The Baghdad Order of Battle and the New York Times

The Baghdad Order Of Battle as of June 3, 2007. Click map to view.

By DJ Elliott, CJ Radin and Bill Roggio

The surge is failing, according to the New York Times. The U.S. has fallen short of securing Baghdad by July, and the Iraq security forces have been hopelessly infiltrated by Shiia militias. The Times‘s conclusion is based on a one-page memo. The memo, actually a status update on the situation in Baghdad, was never intended to serve as a full report on the progress of the Baghdad Security Plan. But that didn’t stop the New York Times from characterizing the memo as such.

The article’s entire premise seems to be the statement of a single, unnamed senior American military officer, who claims the architects of the Baghdad Security Plan “assumed most Baghdad neighborhoods would be under control around July… so the emphasis could shift into restoring services and rebuilding the neighborhoods as the summer progressed.” As Fredrick Kagan has noted in THE DAILY STANDARD, this rosy assessment was made by General Casey, the outgoing commander of Multinational Forces Iraq. But the current military leadership in Baghdad has never made this claim.

I contacted General David Petraeus yesterday and asked him if July was a realistic target date to secure Baghdad. “I’ve never assumed we’d have Baghdad under control by July,” he stated. He also reiterated something he has been saying since January: that it would be late summer before he and his commanders had a sense of how the surge was progressing.

The Times goes on to report, “The American assessment, completed in late May, found that American and Iraqi forces were able to ‘protect the population’ and ‘maintain physical influence over’ only 146 of the 457 Baghdad neighborhoods.” But it is unclear exactly what the Times means by “neighborhoods,” since Baghdad only has 89 neighborhoods that are referred to as such. Still the overall percentages are not in dispute. Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Garver confirmed earlier today that less than a third of Baghdad can be considered “secure.”

However, the context for this data in the Times article is misleading.

“In the remaining 311 neighborhoods, troops have either not begun operations aimed at rooting out insurgents or still face ‘resistance,'” the Times notes. Of the 331 remaining “neighborhoods,” the Times does not tell us which have a U.S. or Iraqi presence, how many have been the focus of clearing operations, the number in which security is marginal, the number in which security forces are altogether absent, or the intensity of the “resistance” where it is found.

In the proper context, that news that “less than one-third of Baghdad is secured” hardly suggests the surge is so far an abject failure. According to the military, a secure area is one where security is considered tight and where reconstruction is moving forward. This is a high-threshold definition. And saying that two-thirds of the city are less than “secure” doesn’t tell the rest of the story.

The first three months of the surge involved moving five additional combat brigades into the city and the outlying belts, from which al Qaeda is launching its attacks into the city. The final brigade is still moving into position, and the other four are just now adapting to the situation on the ground.

The Times article then mentions problems in western Baghdad, particularly the Rashid district. Western Baghdad is one of the most hotly contested areas of the city. It is an area where Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army has battled al Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni insurgent groups for control. U.S. and Iraqi forces have just begun clearing operations in that region. In one western neighborhood, Amiriyah, local residents, backed by Sunni insurgent groups, a team from the Anbar Salvation Council, and U.S. forces, began their own clearing operation to eject al Qaeda from the area.

The Times also hones in on the problem of infiltration in Iraqi Army and Police units, but neglects to account for the difficulty of developing security forces in the midst of a brutal, complex insurgency. In an interview last week, Lieutenant General Martin E. Dempsey, the Commander of Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, which is responsible for developing, organizing, training, equipping, and sustaining the Iraqi Security Forces, acknowledged the deficiencies of the Iraqi forces, particularly the police, and further stated that the development of the security forces is hampered by the violence.

“[The] places where the Iraqi Security Forces are less developed and less ready to do things on their own are the places most heavily contested,” LTG Dempsey said. “It is not really a surprise to us. Those places where the security situation is more stable, [the Iraqi Security Forces] actually have time to train and develop. In the most contested parts of Iraq, the Iraqi Army is challenged to conduct day-to-day operations with a very high tempo and very high threat conditions.”

The pairing of Iraqi Army and police units with U.S. forces has helped weed out many compromised and incompetent individuals. Seven of 9 National Police Brigade commanders and 14 of 25 battalion commanders have been relieved of command.

The leaked memo on the status of the Baghdad Security Plan is reminiscent of the report on the status of Anbar province that was leaked to the Washington Post in the fall of 2006. “The U.S. military is no longer able to defeat a bloody insurgency in western Iraq or counter al Qaeda’s rising popularity there, according to newly disclosed details from a classified Marine Corps intelligence report that set off debate in recent months about the military’s mission in Anbar province,” the Washington Post reported. In other words, Anbar province was hopelessly lost.

Anbar province was hotly contested at the time. Al Qaeda was on the rise and a political solution seemed beyond reach. But the Post failed to note the rise of the Anbar Salvation Council. Last November, I warned that it was too soon to judge the situation in Anbar. Six months later, the security situation in huge swaths of Anbar province, including Ramadi, once the most violent city in Iraq, had seen a dramatic turnaround. And now the Anbar counterinsurgency is cited as a model success story.

In an interview last week, LTG Odierno explained why it’s difficult to judge progress in the midst of a complex counterinsurgency operation. “Now, I explain to my commanders and my soldiers when I talk to them, it’s kind of like a teeter-totter; you work your way up the teeter-totter, and when you go past the tipping point, it happens very quickly, and we’ve seen that out in Anbar. We’re still going up that teeter-totter, and I’m not sure how long it’s going to take us to get to that tipping point or if I believe or assess that we can’t get to that tipping point.”

Baghdad is certainly a far more complex battlespace than the sparsely populated Anbar province. Over 25 percent of the Iraqi population is in Baghdad and the outlying provinces. And while Anbar is overwhelmingly Sunni, which insulated it from much of the sectarian violence, Baghdad is a cauldron of Sunni, Shia, Kurd, and other ethnic groups. Also the tribal dynamics at play in Baghdad are weaker than in Anbar, while the city itself presents a more challenging terrain for counterinsurgency operations.

But the Anbar lesson remains. Judgment on the progress or failure on the Baghdad Security Plan, which is a little over three months old, shouldn’t be passed during its opening phase. The Postwas dead wrong about Anbar. Let’s hope the Times story comes out the same way.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • MikeE says:

    The NYT story is a classical exaple of the inability of much of the press to understand the counterinsurgency in Iraq, to provide context in their reports and the shocking lack of rigour in their analysis.

  • GK says:

    “to provide context in their reports and the shocking lack of rigour in their analysis.”
    Actually, it is simpler than that. They just don’t want the war to succeed, and are using their power to force that outcome.

  • The Chief says:

    Since most decisions in Washington are based on a much shorter time frame than necessary, this is no surprise. It’s much easier to say “it” isn’t working, then condemn the situation that would develop in our absence, as a product of our “evil” philosophy. It’s even easier when you purposely skew the data to show how bad it is with us there. It wouldn’t sound nearly as dire if NYT said 53 out of 89 neighborhoods remain contested.

  • Thanos says:

    Bill, you continually astound me. You’ve refuted all of the drivel, but stayed entirely objective while doing so. They need to clone ten of you for each paper in the country.

  • Neo-andertal says:

    Lets go directly to the problem here. The New York Times is as capable of writing good journalism as any newspaper. I regularly see good journalism out of them. Problem is I also regularly see abysmal work from them too. Their quite capable of doing first rate writing when they go out and track down their sources, get into the field and ask a lot of questions or otherwise do a good thorough job of it.
    Than we get this sort of BS job. This is where a name journalist gets hold of an internal memo along with some juicy unnamed sources, and a bunch of quotes taken out of context, than takes them for a ride. Might I say this sort of thing is nothing new. This is the Washington press core’s version of getting blood out of a turnip. We’ve seen it before, the obscure memo’s, unnamed sources strung together with other unnamed sources, rough drafts, internal working drafts, preliminary ideas being thrown around, second hand sourcing, rumors, innuendo. All portrayed as earth shaking revelations of what is really going on. Forget about detailed analysis and appraisal of every facet of an issue. Just go unearth somebody’s internal memo or draft document and claim you’ve found missing chapters of the Torah.
    If someone on the Internet came up with this it would be totally ignored as junk, and rightfully so. I have to say DAMIEN CAVE usually does better work even when I often disagree with it. David Cloud is another matter, his name is frequently associated with this sort of speculative rubbish generated from dubious sources. He has a reputation for quoting second hand source material he hasn’t actually seen and second hand sources he hasn’t interviewed. This charge was brought against him during the Plame affair. M.O. Pretty thin stuff, but I guess someone needs to inherit Seymour Hersh’s pile of beans.

  • Tom W. says:

    The Israeli press just admitted that it did everything in its power to force the government to withdraw from Lebanon in the 1980’s because journalists didn’t agree with the mission.
    I just wish American “journlaists” would be honest and tell us they want our country to be beaten badly as a lesson to those who would dare use the military for anything other than humanitarian work.

  • Anti-Herman says:

    A lot has been made of recent casualties and the “surge”. Where exactly are the casualties occurring. A lot of the big IED casualties seem to be in Dilaya which is understandable.
    How about Abnar or Bagdad?
    Casualties seem to be a preferred method to prove the “surge” is failing.

  • Keith says:

    Has anyone sent this on to Bill O’Reilly? He loves to call out the NYT on their shoddy reporting and ideologically-driven conclusions.

  • David M says:

    Trackbacked by The Thunder Run – Web Reconnaissance for 06/06/2007
    A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention.

  • GK says:

    “Has anyone sent this on to Bill O’Reilly? He loves to call out the NYT on their shoddy reporting and ideologically-driven conclusions.”
    I agree – if Bill O’Reilly invites Bill Roggio on his show, Bill Roggio will become known to millions (like Michelle Malkin has), and his good work will gain wide readership. It could even save the war.
    Can someone make this happen?

  • Matt R says:

    I think the problems isn’t so much that the NYT wants to lose this war as it is that people detest Bush to the point they’re willing to throw the baby out with the bath water. This is compounded by the fact that few people understand the complexity of Iraq (thank you Bill, DJ, and the rest for helping me out).

    I keep hearing that we shouldn’t have entered Iraq and therefore we should leave now. Even the supporters of the war are keeping to this relationship even if it’s from the other side. It doesn’t matter whether AQ was in Iraq in 2003, they are now. Obama just said at the recent debates that we should leave Iraq and go fight AQ, implying that they’re only in Afghanistan. There’s a profound lack of knowledge about Iraq.

    I see three potential winners in Iraq; AQ, Iran, and Iraq. The first two are not in our interest. This should be the starting point of any discussion on whether this war is worth it. The second problem is measuring progress. The current method is counting bodies. That’s all I see in the news. I’m no expert but counting leaders that back the US seems like a better prediction of the future (bodies just measure what’s going on now). The US likes underdogs and if people see hope then they’ll vote for it. They don’t need to see them win, they just need to see hope.

    I think knowledge is the key but the subject is too complex for a newspaper to convey or for a politician to describe in a sound bite. We need a real time book on the internet that covers a lot of different aspects about Iraq, political progress, military progress, economic progress, and interactions with other countries. This website is a good model but only covers the military aspects.

  • timmm says:

    IMHO, the Times article actually characterizes the memo more accurately than it is characterized above.
    “…the one-page assessment, which was provided to The New York Times and summarized reports from brigade and battalion commanders in Baghdad…”
    No where does the article say “full report”. Rather the article states that this memo is the “first comprehensive look at the progress of the effort to stabalize Baghdad.” How is this not a fair description?
    For me, there is nothing inappropiate in taking a “first look” at progress in relation to the stated goals of security plan. Three months from now there will be comparable observations and a better sense of what progress has been made.
    It’s curious though how one comes to the conclusion that the article passes “judgement” the success/failure of security operations. The thesis of article is simply that the security plan is falling short of initials goals according to commanders. The article goes on and explains how commanders view the complexity and difficulties involved.
    For someone who is skeptical about the origins of the war, but interested in the security plan’s progress/success, it is encouraging to me to glimpse the soberness of our commanders.
    What’s most tiresome, however, are those who constantly want to paint a rosy picture and do so by mischaracterizing and discounting news that doesn’t fit their image of the war or sense of public sentiment.
    Consider above comment, where WashPo was said to be dead wrong about Anbar. Based on quote given, seems all WashPo was doing was reporting contents of an intelligence report.
    Above “leaked” is used like a bad word. In my estimate, these less-than rosy assessments that are made available to the public through media backchannels probably do more good than harm. Not only do they inform democratic debate about what constitutes progess, and constribute to the sense of accountability and competence of our military command, but wouldn’t it be funny, if in three months from now, folks start pointing to the fact that 294 neighborhoods are under direct military influence, i.e. from 32% in June to 64% more control in September. Indeed, that would be a metric of substantial progress that would be difficult for anyone to discount.

  • timmm says:

    For anti-Herman et al.
    Animated map of coalition fatalities by location over time.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Much of what was in the NYT article wasn’t characterized in the 1 page memo. They added that in, but of course the impression most get is that it was indeed in there.
    Also, General Petraeus stated, he never felt July was realistic for Baghdad to be secure. Why didn’t they just ask him? I sent a quick email and received an answer within less than a half day. Surely the NYT has better access to him than I. Why go with an unnamed and not ask General Petraeus to go on the record?
    As far as the WaPo and Anbar goes, I suggest you go back and read the entire article. Marines that I know that saw the report were furious over the WaPo’s characterization of the situation in Anbar.
    As far as those who only want to paint a rosy picture of Iraq, as Michael also states, I suggest you look around because this site isn’t about that. This isn’t “Good News From Iraq,” as much as you may want it to be.

  • Engima says:

    Yes, if only our media would report properly positive reports, this war would be nearly won.
    That’s not the point. Bill et al aren’t criticizing the NYT for failing to paint a rosy picture of Iraq, but for failing to paint an accurate picture. Context is important to understanding events in Iraq and elsewhere, and the media have been disappointingly deficient in providing that context.

  • Neo-andertal says:

    “What’s most tiresome, however, are those who constantly want to paint a rosy picture and do so by mischaracterizing and discounting news that doesn’t fit their image of the war or sense of public sentiment.”

  • timmm says:

    Roggio, I think, identifies an important point about the “impression” that article leaves. The critical question is whether this impression is valid? I am not sure that it is. In my read, the article describes how commanders are re-assessing their outlook based on the real difficulties that they are facing. That’s all.
    I liked Neandertal’s comment, “I have the distinct feeling that it’s the supportive tone for the war effort that you find annoying rather than any specific argument you really find rosy.”
    In the article, the distrust of Iraqi troops was described. My comment on this topic a couple weeks ago was met with immediate skeptcism concerning the news source (AP). Is that specific enough?
    I totally support the war effort at this point, and would like to see progress on the security front. I agree that there are complexities involved. It seems though that Neandertal et al. argue that the situation is so complex that progress is too difficult to assess with simple units like neighborhoods. Neandertal rather suggests that we engage in detailed analysis. This line of thought is on the right track, but falls short of actually getting down to any analytical approach.

  • Jim Rockford says:

    Bill —
    I think you are not willing to discuss what everyone knows.
    Tom is right, the NYT wants America to lose in Iraq (and Afghanistan too). Same for the WaPo (why do you think that article was so bad?)
    The Press hates the military, hates the troops, and thinks anyone who is a soldier is a lower form of life (unless it’s an enemy soldier). The NYT did not even cover the JFK plots (they buried them on page 34). Because it did not fit their ideological agenda.
    The Times as it did in Vietnam will force a surrender. They will view this as good, and go on to generate defeat in Afghanistan. The last thing they want to do is fight against terror.
    I am thankful every day of the tremendous, unimaginable sacrifices made by the men and women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, or supporting them. I shelter in the shade of liberty they provide with their bodies and lives.
    I agree that they at least deserve accurate reporting about what they are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, but expecting that out of the NYT is like expecting it out of Al Qaeda.
    Heck the AP in Afghanistan has 9/11 Truthers reporting. The press has picked sides. That of the enemy. We ought to call them on it.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    For the anbar status question. This was posted a few days back in Badgers Forward blog. This sure isnt the Ramadi my son spent a year in a little while back. This is great progress. This is the goal and it is doable. Patience and Persistance!
    You dance around the issue. General Petraeus stated he never felt July was realistic for Baghdad to be secured. The entire article is built on a false premise – that the meo shows July was unrealistic.
    One the subject of the Iraqi Army/Police, and the media.
    I’ve embedded with 6 different Iraqi Army units and 1 Police unit since December of 2005. I’ve seen different levels of competence, but never detected any problems of loyalty or infiltration. Granted that was in Anbar province and not Baghdad, where these problems are more prominent.
    I am more than willing to recognize there are issues with with the IA/IP, even though I’ve never personally encountered them. I accept the reports of embedded with this units, as well as statements from military personnel, and I don’t believe they are fabricated.
    Now, I also know that reporters have embedded with the same units than I have, and I’ve discussed the performance of these units with them. One was from the NYT.
    So tell me the last time you read an article in the NYT about an Iraqi unit that did its job?
    The media prides itself on balance, and in the context of Iraq, that means only discuss incompetent or infiltrated Iraqi units. This balances out statements made by the US military on decent units.
    I’ll tell you a little story: in December of 2005, I sat on a rooftop in Ramadi with a CNN producer, a CBS Radio reporter and a photojournalist from Denmark. Each lamented how the story they gathered, which just wasn’t sexy enough for their higher ups, would be canned. I puled out my laptop & satellite uplink, put the finish on my post, and published it. They were both amazed and angry, as they were tired of being filtered.
    The problem with the reporting from Iraq isn’t a good news vs bad news issue. The problem is you are not getting the full story, because the media censors itself.

  • RHYNO says:

    calling the present operation “a failure” is really premature and shows the NYT thirst for a military failure. who runs the military, the press or the men in uniform? the press has a habit of distorting things to fit thier agenda. i believe the right people are in the right places now. putting Gen. Petraeus in charge on the ground was a good move. also, i read that Paul Bremer was not a man who understood or recognized the importance of this tribal society. he was all wrong. the Awakening movements are a milestone. we must embrace this movement, and help these people. we need them as friends-not enemies. i think 1 of the most important things is dealing with the Mahdi and its leader, who are not only a threat to U.S. forces, but to a democratic Iraq. the Shia cannot be allowed to dominate, there will be no peace. Shia power is Iranian power. i think we should watch Maliki a lot closer, he may be part of the problem.

  • DJ Elliott says:

    There has been over 1000 Turkish Military Liaison in northern Iraq since 2003.
    The only time you hear about them is during the annual spring “The Turks are Invading” news cycle.
    Every spring when the Turks do their offensive against the PKK, the press claim they are going to invade Iraq.
    Situation Normal…

  • Michael says:

    Excellent report as usual and objective. You have stated elegantly the misinformation relayed to New York Times readers. Sulzberg and crew have since 2004 been essentially sabotaging any efforts in Iraq. There are some good write-ups few and far between, but always tinged with doom and gloom.
    I’ve been out and will be posting sparsely for awhile. Missing the reports here by all of you.
    It appears someone else with a doomsday outlook took my place.
    Ps. Any comparison to the garbage of a Soviet invasion to Afghanistan, Pravda and Communist propaganda is as bad UFO stories Pravda prints.
    Pss. All the Best Guys! God Bless your efforts to get out the truth and all our troops for protection, wisdom and strength. Hope to be back soon.


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