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.
Number of American troops in Iraq, June 2007:
Number of American troops in Iraq, May 1, 2003
, the day President Bush declared "major combat operations" in that country "ended": Approximately 130,000.
Number of Sunni insurgents in Iraq, May 2007:
At least 100,000, according to Asia Times correspondent Pepe Escobar on his most recent visit to the country.
American military dead in the surge months, February 1-June 26, 2007:
American military dead, February-June 2006:
Number of contractors killed in the first three months of 2007:
At least 146, a significant surge over previous years. (Contractor deaths sometimes go unreported and so these figures are likely to be incomplete.)
Number of American troops Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and other Pentagon civilian strategists were convinced would be stationed in Iraq in August 2003, four months after Baghdad fell:
): 30,000 to 40,000, according to Washington Post reporter Tom Ricks in his bestselling book, Fiasco.
Number of armed "private contractors" now in Iraq:
At least 20,000-30,000, according to the Washington Post. (Jeremy Scahill, author of the bestseller Blackwater, puts the figure for all private contractors in Iraq at 126,000.)
Percentage of US deaths from roadside bombs: (IEDs):
70.9 percent in May 2007; 35 percent in February 2007 as the surge was beginning.
Percentage of registered US supply convoys (guarded by private contractors) attacked:
14.7 percent in 2007 (through May 10); 9.1 percent in 2006; 5.4 percent in 2005.
Percentage of Baghdad not controlled by US (and Iraqi) security forces more than four months into the surge:
60 percent, according to the US military.
Number of attacks on the Green Zone,
the fortified heart of Baghdad where the new $600 million American embassy is rising and the Iraqi government largely resides: More than eighty between March and the beginning of June, 2007, according to a UN report. (These attacks, by mortar or rocket, from "pacified" Red-Zone Baghdad, are on the rise and now occur nearly daily.)
Size of US embassy staff in Baghdad:
More than 1,000 Americans and 4,000 third-country nationals.
Staff US Ambassador Ryan Crocker considers appropriate to the "diplomatic" job:
The ambassador recently sent "an urgent plea" to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for more personnel. "The people here are heroic," he wrote. "I need more people, and that's the thing, not that the people who are here shouldn't be here or couldn't do it." According to the Washington Post, the Baghdad embassy, previously assigned fifteen political officers, now will get eleven more; the economic staff will go from nine to twenty-one.
US air strikes in Iraq during the surge months:
Air Force planes are dropping bombs at more than twice the rate of a year ago, according to the Associated Press. "Close support missions" are up 30 percent to forty percent. And this surge of air power seems, from recent news reports, still to be on the rise.
Number of years Gen. Petraeus, commander of the surge operation, predicts that the US will be engaged in Iraq counterinsurgency operations:
Nine to ten years.
Number of years American troops might have to remain garrisoned at US bases in Iraq:
Number of years before the Iraqi security forces are capable of taking charge:
"A couple of years," according to US Army Brig. Gen. Dana Pittard, commander of the Iraq Assistance Group.
Amount of "reconstruction" money invested in the CIA's key asset in the new Iraq, the Iraqi National Intelligence Service:
$3 billion, according to Asia Times correspondent Pepe Escobar.
Number of Iraqis who have fled their country since 2003:
Estimated to be between 2 millionand 2.2 million, or nearly one in ten Iraqis. According to independent reporter Dahr Jamail, at least 50,000 more refugees are fleeing the country every month.
Number of Iraqi refugees who have been accepted by the United States:
Number of Iraqis who are now internal refugees in Iraq since 2003
: At least 1.9 million, according to the UN.
Percentage of refugees, internal and external, under the age of twelve:
55 percent, according to the President of the Red Crescent Society.
Percentage of Baghdadi children age three to ten, exposed to a major traumatic event in the last two years:
47 percent, according to a World Health Organization survey of 600 children. 14 percent showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. In another study of 1,090 adolescents in Mosul, that figure reached 30 percent.
Number of Iraqi doctors who have fled the country since 2003:
An estimated 12,000 of the country's 34,000 registered doctors since 2003, according to the Iraqi Medical Association. The Association reports that another 2,000 doctors have been slain in those years.
Number of Iraqi refugees created since January 2007:
An estimated 250,000.
Percentage of Iraqis now living on less than $1 a day:
54 percent, according to the UN.
Percentage of Iraqis who do not have regular access to clean water:
70 percent, according to the World Health Organization. (80 percent "lack effective sanitation.")
Rate of chronic child malnutrition:
21 percent, according to the World Health Organization.
Number of Iraqis held in American prisons in their own country:
Average number of Iraqis who died violently each day in 2006:
100 — and this is undoubtedly an underestimate, since not all deaths are reported.
Number of Iraqis who have died violently since January 2007:
15,000 — again, certainly an undercount.
Percentage of seriously wounded who don't survive,
based on the above calculation: Nearly 70 percent, according to the World Health Organization.
Number of university professors who have been killed since 2003:
More than 200, according to the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education.
Percentage of Americans who approve of the President's actions in Iraq:
23 percent, according to the latest post-surge Newsweek poll. The President's overall approval rating stood at 26 percent in this poll, just three points above those of only one president, Richard Nixon at his Watergate worst, and Bush's polling figures are threatening to head into that territory. In the latest, now two-week old NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 10 percent of Americans think the "surge" has made things better in Iraq, 54 percent worse.
The question is: What word best describes the situation these Iraqi numbers hint at? The answer would probably be: No such word exists. "Genocide" has been beaten into the ground and doesn't apply. "Civil war," which shifts all blame to the Iraqis (withdrawing Americans from a country its troops have not yet begun to leave), doesn't faintly cover the matter.
If anything catches the carnage and mayhem that was once the nation of Iraq, it might be a comment by the head of the Arab League, Amr Mussa, in 2004. He warned: "The gates of hell are open in Iraq." At the very least, the "gates of hell" should now officially be considered miles behind us on the half-destroyed, well-mined highway of Iraqi life. Who knows what IEDs lie ahead? We are, after all, in the underworld.