October 31, 2006

Options for diplomacy in Afghanistan

It's always interesting to inquire a little further when the idea that there should be more Canadian diplomacy in Afghanistan is discussed, because diplomatic options appear fairly limited at the moment.

There's two kinds of diplomacy directly relevant to the Afghanistan situation: internal diplomacy, with the insurgent groups (ie the pro-Taliban Pashtun leadership); and external diplomacy, with other nations in the region: specifically Pakistan, because it's really the only country that matters in addressing the current Pashtun insurgency situation.

Now, Canada or NATO clearly can have no legitimate role in Afghanistan's internal diplomacy. At best any Western efforts to strike a deal without Karzai's involvement would only significantly undercut the elected government, the actual body empowered to have such discussions; at worst they would be completely futile. Canada and other third parties could conceivably use diplomacy to encourage the Karzai government to engage in peace talks, but right now Karzai needs no such convincing; it's the Taliban that reiterated this week that they would reject any attempts at negotiation, until NATO leaves. At this point, the Taliban apparently needs to be essentially bombed back to the negotiating table for anything to come of the internal negotiation approach.

The other party Canada could conceivably influence to fairly immediate effect would be Pakistan. The Musharraf government's Sept. 5 Waziristan Accord, with its live-and-let-live arrangement with the Pashtun leadership in their country, gives the Taliban a new ability to undercut the stability of eastern Afghanistan and the mostly American RC-East forces there... even in RC-South where the Canadians are operating, a likely upshot at this point is a probable lessening of the U.S. air and other military resources available in support through this winter and into next year.

NATO hasn't been putting the kind of pressure one would expect on Pakistan diplomatically, it's true. It's partly because its bargaining position isn't very good. Musharraf's domestic situation is tenuous... he isn't in a position to respond to any kind of Western bullying, because after him the deluge.

Perhaps the only real way to unlock this particular strategic logjam, from a diplomatic perspective, will be to look for concessions that are grantable to Musharraf, which would both bolster him at home and give him the maneuvering room to take stronger action in his border areas. Some options would include affirming the Durand Line (ie, encouraging the Karzai government to forego historic claims on Pakistani territory) or pressuring India to grant some concessions in the Kashmir dispute.

If that's the kind of diplomacy people are talking about with regard to Canada's participation in Afghanistan, it makes some sense. Otherwise it seems just hot air.

UPDATE: Of course, one suspects the real subtext one should apply whenever "diplomacy" is mentioned as an option for Canada refers more to our government exerting pressure on our allies to address other areas of Muslim grievance, specifically Iraq, Palestine, or the Guantanamo Gulag-lite. Not that this is at all a bad idea, but one has to concede the amount of "soft power" effort Canada can exert, on these issues even with our now significant military commitments to our alliance partners, remains fairly minimal (we have nothing to unilaterally offer Israel that could persuade it to change its West Bank position; nothing we can do is likely to get the Bush government to alter its "war on terror" course any faster, either), and relatively distal to Afghanistan's more immediate problems. Still, efforts of this sort if intended and understood as a counterweight to the Afghan situation, meant to assure Muslims both at home and abroad of Canadians' overall good faith in regards to the Islamic world, are certainly not wasted. They're just unlikely to bear fruit in any military operational sense before south Afghanistan starts to heat up again in four months or so.

Posted by BruceR at 04:19 PM

October 30, 2006

Taliban factions map

For those who are having trouble (like me) keeping up with the increasingly complex Taliban dynamics in Afghanistan, here's a heavily oversimplified map, just depicting the three major anti-government factions' geographic centers of gravity:

As outlined in NYT reporter Elizabeth Rubin's "In the Land of the Taliban" (link) there are now three factions going under the collective name in NATO parlance of Anti-Coalition Militias (ACM)). They are:

1. "Council" Taliban: the Taliban of ex-Afghan leader Mullah Omar and, more recently, the allegedly charismatic Mullah Dadullah, based in Quetta, Pakistan. The centre of their Afghan strength in the old days was the area where the borders of Kandahar, Uruzgan and Zabul provinces met. Recently, they have begun to have a presence in the next province over to the west, Helmand, as local opium farmers and distributors react negatively to Afghan government suppression efforts there.

2. The Hezb-i-Islami, or Hekmatyar faction: The private army of former Afghan PM Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, once famous for bombarding Kabul flat during the countries 1990s civil war. As extremist as Omar's Taliban, Hekmatyar's faction was abandoned by its Pakistani backers as the Omar faction grew in power in the late 1990s. Hekmatyar's base of support was always in the Khyber Pass Jalalabad area, east of Kabul, but he still has supporters throughout Afghanistan.

3. The Haqqani faction: Centred in the city of Khost, the followers of popular warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani continue to resist extension of the Karzai government's authority into their border region. Popular with Middle Eastern private backers, Haqqani in the past has been eagerly courted by the Karzai government with offers of government positions. He and his son, Sirajuddin, are reputedly the commanders of the mujahideen forces that have recently fought the Pakistani government to a draw in Waziristan.

This graphic may be worth comparing to the NATO casualties graphic at this post and the current ISAF "placemat". One observation worth making is that both the Hekmatyar and Haqqani factions are almost entirely in the area overseen by Regional Command-East (RC-East), centred on the 3rd Brigade Combat Team (BCT) of the U.S. 10th Mountain Division, also known as Task Force Spartan. The Council Taliban are operating almost entirely in the RC-South area, in the area of operations of the NATO brigade comprising UK, Canadian, Dutch and Australian troops.

NOTE: Nothing in the above should be taken to mean, by the way, that there is any sign of division between the various Taliban factions: they are presently extremely closely allied. Haqqani has acknowledged the spiritual and political overlordship of Mullah Omar, and Omar has named Haqqani as his senior military commander. Hekmatyar and the Hizb-i Islami fighters have some nominal independence, but he is also reported to have accepted the Quetta Council's authority. Hekmatyar and Omar are die-hard rejectionists, while repeated Afghan, American and Pakistani overtures to Haqqani to come in from the cold have been consistently rejected for four years straight now. The public statements of all three men and their representatives have repeatedly stated they will not negotiate with the Karzai government until NATO leaves Afghanistan.

UPDATE: More here from the ever-reliable Ahmed Rashid. Note that the 300 per cent increase in attacks he refers to is in eastern Afghanistan, aka the US 3rd BCT's area, not the southern (Kandahar) front.

Posted by BruceR at 06:28 PM

The other side of OCdt Juarez

This was rather disturbing to read. For the record, all overseas service in the Canadian reserves remains voluntary: no reservist is ever obligated to go. Mr. Francisco Juarez may have left his basic training course due to his disagreement with Canadian foreign policy, but it is wholly inappropriate for he or the media to suggest his quitting was prompted out of a realistic concern regarding imminent or non-voluntary overseas service.

For instance: "He says he was being groomed to become a second lieutenant and would have been in Kandahar by early next year?" Completely false.

Posted by BruceR at 05:16 PM

Missing weapons report: thoughts

You may have read already about how the U.S. has no accountability for the 370,000 small arms it gave to Iraqi indigenous forces over the last few years. No lists of serial numbers, nothing. Oh, well.

The full audit report is here (PDF). In case you were curious what kinds of weapons the Iraqis got, as I was, here's the breakdown:

Iraqi Ministry of Defence (Armed Forces): 109,145 weapons in total, 72,244 of which were AK-47-type assault rifles. Also 29,000 9mm pistols, 7,400 7.62mm machine guns, 330 carbines and shotguns, 100 RPG-7s (-7VM, to be precise), and 12 .50 calibre heavy machine guns.

Iraqi Ministry of the Interior (Internal Security Forces): 261,106 weapons in total, 147,900 of which were 9 mm pistols. The rest includes 93,900 AK-47s (3,900 with under-barrel grenade launchers), 12,700 7.62mm MGs, 1,200 submachine guns, carbines and shotguns, 1,400 RPG-7s, and 60 sniper rifles.

These are the weapons purchased, by ministry. The actual distribution turned out somewhat different, however. Most of the under-barrel grenade launchers were never issued, and those that were went to the army, for instance. For the other weapon types, existing large quantities of similar weapons in both ministry's inventories (and the lack of documentation) made it difficult to determine who had received what from the new purchases. Suffice it to say, everyone seems to be fairly well equipped with small arms, regardless.

Now, Glocks and AK-47s are about the most reliable weapons you can buy, so obviously some good thinking went into the purchasing here. At $135 million, the prices don't seem exorbitant, either. Less thought went into spare parts purchasing: pretty much only the 7.62mm MGs and AK-47s had parts purchased for them, and those in fairly small amounts (less than 1% of the overall program cost). No repair manuals were purchased, and the Ministry of the Interior currently has no trained weapons maintainers, apparently.

As for accountability, 13,000 pistols and 100 SMGs were found by the auditors to be completely unaccounted for in official inventories. Not too impressive. But hopefully this is mostly the fault of the inventories (I can see it being difficult of keeping track of every police officer's sidearm in Iraq under the best of circumstances). Certainly the types of weapons assessed as missing (9mm) are not exactly those that terrorists or insurgents would have excessive difficulty obtaining for themselves in any case, so it's unlikely the bureaucratic shortfalls here add significantly to the existing danger posed by prevalent small arms to Western military forces in Iraq or other countries.

Posted by BruceR at 01:41 PM

Cdns announce bravery medals; meanwhile TB says 'nix' and AQ says it's on

Nice convergence of developments to mull over the same weekend as the first significant Canadian anti-Afghan War rallies.

First, the Governor General announced the first ever awards of the new military valour medals that were created to replace the old British medals. 1 SMV (Star of Military Valour) and 3 MMVs (Medals of Military Valour), from four separate Afghan actions.

For those keeping score at home, the SMV ranks in the current Canadian hierarchy about where the old Distinguished Service Order (DSO)/Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) did (the Brits had that old officer/man distinction going, of course, necessitating two medals for equivalent heroic acts). The MMV would be roughly equivalent to the old Military Cross (MC)/Military Medal(MM) in British/Commonwealth army service.

The Victoria Cross remains in both British and Canadian service as the senior, Medal of Honor-level heroism award. It has not been awarded in Canadian service since World War Two. The American army equivalents to the SMV and MMV, for second- and third-order suicidal acts of battlefield heroism, would be the DSC and Silver Star.

Meanwhile, both the Omar and Hekmatyar factions of the Taliban (or, as NATO soldiers informally call them, "Timmy"), in separate statements, turned down an offer by the Karzai government to join a jirga of Pashtun leaders to discuss their grievances, or any negotiations with the central government until after foreign troops leave.

In other news, there is some increasing chatter about Canada now becoming a higher-value target in the eyes of Al Qaeda.

Posted by BruceR at 12:51 AM

October 26, 2006

Intriguing war fact of the day

What's the median age of the 106 combat fatalities in Afghanistan over the last eight months?

Twenty-eight (low 19, high 52, mean 29, mode 29).

Median age of the 482 combat fatalities in Iraq over this same period?

Twenty-three (low 18, high 57, mean 26, mode 21).

Higher than you'd expect, isn't it? At least for Afghanistan (source: icasualties.org).

Posted by BruceR at 01:30 PM

October 25, 2006

NATO occupation ratios in Afghanistan

The Prof. Paris piece I link two posts below makes some statements about occupation ratios, and it's also relevant to the Henley-driven update, so here's the NATO troop-to population ratios in the five NATO regional commands, including Kabul, as of October:

RC South
2.8 million Afghans
9,800+ troops
equals >3.5 soldiers per 1000 inhabitants;

RC East
6.7 million Afghans
10,000 troops
1.5 per 1000

RC North
6.3 million Afghans
2,700 troops
0.4 per 1000

RC West
2.9 million Afghans
1,800 troops
0.6 per 1000

RC Kabul
3.0 million Afghans
6,500 troops
2.2 per 1000.

Note that the Kabul number, because of its high tail-to-tooth ratio in Kabul and Bagram, is obviously a little inflated, there.

For comparison purposes, the US+allies troop-to civilian occupation ratio in Iraq is roughly 6 per 1000.

There is also a good 2002 map showing Afghan population densities worth referring to here.

Posted by BruceR at 02:21 PM

Bush: never the diplomat, is he?

President Bush, today:

“This month we've lost 93 American service members in Iraq, the most since October of 2005. During roughly the same period, more than 300 Iraqi security personnel have given their lives in battle."

To clarify, up to the point of Bush's remarks the October toll was 90 American service members, 1 Brit, 1 Dane, and 1 Salvadoran (source: icasualties.org). I'd like to say all three of the non-Americans would have appreciated Bush's honorary auto-induction into the U.S. armed forces, but that would be presumptuous on my part or the president's.

Posted by BruceR at 01:38 PM

Is all of Afghanistan unsafe?

"Everything is relative. All of Afghanistan can be considered dangerous in varying degrees."

So writes Jeff Simpson in the Globe today. Is he right?

Here's a graphic you may not have seen yet, NATO and US fatalities by province in the March-October 2006 period, where, as was discussed below, there were 106 deaths attributable to hostile action in Afghanistan. Provinces coloured in white had no fatal attacks against NATO forces:

NATO Afghan combat fatalities, Mar-Oct 06

Here for comparison purposes is the matching graphic for the 63 combat fatalities in the same period in 2005:

NATO Afghan combat fatalities, Mar-Oct 06

Fatalities are only a portion of casualties, and there have been non-fatal attacks on NATO forces in other provinces. But there can be no doubt from the top graphic that this has so far been a fight that is concentrated in the south, around Kandahar, and the area east of Jalalabad where American forces are focussed, through much of the last year.

NATO forces in these areas may not be getting sufficient credit for keeping insurgent forces (which once held sway over a much larger part of the country) from having any effect in the center or north of the country. This is good news economically (the Afghan non-drug economy grew 15% overall last year), and for non-Pashto ethnic minorities (particularly the Hazaras, who were brutally oppressed in the Taliban years). Much of the country was allowed to continue its relatively peaceful recovery because of the strategic holding action throughout this year by NATO, US and Afghan forces in the provinces bordering Pakistan.

Victory in the future is still uncertain. But unlike Iraq, insurgent violence has not spread yet to the whole of the country, or even the larger part of it. The real story of this last eight months should be that Canadian, British and American soldiers, through their many sacrifices, gave Afghanistan as a whole another year to recover.

That said, NATO probably still needs a strategy change to reflect changing circumstances in Afghanistan that could not have been foreseen at the time of the London Conference that produced their current action plan. Also in the Globe today, Prof. Roland Paris does a good job outlining the issues, and options, as opposed to Simpson's somewhat defeatist mumbling.

UPDATE: Jim Henley writes:

On the Afghan one, don't you need to overlay it with patterns of
*deployment* of NATO troops? IOW, show me a province where there ARE no NATO troops and I'll show you a province where no NATO troops have been attacked! But there may be other Bad Stuff happening there.

It's not the whole answer, but this map of PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) locations gives some idea of where the NATO/US focus is, currently. Also valuable is the ISAF "placemat", with the troop strengths in the five regional commands (brigades), the current version of which is here. The short answer is that just under a third of combined NATO/US strength (currently 31,000) is in each of the southern and eastern regions respectively, and another 20% in Kabul. Another 4,500 NATO troops are spread through the quiet centre, north, and west of the country. (See also the occupation ratio post two above this one.)

*Note: All the statistics in this and the previous post are based on publicly available stats at www.icasualties.org. Population and military size statistics are the 2006 figures from Wikipedia. I produced my own graphics.

See also my post from yesterday on a related topic.

Posted by BruceR at 01:01 PM

October 24, 2006

Iraq-Afghanistan fatalities and troop strength updates

Update to my September post on combined Iraq and Afghan fatalities, with some corrected population and military size numbers:

Fatalities by nation, Iraq plus Afghanistan, since Sept. 11:

1. United States: 3144 (+153 in last 7 weeks)
2. United Kingdom: 160 (+6)
3. Italy: 42 (+4)
3. Canada: 42 (+10)
5. Spain: 30 (0)
6. Ukraine: 18 (0)
6. Germany: 18 (0)
8. Poland: 17 (0)
9. Bulgaria: 13 (0)
10. France: 9 (0)
10. Denmark: 9 (+2)

Fatalities per 1,000 full-time military service personnel:

1. United States: 2.20
2. United Kingdom: 0.85
3. Canada: 0.68
4. Denmark: 0.39
5. El Salvador: 0.29*

Fatalities per million population:

1. United States: 10.48
2. United Kingdom: 2.66
3. Bulgaria: 1.69
4. Denmark: 1.67
5. Canada: 1.28

*The El Salvadoran battalion in Iraq, which has been there since 2003, suffered its fifth fatality on Oct. 20. I've excluded Estonia, which had two combat fatalities in Iraq during its deployment in 2004, which given its small army size and tiny population would otherwise put it fifth in both the per-capita and military-size ratios.

Which countries are actively involved in the two occupations right now, besides the United States?

In Iraq, the seven remaining other nations with substantial force commitments are:
United Kingdom: 7,200
South Korea: 2,000
Australia: 1,400
Romania: 900
Georgia: 850 (including 550 under UN control)
Denmark: 500
El Salvador: 400

The rest of the Iraq contingents are under 200, or are due to withdraw completely by December (Italy and Poland).

In Afghanistan, the 12 other nations with more than 200 soldiers committed are:

UK: 5,800
Germany: 2,700
Canada: 2,300
Netherlands: 2,100
Italy: 1800
France: 1,000
Romania: 700
Spain: 600
Turkey: 400
Belgium: 300
Norway: 300
Denmark: 300
Australia: 300
Sweden: 300

There has been a strong shift recently among the NATO countries over to the Afghan mission, with two previously major committers to Iraq (the Netherlands and Italy) moving the focus of their deployable strength to the Afghan mission over the last year-and-a-half. (Spain began this trend in 2004.) Three of the four major Eastern European early committers to Iraq (Poland, Ukraine, Bulgaria) have basically dropped out of the game entirely, apparently concluding they've done their share (see the casualty numbers, above), or perhaps because they are less able to operate outside of the highly leveraged operating conditions (American weapons, communications support, vehicles, etc.) they benefitted from while in Iraq. (NOTE: Poland just recently committed 1,000 personnel to the Afghanistan mission.) Only El Salvador continues to fully cleave to what is now effectively a 90% U.S. effort there. As for Georgia, it is shopping for NATO membership and security guarantees against Russia, so it will likely stay to the bitter end, as well. South Korea, on the other hand, is making signs its had enough, sending a third of its contingent home this fall. Denmark, Romania and Australia, like the UK, continue to split their forces between the two theatres.

Note that Australia's commitment is increasingly similar to Canada's, just split over two operations: a battle group and administrative tail in Iraq (at Tallil AB), a naval frigate, with C-130 and naval patrol aircraft support in the Persian Gulf, and a PRT in the Dutch brigade area in the Uruzgan province of Afghanistan, plus a commitment of special forces. The Canadian contribution of a battle group, a PRT, special forces support and a brigade headquarters, with air transport and patrol support, but in its case nearly all in southern Afghanistan, is very similar in terms of ground force numbers. (The post-2001 Canadian naval commitment to provide its own frigate in the Persian Gulf (OP Altair) is not included in the numbers above, which brings the two national contributions even closer in raw numbers, if counted.)

UPDATE: Here's another way of looking at the numbers above, and Canada's contribution specifically. Of the 19 countries that have lost 2 or more soldiers in the Iraq and/or Afghan campaigns since 2001, Canada has by far the lowest military participation ratio (MPR): proportion of the population in full-time military service. Here are the figures, in case you were curious:

1. Bulgaria: 871 per 100,000 citizens;
2. Ukraine: 776;
3. Slovakia: 481;
4. United States: 476;
11. France: 407;
12. Italy: 396;
13. Sweden: 374;*
14. Germany: 347;
15. Netherlands: 325;
16. United Kingdom: 312;
17. Australia: 261;
18. El Salvador: 236;
19. Canada: 190.

*Sweden lost two PRT members to hostile fire in Mazar-e-Sharif in 2005.

Here's another way of looking at just specifically the Afghanistan fighting, which started to pick up, at least for the NATO nations involved, after a couple years of relative quiet, on approximately March 1 of this year as the first non-US forces moved back into the south of the country. Since that date, there have been 154 Western fatalities in Afghanistan, of which 106 occurred due to hostile acts. They break down by country this way:

1. United States: 66 fatalities (46 combat);
2. UK: 36 (18)
3. Canada: 34 (30);
4. France: 6 (6);
5. Italy: 6 (4);
6. Netherlands: 4 (0);
7. Romania and Spain: 1 combat fatality each.

If previous Afghan operational and fatality patterns hold true again, we should expect relative quiet now throughout Afghanistan from the end of October through to mid-February, when attacks on NATO forces and deaths will inevitably start to climb up again. NATO forces on the ground now are probably more than sufficient to cope through the intervening winter months, and even get back to making some headway on the development and "hearts and minds" sides of things: the big question now is whether sufficient Afghan government and NATO forces can be in place by February next, particularly in the south and east of the country, in order to defeat the Taliban's next effort. The Pakistani government's recent pact with rebels in Waziristan should free even more Taliban resources for the Afghan fight next spring than before: obviously any further drawdown of American assets in this theatre, either to reinforce Iraq or some other new military venture, would make the situation in the spring even more difficult for NATO to cope with.

Note: all the information above was derived from publicly available information at icasualties.org and Wikipedia.

Posted by BruceR at 01:40 PM

IE7: Can't complain

Assuming this posts correctly, this will be my first blog post using IE7, which I find I'm using more and more as the month goes on. I rather like the Quick Tabs feature, which is a big improvement over regular tabbed browsing. The multiple homepages are nice, too: the only problem I have so far is I think moving the refresh button to the right side was a bit of a mistake. I'm still a big Firefox fan, but there's no doubt the bar has been raised.

Posted by BruceR at 09:58 AM

October 23, 2006

Never a big fan of thought control

My occasional digs aside, I am as concerned as anyone about the banning of Mark Steyn's new book from Canadian bookstores.

Posted by BruceR at 02:52 PM

And the brownouts begin

It's been a horrible week for brownouts in the Willowdale-North York area of Toronto this last week: three on our block yesterday alone.

It's easy to say that this is the upshot of years of mismanagement by all three political parties. But the simple fact is that Ontario, and Toronto in particular, need more electrical power than we currently generate. The power supply should be a much larger issue in provincial politics than it has been. I stopped voting for the Harris-Eves Tories in part due to their complete mismanagement of this file while in office: I will have absolutely no compunction about dropping the McGuinty Liberals next time if they are the less impressive party on the power question.

Posted by BruceR at 10:48 AM



Although the plan would not threaten Mr. Maliki with a withdrawal of American troops, several officials said the Bush administration would consider changes in military strategy and other penalties if Iraq balked at adopting it or failed to meet critical benchmarks within it.

A change of American strategy in Iraq. Would be a penalty. Against Iraqis. Hookay...

Posted by BruceR at 09:49 AM

October 20, 2006

A noteworthy error in new Keegan piece

John Keegan:

By January 1968, total American casualties in Vietnam — killed, wounded and missing — had reached 80,000 and climbing. Eventually deaths in combat and from other causes would exceed 50,000, of which 36,000 were killed in action. Casualties in Iraq are nowhere near those figures. In a bad week in Vietnam, the US could suffer 2,000 casualties. Since 2003, American forces in Iraq have never suffered as many as 500 casualties a month.

This last sentence is incorrect. American casualties (killed plus injured), according to icasualties.org, are currently at 23,400, an average of 544 per month.

Yes, Vietnam was still bloodier than Iraq by a significant margin, but Keegan should still be more accurate with his numbers.

Posted by BruceR at 02:25 PM

October 19, 2006

Ralph Peters: increasingly out of his tree

I've been on the record as a critic of ex-soldier Ralph Peters' writing since 2002, so this isn't exactly new ground, but I do have to say that the poor old fellow is increasingly out of his tree. His two most recent pieces, on the namby-pambyism of the new American counter-insurgency doctrine, and his redrawing, Sykes-Picot like, of all the borders in the Middle East are, respectively, totally out of touch and dangerously fantasist.

Now, to be fair, I've frequently written here that fixing international borders for all time is not sound. But proposing a U.S.-driven wholesale redrawing, including the dismembering of a nuclear Pakistan, is insanity. (As is one's putting in print, "ethnic cleansing works.")

Posted by BruceR at 04:33 PM

Relief groups: we won't work with Canadian military

Offered without comment:

"They [the Forces] have to get out of this development role," said Rita Karakis, the former head of Save the Children Canada. "That was the disguise the Canadian government used to go into Afghanistan. The reality is that they are not in the development business. They are engaged in an open war with insurgents. If they focused on that, everyone would be better off."

Posted by BruceR at 10:52 AM

October 12, 2006

Lancet study observations

I was poleaxed as much as anybody by the recent Lancet study on Iraq deaths, but it's really harder to argue with its conclusions than it first seems.

The actual statement of claim is pretty simple when you reduce it to the nub. The Iraqi survey team claims to have randomly interviewed households totalling 12,801 individuals, and found that exactly 300 of them had died violently between the U.S invasion and July, 2006. Survivors produced approximately 240 death certificates that confirmed this.

That math (even if you use only the certified deaths) works out to 5.5 violent deaths per thousand people per annum in Iraq. Extrapolate that to the entire population of Iraq and you get a number in the 450,000 range. Assume the other 60 undocumented violent deaths were truthful reports, as well, and you're up to 600K.

The methodology as defined in the study is as sound as any other scientific study (more on this later). The simplest statistical sample size calculations tell us that if the real number of violent deaths so far in Iraq had been, say, 60,000, then there should have been around 30 certifiable violent deaths in a sample of this size, not 240 (or 300).

Converting to pollster speak from science speak is not a perfect science, but if were to put these results in pollster terms, the equivalent statement for a random polling sample of this size is that the results are going to be accurate to within 1.1%, 99 times out of 100. If you concede that the middle of the range of the claim derived from a random sample this size (again, using just the certified deaths in the study) is that 1.8% of the sample population was certified as dying violently in those first 40 months of occupation, that means there is no longer any reasonable possibility that the total violent deaths nationwide certified by death certificate could be any less that 0.7% of the population, and is probably much higher. (NOTE: the actual study's confidence intervals are actually much tighter, with a lower bound in the vicinity of 400,000: I'm just doing the most basic statistical sample size calculation here, as well as confining myself to the certified deaths).

0.7% of Iraq's population is over 200,000 dead. There is no scientifically acceptable explanation short of massive deceit for the true number of violent deaths to be any lower than that anymore.

Is that lower bound so implausible? Remembering that it includes indigenous insurgent and Iraqi security forces deaths may help. Realistic estimates of fatalities (insurgent plus civilian) at the two battles of Fallujah in 2004 were in the 20,000 range at the high end: is 10 or more Fallujahs possible? Probably.

One striking thing about the deaths is that they are almost all (78%) adult males (aged 15-59), with correspondingly few women or children. This is also consistent with our idea of the kind of fighting that has been going on in Iraq.

I don't think you can seriously counter with Iraqi government denials, or their own attempts at record-keeping, which are obviously going to be deficient on a national scale, especially so recently. Reliable figures on the issuing of death certificates by local authorities are difficult to come by in a timely fashion even in Western countries.

If one had had to do a thumbnail estimate before the Lancet study came out, it probably would have gone like this. The highly reputable Carl Conetta study on total Iraqi fatalities, combat and non-combat in April-May 2003 had an upper limit of 15,000 dead, so start there. Before they were ordered by the government to stop publishing figures, the Iraq health ministry was documenting 400 civilian deaths from coalition forces alone per month, or another 15,000 in this three-year period. The Brookings Institute said in the middle of last year that it estimated 27,000 insurgents had been killed or imprisoned in the first two years of the war: it is unlikely that the total number of non-foreign insurgents killed over the last three years is much less than 40,000. Finally, Iraq's own security forces and police have certainly incurred somewhere close to 10,000 fatal casualties to date (see Donald Rumsfeld's frequent remark that they have been incurring fatalities at "twice the rate" of coalition forces).

So, even without counting all the other kinds of violent death (Shia-on-Sunni, terrorist attack, etc.), there was no way that we were looking at less than 80,000 fatal casualties in Iraq in this period. Add, say, another entirely plausible 40,000 per year for the ongoing Shia-Sunni strife, terrorism, extrajudicial killings, murders, car accidents, and the like (Baghdad morgue admissions alone have never been much less than 1,000 per month, and have recently ramped up quite sharply), and you're already up to the 200,000 fatality number I've been talking about, and beginning to approach the 400,000 lower limit of the actual Lancet study.

At the very most, I would have said the Lancet study's result could only have ever been reasonably off by a factor of two or three, which isn't bad for epidemiological work. Still a shocking conclusion, though, and I'll admit some difficulty still in reconciling it with my own previous thumbnail assumptions, above. But the idea that it's off by anything like an order of magnitude is nothing more than untutored denial.

That kind of denial, however, is pervasive, this week. For what we're seeing here, in the blogs, in the statements of the American president yesterday, and in the newspaper coverage (case in point: this morning's editorial in the Globe and Mail*) is an increasing freedom on the part of rightist critics not to challenge scientific work on its merits, but instead launch an outright attack on basic statistical assumptions that can only be described as an attack on scientific objectivity. Rather than discussing the study on its merits, or lack thereof, the largest portion of the response so far has been that the study has produced a politically relevant result, so it cannot be the truth. (See, as an example, prominent John Hinderaker, effortlessly dismissing one of the most prestigious journals in medical science as "bozos.")

This should be extremely disturbing to people. To assert that all science is political, that basic mathematical methodologies like statistical sample size are discreditable if they are displeasing, the media and politicians are now truly leading us to a place where nothing can ever be known, other than what the self-appointed leaders tell you is your truth.

*The Globe editorial (subscription required) referred to the death total as being the total dead Iraqi "non-combatants". The actual Lancet study makes no such claim about combatant status. It would have been nice if Canada's leading newspaper could have read the study before pronouncing upon it.

Posted by BruceR at 12:53 PM

October 06, 2006

Devil's Brigade censorship: not so bright PR

Still more on the wow, is this dumb front, today:

"As part of its latest secrecy push, the Defence Department on Tuesday declared that releasing information showing Canadians fought with the famed Devil's Brigade during the Second World War could harm national security. Also censored from the records, released to the Ottawa Citizen under the federal access law, are the locations where the Devil's Brigade fought in Europe in the 1940s."

Some of the back story on this one, which may also serve to suggest something like a a possible reason why JTF2 might have chosen to classify this material, can be found here.

Posted by BruceR at 04:28 PM

Airplane bombs: good article, this

Apparently the TSA did extensive tests that help to confirm an initial thumbnail estimate made here based on historical example, that a 0.1 kg (3 ounce) container of any explosive liquid cannot bring down a plane. Good for them.

Interesting that the tests are described as focussing on an unnamed "common household substance" mixed with peroxide and then presumably detonated soon after, which would seem to rule out the obvious choices of nitroglycerine, HMTD, and TATP. I honestly can't imagine what that might refer to. Of course, if I did, I probably wouldn't print it here, either. Still, best guesses welcome by email.

UPDATE: Good old Dick Destiny provides what he sees as the most likely answer: that the "plot" was to mix large quantitities of peroxide and acetone in an uncontrolled manner, probably in a sink or lavatory toilet. It's really more of a violent chemical reaction than a detonation, per se. How much liquid would we talking about here? Well, the Times piece says allowing a total of a quart (1.13L) of liquid per person gives airlines a huge margin of error: let's say a fivefold margin, perhaps. It also says allowance was given for multiple-terrorists all smuggling liquid on the airplane, so let's say four persons were involved in their "most dangerous" assumption. That's up to 20 litres of liquid (the largest civilian toilet bowl holds no more than 10L, but maybe we're talking the toilet *and* the sink) required for this crazy notion to actually endanger an airplane in flight.

Which suggests to me two things: one, that after realizing after their extensive testing the whole idea was incredibly unlikely, the scientists went back to roughly the threshold value for smuggled nitroglycerine: deciding that about 0.1kg (coincidentally, about 3 fl oz, the new limit on individual containers) would not be a plane killer. Second, that the plot in question was nowhere near fruition (it had obviously never even been tested by the plotters), that there was no rush in pursuing it, and no terrorism-related reason for the draconian measures or resulting mass hysteria that followed.

I said no "terrorism-related" reason.

Posted by BruceR at 01:18 PM

No-fly list: wow, that's dumb

I love this story:

"I did see Osama bin Laden, both with an "O" in the first name and "U" in the second…I was glad to see that.

Thank God we have been keeping American civilian aircraft safe from people who are either stupid or crazy enough to claim they are Osama Bin Laden when boarding a plane.

What, it was supposed to catch something else? How, exactly?

Posted by BruceR at 12:25 PM

Enshrining idiocy for posterity

After reading this thread on the Torture Bill at the NPR site, I just want to add what little Google-strength I have to immortalizing a couple Americans as the crypto-Fascists that they are, for the benefit of their descendants, who although crippled by their genetic inheritance, might still have some chance of turning out okay, and also for posterity generally.

Jeff Morgenthaler of Boerne, Texas, writes:

The injustice of being wrongly confined in a military prison pales in comparison to the agonies that the battlefield visits upon combatants and noncombatants alike...

Jeff Morgenthaler of Boerne, you're a blithering idiot. Any casual read of the facts would indicate most Guantanamo inmates were picked up far from any "battlefield." If you haven't taken the most basic, minimum effort to inform yourself on these issues before mouthing off on them, I'm afraid you're too much of a twit to be allowed on a computer anymore. Hopefully someone will realize this and take yours away soon.

Lt. Col. Stevan Rich, of Riverside California:

"We get upset over the lack of criminal trials for the enemy and imply that we should release them under a writ of habeas corpus. Release them!??! No! NO! NO!! They are our enemy and they are trying to kill us."

Lt. Col. Rich, I'm afraid you are far too stupid to hold the military rank you have risen to. I pity your men and your colleagues. There are walruses on Baffin Island more qualifed than you to discuss current affairs. Your belief that people who support habeas corpus are attempting to achieve the release of real terrorists is quite possibly the most idiotic thing written on the Web to this point, and that's saying something. But for the benefit of anyone who's confused by the excessive stupidity waves emanating from your address at Riverside, let's be clear. Proponents of the right of habeas want to release The. Innocent. People.

Allen Weber of Burleson Texas writes:

The question is how to balance the additional safety provided by a program that captures real enemies with the cost to those wrongly held. If the proposition that this war is a real war is unacceptable, then it would be very hard to accept the guilt of imprisoning the innocent and harming America's image. But if this is a genuine war, history teaches us that we must take hard actions and learn to accept the consequences along with the victory.

I am quite confident that Allen Weber, the moron, does not and will never feel any "consequences" of the "victory" of Guantanamo Bay. For if there was any chance he had the micro-ounce of human compassion required to lose one second of sleep on the issue of eternally imprisoning the wrongly condemned in the name of his security, he'd be like the rest of us doing what we can to shed light on the issue. Fortunately, he lacks that essential requisite of humanity, so he'll never need to get his fat ass off his Cheetohs-laden couch.

Glenn Smith of Kannaraville, Utah, writes:

Steve Inskeep did not seem to understand that the new rules applied to enemy combatants captured on the battlefield. Of course we are not going to use the same rules as someone arrested on the street. You hold them until hostilities cease and then you sort it out.

Fresh after being voted the dumbest man in Kannaraville, Glenn Smith pronounces on the issue at hand. It has obviously never occurred to him that the "War on Terror" can never, will never end, because one can never accept a surrender and declare it V-T Day. Does anyone honestly think that if Bin Laden turned himself in tomorrow, that Guantanamo would empty the next day? After all, will they not still be dangerous men? No, they are trapped there together, forever, mostly guilty, some innocent. And the new Torture Bill is going to add to the numbers of both. Indefinitely. Ad infinitum. Forever.

Decades from now, I sincerely hope that Googling the names of Jeff Morgenthaler of Bourne, Stevan Rich of Riverside, Allan Weber of Burleson, and Glenn Smith of Kannaraville, may still lead someone to this page, and that they will realize that the guy whose nice picture is in the family album was, in fact, proven by their own words, to be officially a pompous Fascist dimwit.

Posted by BruceR at 11:26 AM

October 05, 2006

Post on CF recruiting: clueless

National Post columnist Barbara Kay is, how does one say, not very bright. Case in point: her column on CF recruiting. On the upside, in addition to being a horrible column, it does contain most of the rules for avoiding the writing of a horrible column all in one exemplar.

"There are indications that those Muslim youths who do consider a military career find more appeal in the Reserves, where cadets can choose their missions -- or choose not to be deployed at all."

Okay, well Kay lost her entire military audience right there in para 4. Can't see why? Because Cadets is a kids program, like Boy Scouts. The Canadian Forces reserve employs soldiers. Part-timers, true, but they are still soldiers. Calling them "cadets" is somewhere on the other side of incredibly insulting. Rule #1: Don't use words you don't understand.

"Baker Siddiqi, president of the Ottawa Muslim Association, explains that fighting people of one's own religion and culture is a "delicate" matter, a problem for Christians as well as Muslims. That's not actually true, though. Our soldiers, mostly Christian or of Christian-heritage, are now fighting both for and against Muslims in Afghanistan, but fought no less bravely for and against Christians in the First and Second World Wars."

This is just an incredibly obtuse statement. All of Canadian history involves our "Christian" forebears choosing to fight or not to fight based on cultural or ethnic identification. It's one of the most significant Canadian historical themes there is. In 1812 recent immigrants were suspected of sympathizing with Americans, while second generation immigrants signed up in droves because of their ancestors' Loyalist experience. In 1885, French-Canadians refused to sign up to put down the Prairie revolt by Catholic, French-speaking Metis. In 1900, 1914 and again in 1939, the country was nearly split apart by French-Canadian discontent over supporting "Anglo" wars overseas. Meanwhile, in 1914, most of the "Canadians" that signed up for service in Flanders had recently immigrated from England... they weren't Canadian-born at all. Getting Canadians to work together to support the military has been one of the defining dilemmas of our entire history, and Kay is stunningly apparently completely unaware of this. Rule #2: Read a freaking high school history textbook once in your life.

"This innovation, using houses of worship as a recruitment strategy, transgresses the military's own diversity mandate. The DND's "Diversity in Recruiting" mission statement specifically encourages "increasing awareness of CF employment opportunities for women, visible minorities and Aboriginal people." Religions were deliberately excluded from the list.",

Anyone with a mental picture of a mosque probably also pictures some visible minorities in and around it. Rule #3: Don't say obviously stupid things.

Stratford Festival audiences are dominated by white Canadian females, but tickets are available to everyone, and its board of directors isn't visiting mosques to attract a more diverse audience. In a free country, with widely publicized options, people choose to do what appeals to them.

Going to a play at Stratford, even one of the really bad ones, is a form of recreation. Joining up for the military is a sacrifice. Rule #4: The apples and oranges rule does not exclusively refer to fruit.

We really have to get over our obsession with diversity and proportionate representation in the military. The mission today is to defeat the Taliban, who don't make such fine distinctions. Put out the call for recruitment to all Canadians on culturally neutral territory. If "Canadian white males" are the ones who step up to the plate, we salute them, whatever God they do, or do not, worship.

And if a couple immigrants, or people of colour, or immigrants happen to show up, well, they don't get the salute, but we'll still let them join too... I guess. Rule #5: Be self-aware enough of your own prejudices to avoid bigoted Freudian slips.

Look, the CF should recruit everywhere it can get an audience right now, for two reasons. And I'm not including the so-obvious-it's-too-stupid-to-point-out argument that Afghan-Canadians, for example, might actually really have something special to contribute to our understanding as a military right now, and Next-country-we-visit-Canadians likely will when it's their turn too, so get them to sign up now.

One, getting an 18 year-old in any culture to dedicate their life to something is never simply about engaging the 18 year-old. It's also about engaging the entire community around them, so that they support and don't undermine that individual's commitment. Immigrant or United Empire Loyalist, parents do have a say. You need to engage the entire community, not just the individual.

Second, our biggest problem with military support in this country is our incredibly low military participation rate across the board (lower than any other Western country), leading to ignorance and apathy in peacetime, and disengagement from our troops in times of hostility. When it comes time to make political decisions in our country, about the worst thing that could happen would be if vast swathes of the population do not see the military as representing them. And so long as all the military's support and understanding is focussed within the "Canadian white male" demographic, the probability of anything that the military could accomplish, at home or abroad, being turned over by any winning electoral coalition that isn't predominantly Canadian anglophone white male-based is extremely high. The military draws lots of its recruits from rural and semi-rural areas, and proportionately very few from cities: but it's metropolitan areas, and specifically the diverse communities within those cities, where the growth in population and political power in this country is happening right now.

The military is, for once, trying to get out in front, and should be commended for it. It's not as simple as getting a few more Muslim Canadian young men (and women) in uniform, so that their voter parents and voter friends have a larger understanding of and stake in supporting parties that have sound military and foreign policies, but it's not much more complex than that, either.

This is especially true in Quebec (where this recruiting drive is happening), where aggressively reaching new immigrants may be the only way the military can ever hope to counteract the deep disaffection that pur laine francophones have for their services. And all this should be so f---ing obvious that it pains me even to have to articulate it: there's 20 minutes of my life I'll never get back. I should have just written "Barbara Kay is an idiot" and moved on, but there you go.

Posted by BruceR at 02:25 PM

Things I'm ashamed to admit dept.

I think Rona Ambrose looks kinda like Darth Vader.

Posted by BruceR at 01:35 PM

October 04, 2006

SciAm: October's read of the month

I always like picking up Scientific American when I can. Frequently it will flag emergent research-based issues several years ahead of popular awareness or consensus. The most obvious example is the link between circumcision and AIDS prevention in Africa, which SciAm wrote about over a decade ago but is just now becoming widely known.

This month, there is a remarkable piece by Peter Ward which provides a plausible mechanism connecting those previous mass extinctions that had contemporaneous global temperature warming events: basically that extremes in the warming cycle can lead to the oceans releasing large amounts of toxic gas as the chemocline rises to the surface.

While the K-T extinction we're all familiar with is still pretty strongly linked with an asteroid impact, evidence for asteroid impact during all the other mass extinctions in earth's history remains rare. The other big problem that vexed theorists in this area until now is that mass extinctions seemed to be a land-and-sea phenomenon, which seemed to rule out a lot of possible explanations that couldn't affect both realms simultaneously.

If Ward is right, the greatest threat from global warming may not be the onset of a new ice age, but instead a devastating poisoning of the atmosphere itself.

If the theory were to bear out (and I'm obviously hoping it doesn't) then at current rates of temperature increase we're about two centuries years away from the threshold that would trigger a mass extinction event. Obviously worth more study, and worth a read.

Posted by BruceR at 10:04 AM

October 03, 2006

Steyn: Sometimes he's not even trying

In another weak effort from Mark Steyn, one finds this:

This is the only war in American history in which enemy detainees have been freed before the end of hostilities.

In the War of 1812, the parole of prisoners (releasing with a promise they will not fight again until officially exchanged) was common. There were numerous prisoner exchanges in the American Civil War. I'm sure if I wasted time I could find examples on point from the Indian and Mexican wars, too. It's like Steyn's not even trying anymore.

Posted by BruceR at 11:20 AM

Upshots of long ago decisions

It's all well and good to say "moderate Taliban" should be brought into negotiations of some sort, but regardless of the merits it's kind of hard to sell with your domestic base after five years of constant demonization. Way back when, this blog suggested that the Americans categorizing all Afghan insurgents by definition as "unlawful enemy combatants" would backfire, and I'm afraid it has, big time. A lot of the problems with innocent people trapped at Guantanamo, largely Taliban foot soldiers or camp followers, can be traced to this decision. Never mind the occasional horrors of custody that were found at Bagram, as well.

There was never an argument from a basis of utility, either. Al Qaeda and Taliban were, and are, distinct entities by ethnic and geographic origin, if not mindset. While bringing the hammer down on Al Qaeda operatives worldwide with harsh rules on captivity, etc. seems to have been a net positive in terms of Western security, I have never heard of any Taliban among those 14 "high value" terrorists in CIA custody. Instead, sucking up a vast quantity of Afghan foot-soldiers into an American gulag-lite seem to have done little but piss off even larger quantities of Afghans and endanger the lives of Western troops in that country through the resulting increased hostility.

One thing the Americans might want to do first is recognize that Afghanistan is notionally an independent country now, and turn over any and all remaining Afghan nationals in their custody outside of Afghanistan to their care. Empower President Karzai by letting him make the decisions about who to pardon and who, if any, to keep. After that, in the Afghan fight, and leaving aside questions when actual international jihadist types (ie, captured non-Afghans) are involved, the U.S. could consider adopting the same policy towards Afghan detainees, one that recently won ICRC approval, that Canada and the Netherlands are now using (turnover to local authority, scrupulous documentation of all captures provided to the ICRC, and follow-up to prevent local authorities torturing "their" POWs).

Nevertheless, there's still a lot to unwind here. The new Torture Act specifically refers to all Taliban as, by definition, "unlawful enemy combatants," ie, international terrorists intent on making war on the United States. Suggesting somebody else should be rebranding, as Matthew Yglesias does, is really quite pointless in the face of that kind of legally defined eternal hostility towards the entire Afghan insurgency on the part of the American government.

When you're in a hole, first stop digging. Then we can have a discussion about which, if any, of the non-Al Qaeda Afghan insurgent factions are worth negotiating with.

A good example of the kind of frenzy that the American government has built up in its support base re Afghanistan.

UPDATE: Meanwhile, diehard opponents of negotiating with the Taliban in other countries may need to start hedging their bets, as well. Now we see the Brits are making some local accommodations in Helmand.

Posted by BruceR at 10:28 AM