"Progress" in Iraq: Do the Numbers Add Up?

At his first press conference in four months, President Bush claimed, "We're making good progress in Iraq." What exactly does that mean? How do we define progress? Well, when it comes to understanding how the war is going, it's all about the numbers. According to the president, we have a "dual track strategy" for success -- one track being the military progress, one track being political progress. Let's crunch the numbers on each.

On the military track, the president declared during his Saturday radio address that Iraqi security forces had "more than 100 battalions operating throughout the country." Sounds impressive. On Tuesday, he told reporters "there are over 80 army battalions fighting alongside coalition troops... There are over 30 Iraqi battalions in the lead." Okay, less impressive, but still notable.

This morning, after a meeting with Rummy and Generals Pace and Petraeus, he busted out some more numbers, saying "I was also pleased to hear there are 3,000 Iraqi forces" taking part in an offensive in western Iraq, adding "Over 30 percent of the Iraqi troops are in the lead on these offensive operations." Let's see, 30 percent of 3,000... Let me get my calculator...

The problem is, just last week, two other Generals, Abizaid and Casey, had told Congress that there was actually just 1 Iraqi battalion able to take on the insurgents on its own. 1. That's down from the 3 that supposedly had been ready to solo back in July. So, let's review: when it comes to Iraqi troops standing up so we can stand down, the key number is 100, check that...80, uh, actually 30... I mean, 3. Hold it, no... 1. Apparently, that adds up to "good progress" for President Bush. Do you get the same answer?

A similar new math is being used on the political side of the equation. With the constitutional referendum less than two weeks away, on Sunday the Iraqi National Assembly decided to have some fun with fractions. Since the constitution will be rejected if 2/3 of voters in at least 3 of the country's 18 provinces vote against it on October 15, the members of the Assembly decided to change the definition of "voter" from, you know, someone who has actually cast a ballot to someone who might possibly, if he -- or she -- wanted to, and could find the time (and the polling place, since those have still not been announced in the volatile Sunni-dominated Anbar province) cast a ballot. This was a change that virtually ensured the constitution would pass. After the Shiite hit the fan and the UN (called in to confer legitimacy on the vote) objected, the Assembly reversed its Sunday skullduggery and today voted 119 to 28 to go back to the boring old definition of "voter." So now the Sunnis, who make up only 20 percent of the nation's 27 million people, will gear up to try to defeat the constitution at the polls. "I am sure if there is honesty," a top Sunni politician said, "95 percent of Sunni Arabs will vote no." Is this an example of addition by subtraction... or unity through division? Perhaps the White House could use a tutorial.

Of course, the numbers that matter most in Iraq are these: 149,000 U.S. troops still in country at a cost of $5.6 billion a month. 1942 dead Americans. X number of Iraqi dead (the administration has decided to leave that word problem blank). And these numbers: 59% of Americans now think it was a mistake to have sent our troops to Iraq; 63% believe the troops should be partially or completely withdrawn; just 21% believe we will win the war; and just 32% approve of Bush's handling of Iraq.