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Measuring the immeasurable
By Dan Smith
Global Beat Syndicate
“We warn you about the anger of the gentle and the patient.
When the anger begins, nothing can stop it.”
Jalaledin Saghir, Iraqi cleric (Washington Post, March 28, 2005)
WASHINGTON—How to gauge when Iraq can stand on its own is the question haunting Washington policymakers.
It also haunts Iraqis. For two years they have waited for a definitive outcome to the March 2003 invasion. Eight weeks after the national assembly was elected under rules established by the invaders, and because the election system treated the country as a single entity rather than as multiple localized races, 80 years of modern Iraqi nationalism has fractured into quarrelsome Kurdish, Sunni, and Shi’ite allegiances.
Remembering Vietnam, ignoring Iraqi realities, the Bush administration and U.S. military authorities in Iraq are keeping statistics only on coalition soldiers: those in-country or providing support from neighboring countries, and those who become casualties—killed, wounded, or otherwise lost to duty status.
This policy is a major frustration for the press and the public because it measures superficial, indeed downright irrelevant, factors related to the crucial points associated with withdrawal: what is the actual state of affairs on the ground and what are the political realities and trends in Iraq?
Why such superficiality? Because many Westerners do not adequately distinguish between two closely related disciplines: mathematics—specifically statistics—and science.
Ultimately, government is a bureaucracy, and bureaucracies are superb at one thing: they manage. But to manage, bureaucrats have to be able to measure and quantify—one cannot manage what is unquantifiable. Nor, for that matter, can the public properly perform its role in a functioning democracy—holding government to strict account—without performance measurements or statistics. But measurements are meaningful only to the extent that various categories are established that effectively define the subject being considered: time lines, event horizons, geography, in sum, categories that isolate whatever is being measured from everything else.
For example, Iraq is the responsibility of U.S. Central Command, one of four U.S. “geographic commands.” The present war and insurgency have definable start dates. Numbers of troops that have been in Iraq, and for how many tours, are known from Pentagon records. Money allocated by congress for the war also is known, although data concerning what exactly has been purchased (goods and services) are not reliable—in many cases to the tune of millions or even billions of dollars.
In other words, having set and specific categories or boundaries, bureaucracies track the various numerical “inputs” to the “system,” then quantify the “outputs,” arriving eventually at a relationship that is then labeled as efficient (or inefficient) use of resources for the product produced.
But the problem with Iraq is that what really needs measuring is not “input and output” as much as “outcome”—the total effect achieved when the input and output statistics are placed into the observable context where they function. A common example is our schools: with a certain number of bricks, a certain amount of mortar (input), we can build a certain number of schools of a given design (output). But, fundamental to science, not math, as we all know, the outcome of this building effort must focus on children, desks, books, and qualified teachers, all the factors that make “schools” come alive—not to mention that most important outcome: how much and how well the children are learning.
Bureaucracies, statistics, inputs and outputs have another shortcoming: they are concerned with state- and institution-building. Outcomes have to do with nation-building, with the sentiments that, because they are the critical human element needed to drive these institutions and the apparatus of states, can create and sustain a sense of common identity. And while census-takers can count those who identify with a state and pollsters can frame questions ostensibly measuring the intensity of this identity, the true depth of a people’s nationalism—what they are willing to devote their lives to—can only be observed.
What many observe is Iraqis growing impatience with the politicians, with the coalition, with the foreign soldiers, with the killing. Washington should stop counting and start observing, lest we find that we have so overstayed our “welcome” that our only option is precipitous withdrawal.
Can it happen? As Jalaledin Saghir said, “qata’an”: absolutely.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Dan Smith is senior analyst on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, Washington, D.C., and a retired U.S. Army colonel. The FCNL is a public interest lobby that seeks to bring the concerns, experiences and testimonies of Friends (called Quakers) to bear on national policy decisions.