Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Afghanistan in NYT Rear View Mirror: Being Stupid with Numbers

I tweeted last night that the NYT headline that US had as many KIA in Afghanistan in last 27 months as in previous 9 years was deceptive and almost meaningless (well, not politically meaningless) because the US surge meant that there were many more troops in contact more recently.  And contact means casualties.

So, let's take a look at the pics, shall we?

 The first figure shows pretty clearly that the pace of casualties is closely connected to the increased size of the contingents.  Few folks on the ground mean that there are few vehicles driving over IEDs, few troops ambushed, less violence over all.  One could look at this and say that US is causing itself casualties and that the sending of troops is amping up the insurgency.  That would be interesting but probably foolish.  The reality is the violence is an interactive dynamic.  The US sent more troops because the insurgents were engaged in more violence, and the insurgents engaged in more violence because NATO had moved out of Kabul and was contesting the insurgents.  People forget that the surge in Iraq, as accompanied by the Sunni Awakening as it was, involved a surge in violence as well.  Only after things played out a bit did violence decrease.  Afghanistan has not worked out so well thus far.  Why?  Perhaps because there is no Awakening equivalent.

Second figure compares where the US folks were killed.  The description is quite confusing, as the bubbles show more consistency than variance--the South has always been where the plurality of Americans (and others) have been killed.  Kandahar and Helmand have always been the most dangerous places in Afghanistan.  And, again, whatever differences remain can be chalked mostly up to where the Americans went in 2009-2011--where they people most were (sort of)--the south.

The numbers here are most interesting and we can get much out of them.  The NYT does a huge service by visually presenting this data.  The interpretation here is lacking, so readers should focus on the pretty pics and think for themselves instead of reading the captions and headlines.

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