Sometimes, numbers can strip human beings of just about everything that makes us what we are. Numbers can silence pain, erase love, obliterate emotion, and blur individuality. But sometimes numbers can also tell a necessary story in ways nothing else can.
This January, President Bush announced his "surge" plan for Iraq, which he called his "new way forward." It was, when you think about it, all about numbers. Since then, 28,500 new American troops have surged into that country, mostly in and around Baghdad; and, according to the Washington Post, there has also been a hidden surge of private armed contractors–hired guns, if you will–who free up troops by taking over many mundane military positions from guarding convoys to guarding envoys. In the meantime, other telltale numbers in Iraq have surged as well.
Now, Americans are theoretically waiting for the commander of US forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus, to report to Congress in September on the "progress" of the President's surge strategy. But there really is no reason to wait for September. An interim report–"Iraq by the numbers"–can be prepared now (as it could have been prepared last month, or last year). The trajectory of horror in Iraq has long been clear; the fact that the US military is a motor driving the Iraqi cataclysm has been no less clear for years now. So here is my own early version of the "September Report."
A caveat about numbers: In the bloody chaos that is Iraq, as tens of thousands die or are wounded, as millions uproot themselves or are uprooted, and as the influence of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's national government remains largely confined to the four-square-mile fortified Green Zone in the Iraqi capital, numbers, even as they pour out of that hemorrhaging land, are eternally up for grabs. There is no way most of them can be accurate. They are, at best, a set of approximate notations in a nightmare that is beyond measurement.
Here, nonetheless, is an attempt to tell a little of the Iraqi story by those numbers:
Iraq is now widely considered # 1
–when it comes to being the ideal jihadist training ground on the planet. "If Afghanistan was a Pandora's box which when opened created problems in many countries, Iraq is a much bigger box, and what's inside much more dangerous," comments Mohammed al-Masri, a researcher at Amman's Centre for Strategic Studies. CIA analysts predicted just this in a May 2005 report leaked to the press. ("A new classified assessment by the Central Intelligence Agency says Iraq may prove to be an even more effective training ground for Islamic extremists than Afghanistan was in Al Qaeda's early days, because it is serving as a real-world laboratory for urban combat.")
Iraq is # 2:
It now ranks as the world's second most unstable country, ahead of war-ravaged or poverty-stricken nations like Somalia, Zimbabwe, the Congo, and North Korea, according to the 2007 Failed States Index, issued recently by the Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy magazine. (Afghanistan, the site of our other little war, ranked eigthth.) Last year and the year before, Iraq held fourth place on the list. Next year, it could surge to number one.