Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Trouble With Numbers

I am rather tired of hearing pundits repeating the line that the al Qaida terrorists represent only 10% of the total number of insurgents in Iraq as if that has some bearing on the violence there. It has nothing at all to do with numbers. It has to do with willingness to execute horrible acts that are in no way related to the number of people who would actually perpetrate such acts. For example, Timothy McVeigh blew up a federal building in Oklahoma. How many people and how much infrastructure does that require? Not very much. All one has to be willing to do is commit murder on a scale and with a brutality that others would have a problem doing. Same with terrorists in Iraq.

9/11 showed us that 20 people can kill thousands. The size of a group in no way corresponds to the level of violence that might emit from it. Nor does the level of violence reflect the level of support a group has. It simply means that they have the resources and the will to kill people. Building a car bomb is rather simple. It doesn't require a whole lot of people or infrastructure. And if two or three people can build one, the same two or three people can build a dozen of them. All they need is materials. It turns out that the materials are not that hard to come by. Every time someone is killed, there is a good chance a car has just become orphaned and available for use as a bomb platform. Heaven knows there is enough explosive stuff floating around there. Just go out into a field and dig, it seems. Building a hundred bombs could be done by a handful of people. You drive them out, park them, and an hour or a day or a week later you dial the number of the cell phone detonator and kaboom. Simple.

What is more important than the number of people involved in an organization is the number of acts that it is involved with. I believe (quite strongly) that al Qaida has been involved in a number of acts that is not in proportion with the number of their members. I also believe (again, quite strongly) that many of the acts were designed to precipitate additional acts by other groups and that these precipitated acts would not have happened without al Qaida being a catalyst. They might create a spectacular attack on a Shiite shrine and the next day attack some Sunnis in order to start open warfare between the groups. They light the fuse and then stand back to watch the fireworks resulting from it.

I firmly believe that the level of violence perpetrated by al Qaida in Iraq is not a linear relationship with the number of their members. So I am warning pundits, bloggers, talking heads of all stripe ... I am armed. I have a spring loaded dart gun that shoots darts with a suction cup on the end and if I EVER see anyone trying to minimize the impact of al Qaida in Iraq because of the number of people in that organization, I am going to let you have it. POW, right in the kisser or whatever I might hit that appears on my screen! Is that understood? Knock it off, it's silly.


Blogger Cassandra said...

Couldn't agree more. I work with statistics in my job and am always amazed how willing most people are to draw utterly ludicrous conclusions, often from intrinsically meaningless data.

I always want to see what the long-term trend is, and even then you often have to look at data several different ways to make sure you're not seeing something that isn't there.

Great post.

6:27 PM PDT  
Blogger Jason Lomberg said...

There was a similar reaction when we killed Zarqawi. Pundits claimed he was relatively unimportant, and his death would change nothing.

Al-Qaida doesn't have the numbers or firepower to face us in open battle. Instead they rely on IEDs, ambushes, and "soft" civilian targets. And above all, they rely on propoganda victories, rather than military ones. In this sense, they've been very successful, despite their low numbers, and the Western press hasn't helped the situation (quite the contrary).

8:46 AM PDT  
Blogger DagneyT said...

At ITM you posted,
"We are not talking about "rules of war" here, we are talking about an Iraqi directive to their own army. For example, they could rule that curfew violaters be shot on sight. Emergency decrees like that are often issued by governments in dire circumstances."

I lived in L.A. in the 60's during the Watt's Riots (it was outsider socialists, according to my friends who lived in the middle of it) when marshall law was enacted in America's 2nd most populace city. I remember seeing army trucks with guns sticking out, 2-3 at a time, driving down the Strand in Manhattan Beach...chilling, but it happens when necessary.

2:08 PM PDT  

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