The Uncertain Metrics of War Against ISIS
November 21, 2016
Metrics are never a substitute for narratives or detailed analysis. They can, however, reveal broad patterns in the course of war, and key uncertainties in the nature of how a war is being analyzed and reported. The Burke Chair at CSIS has prepared a selective comparison of the key metrics available on the “wars” in Iraq and Syria that help to illustrate both the patterns in the conflict and some of the key uncertainties—or “fog of war”—that shape efforts to portray and to understand it.
This analysis is entitled The Uncertain Metrics of the “War” Against ISIS, and is available on the CSIS web site at https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/161121_ISIS_War_Iraq_Syria_r.pdf.
The Institute for the Study of War (http://www.understandingwar.org/) is a particularly outstanding example of efforts to provide such analytic rigor and address the inevitable limits to summary metrics. IHS Janes and Stratfor have also made important contributions to such mapping and graphics and the BBC, New York Times, and Washington Post have provided consistently good attempts to provide reporting in graphic and map form.
Metrics that Mislead as Much as Inform
Any effort to compare the different maps and graphics included in this report highlights just how different given versions are—even when they are drawn from the same source.
In many cases, reviewing the narrative reporting at the time a given graphic was issued indicates that the graphic did not fully track with the detailed combat reporting in the article presenting it, and that any supporting numbers were generally point estimates when they should have should have been a range of figures that reflected serious uncertainties.
At the same time, even the limited selection of comparative graphics and metrics presented in the updated report show just how different given pictures of key patterns in the fighting can be in showing broad zones of control, developments in the battles in Mosul and Raqqa, and the sharp limits to the way metrics are being used to portray and analyze the conflict.
ISIS is Only One Threat and Only Plays a Limited Role in Terrorism and Casualties
This is critical for several reasons, One is the fact that the current focus on fighting ISIS ignores the sharp limits to the overall role ISIS plays in regional terrorism, and ignores the fact that defeating ISIs may trigger major new confrontations or conflicts between outside actors, and the competing ethnic and sectarian groups shaping the conflict.
This is particularly true in the case of Syria, where ISIS has only played a relatively limited role in the overall patterns of violence, civilian casualties, and economic destruction.
The Problem of “Blob” Maps
One critical problem throughout the following survey—and one that the Institute for the Study of War does avoid in the detailed maps on its own web site—is to show large blocs of color or “blobs” where there is only empty desert or only token levels of force are present. Most of the fighting is concentrated in populated areas that are very small and in securing the lines of communication between them.
It is also clear from the maps and graphics drawn from official U.S. sources that the material that is declassified and/or drawn from official sources is often designed to “spin” its contents to favor the source or support official policy. This is particularly true in the case of reporting showing territory lost or gained and related measures in square kilometers. This is a war for population centers and measuring gains and gains in empty areas is virtually meaningless.
Furthermore, much of the official data released by the U.S. Department of Defense is rarely updated, and often lags months behind media and think tank reporting based on background and press briefings, and maps and charts used in press briefings are not included in the transcripts provided on DoD web sites.
There is a clear need to provide both better transparency and more accurate ways of reporting on the “war” against ISIS. This can only be done by providing better official reporting, mapping the actual nature of combat rather than showing large blobs of territory.
Failing to Link the Land and Air Battles
Better efforts are also needed to providing data and graphics that link the air and land battles, and that link combat to its impact on civilians and casualties and in ways that show the impact of current battles and developments. There has also been a virtual cutoff in efforts to summarize and map the patterns in “terrorist” or asymmetric attacks that are not related to major battles, although it is clear from the START and other data bases that these patterns of violence have a major impact in both Iraq and Syria.
Tying the Humanitarian and Reconstruction Challenges to Combat Metrics
This revised edition also updates both the data on the short term humanitarian impact of the fighting, and adds data on the longer term challenges in stability operations and rebuilding Iraq and Syria. It is clear from UN, IMF, and World Bank data that far more will be involved than finding some political solution or winning a military victory, and that the normal approach to stability operations will be far too limited to bring any serious degree of lasting stability
This need for better transparency is equally clear from the unclassified material available on the Afghan conflict. See The Afghan War: Reshaping American Strategy and Finding Ways to Win, https://www.csis.org/analysis/afghan-war-reshaping-american-strategy-and-finding-ways-win.Photo credit: Nazeer al-Khatib / AFP/Getty Images