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Data Points

The Pentagon is missing one of the most important metrics for success in Iraq.

11:00 PM, Mar 8, 2006 • By VANCE SERCHUK
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WITH SECTARIAN VIOLENCE flaring up across Iraq, the release late last month of the Pentagon's third, semi-regular report to Congress on the progress of the war could hardly have come at a better time. "Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq" is--as its title suggests--an attempt to lay down clear, measurable markers documenting just how well the United States is doing across a range of sectors, from the development of the Iraqi security forces to the reconstruction of the country's infrastructure. That, at least, is what Congress demanded of the Pentagon last year, when it when it inserted language into the 2006 defense appropriations bill mandating such updates.

Unfortunately, while the Pentagon's report contains a wealth of statistics--from tallies of monthly IED attacks to cell phone subscription rates--it provides paltry insights into one area that is especially important just now: Iraq's deepening ethnic and sectarian fault lines.

At first glance, this might seem like a difficult, if not impossible, aspect to quantify. But there are reasonably good metrics to choose from--metrics that the Pentagon has evidently decided either not to track, or not to share.

TAKE FOR INSTANCE the ethnic and sectarian composition of Iraqi army units. On several occasions in the past year, U.S. military spokespersons have claimed they are unable to provide a detailed breakdown of the respective percentages of Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds in Iraq's emerging security forces. In a recent email exchange I had with a public affairs officer at Multi-National Security Transition Command--which is responsible for standing up the Iraqi military and police--it was acknowledged that, while the U.S. military has "some demographics" about the force it is creating, "it's not a database. Nor is it a management tool."

Why is this information about the new Iraqi army important? To begin with, both anecdotal evidence and common sense suggest that Iraq's security forces are internalizing some of the tensions pulling at the country's different communities. The issue here isn't just imbalance in the total force, but the proclivity of individual units to turn into partisan militias. An Iraqi brigade, for instance, that is overwhelmingly composed of Kurdish peshmerga or Shiite militiamen would seem significantly more likely to place its loyalties with political factions in Erbil or Najaf, rather than the official power ministries in Baghdad. Indeed, if we see overt sectarian purges of the army, it is a clear sign that Iraq is slipping into civil war.

The establishment of non-sectarian units, on the other hand, would offer some of the most tangible, visible evidence that Iraq really can function as a unitary state. More than just an economy-of-force substitute for withdrawing American troops, an integrated Iraqi army could help bind together the country's fissiparous communities in a genuinely national, representative institution.

Given the significance of the army's ethnic and sectarian makeup, why then has the Pentagon been uninterested in collecting and analyzing data about it? One possibility, of course, is sheer carelessness on the Defense Department's part.

An alternative explanation is that the Pentagon is reluctant to wade too deeply into ethnic and sectarian balancing games. Homogenous units may be dangerous for Iraq's stability in the long term, but they're no doubt easier to pull together in the short term--and for an administration determined to get large numbers of U.S. troops out of Iraq this year, that's no small consideration. It's also possible that, if the imbalance in the security forces is quite bad, the Bush administration may be reluctant to publicize this fact for fear of further inflaming Iraq's tensions.

Interestingly, the new Pentagon report does acknowledge concerns about sectarian tensions inside the Iraqi army, noting the importance of "a professional force representative of the diverse ethnic and religious fabric of Iraq" and stressing efforts on the part of the coalition "to recruit personnel from across the spectrum of Iraqi society." It also cautions, however, that "this does not mean all units are fully representative" and that "uniform balance across all ten divisions at this time" is impractical.

FAIR ENOUGH. But in the absence of data--the very metrics that Congress has been demanding for months now--it's all but impossible for policymakers and the public to evaluate the administration's claims of progress. Just how unbalanced are Iraq's 10 divisions? What kind of movement in bringing Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish soldiers together has been made since the last report was issued in October 2005? Is the problem getting better or worse?