrists. The only high-ranking Da’awa Party member that I can think that would fit Raghavan’s assertion is the mild-mannered and very urbane Adnan al-Asadi, the long-serving Deputy Minister for Administrative Affairs and I’m not even sure whether he’s still in place.
Here’s another of Raghavan’s inexplicable assertions:
By distancing himself from Maliki's government, which is widely seen as sectarian, inefficient and corrupt, Sadr apparently hopes to bolster his credentials as an Iraqi nationalist.Huh? Is Raghavan saying that the Sadrist movement is not seen as sectarian or corrupt?
And doesn’t this sentence contradict the impression formed by Hussein Falluji, the rabidly Sunni MP who Raghavan quotes a couple of paragraphs ahead as saying that he now admires Maliki’s decisiveness and courage?
Falluji is a bad, bad dude. He’s nonchalantly told friends of mine that he had been actively planning to assassinate them before he had been voted in to parliament and that unfortunately he hadn’t gotten around to it. If he’s rooting for Maliki, then something big has shifted.
But Raghavan isn’t interested in following up that line because he’s got better quotes from that anonymous Iraqi defense official saying:
The Iraqi army, meanwhile, received crucial air support from U.S. and British forces. "If the British and American forces were not there, the Mahdi Army would have gained a victory," he said.Yes, a dozen airstrikes and two dozen military observers saved Maliki’s behind. We’re supposed to believe all of Raghavan’s assertions, no matter how illogical they may sound.
Seldom has so much error fit into so little print space. Well done, Sudarsan Raghavan, for you are truly talented in the acrobatic arts of lie-packing.
Moving on, I spoke to someone who spent some time hanging out with Maliki today. My source says that he’s never seen the Prime Minister in higher spirits. Maliki allegedly said that he didn’t imagine that the crime cartels in Basra would crumble so quickly and that the Mahdi Army would be so disorganized. Maliki was especially proud of the Iraqi operation to secure the oil terminals of Abu Floos yesterday.
Maliki also allegedly said that he’s considering a proposal to revoke the visas and work permits of about a dozen western journalists who have engaged in irresponsible and dangerous propaganda. Maliki is saying that this isn’t a question of press freedoms but rather it is a necessary measure to contain the anarchy of malicious rhetoric, especially during wartime. The disciplinary measure, should Maliki choose to enact it since it is unclear at this point whether he will go the full way, targets individual journalists rather that their news bureaus and invites their bosses to send in a fresh batch of reporters who are not as venal as those ones currently working in Baghdad.
It should be noted that all of Iraq’s neighbors use visas and access as disciplinary measures against western reporters who may write things damaging to their nations’ reputations. If anything, there’s way too much press freedom in Iraq and irresponsible ‘journalists’ can get away with writing almost anything. The judicial system is yet to adapt to slapping controls on such excessive margins for libel and propaganda, so Maliki’s only option at this time may be to yank some press passes and send them packing.
Talisman Gate would strongly support such a measure.
In other news: Colin Kahl, Obama’s chief guy on Iraq, is a big credit to an otherwise unpleasant campaign. I have always liked and respected Kahl’s work and his latest confidential memo soberly calls for keeping 60,000-80,000 troops in Iraq through at least 2010 even though his candidate had promised that all U.S. personnel would be out of there by that date.
Read all about it in this scoop by Eli Lake.