UCLA study: Iraq violence drop due to ethnic cleansing, not the Surge

Story here. Actual study here (pdf). They are not the first to say so, to be sure. The methodology, however, is something I never would have thought of: Measuring electricity use in various neighborhoods before, during and after the Surge:

So – since the ethnic-cleansing process was already under way, was the Surge necessary at all? Did it make any difference?

See also The Nation, 09/17/08, “Ten National Security Myths”:

It’s good to know that some are doing this analysis. However, even if true – and I believe it’s a substantial contributing factor – it matters not. There is no way the “surge has worked” meme will be dislodged from many/most people’s minds (cf, “Obama is a muslim”).

Correlation is not causation.

You probably never would have though of it because its retarded.

Seriously? Correlating electricity usage with ethnic cleansing? This kind of crap is what gives ‘studies’ bad names.

Why do you think that? More specifically, why would you not expect electricity usage to correlate with more ethnically homogenous neighborhoods?

Assuming, that is, that one accepts the conventional wisdom that ethnic strife between neighbors is/was a prominent cause of violence and mayhem.

Near as I can figure, they’re assuming electricity use correlates with more peaceful and/or inhabited neighborhoods, and noting a coincidence between those and the more ethnically homogeneous ones.

Yes, exactly. I’m wondering why Sinaijon considers that to be “retarded” “crap”.

Seems to me like there should be a correlation.

By “retarded”, I am going to assume you misspelled “brilliant”. You might actually want to read the article before sounding off.

Er, well maybe. But then I would have been insulting BrainGlutton, instead of complimenting him on this rationality.

An assumption based on an assumption, not exactly definitive.

sparker1776 and Sinaijon: I’m not clear on what you’re arguing. Are you saying merely that electricity use isn’t a good indicator of what neighborhoods have been evacuated, or are you making a broader contention that many areas of Baghdad have NOT been ethnically cleansed?

Even if you are only commenting on the electricity use, would you care to comment on the larger issue, that formerly heterogeneous neighborhoods in Baghdad are now homogeneous? And that such homogeneity has had an effect of reducing violence in Baghdad?

There are no electricity bills. Nobody turns the lights off when they abandon their houses. Weather or not a house is lit at night is completely irrelevant to anything. People run wire all over the place. They’ll tap into power grids 12 blocks over.

I know of a well-lit house that blew up and killed soldiers. The house across the street–abandoned for weeks after the explosion–glowed brightly with all outside and inside lights turned on. For weeks, until we finally reduced it to rubble.

What the fuck do lights have to do with anything?

Now that I think about it… there was an occupied house across the street as well. Funny thing is… they didn’t have power. They were living in a dark house at night with no power, across the street from a booby-trapped, soldier-killing, electricity having house, and next door to an abandoned, well lit house… yet they sat in the dark at night… with no power.

What a useless study.

I am surprised. From what I’ve read, scavengers should have stolen all light bulbs and fixtures from an abandoned home immediately.

Thank you for taking this up. I’m hesitant to put forth an arguement here, as I have no first-hand (or even second-hand) knowledge whatsoever, and it sounds like you have lots. In fact, here’s the response I first typed up:

But after thinking about it some, I’m not so sure. First, “anecdotes” (i.e., your experiences with particular dwellings) don’t equal “data”. Yes, they give one a sense of things and, in fact, may actually conform with/to data. But they should be held suspect, particularly under these (rather charged) circumstances.

More broadly, the study doesn’t rely on “electric bills” to determine electricity usage; rather, they use remote-sensing of the nighttime light signature as recorded by satellite. The data is pixel-based; each pixel is 2.8 km^2, and the smallest neighborhoods considered are Karkh and Sadr City, both at 4 pixels (i.e., an area of over 11km; others are larger, see Table 2). So, the specific objection of “run wire all over the place” doesn’t bear any weight…unless you’re going to claim that people regularly tap into electricity sources more than 5km away. Which would be, using Sinaijon’s term, retarded. And I note explicitly that you didn’t claim that.

Now, you may have a point about abandoned dwellings and lights being left on. However, the timeframe involved spans close to 9 months, and it seems like a stretch to think that the situation stays static for that long. But again, perhaps it does…I have no way to tell.

Also, it should be pointed out that the study was concerned with Baghdad in particular. The “ethnic division” data was taken from the Jones Report (i.e., the progress report presented to Congress by the Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq, 2007); the researchers simply established a very high correlation of nighttime light with that data. What they refer to as the “‘typical’ nighttime light story for urban Iraq as a whole” was determined by examining similar satellite data from four other cities (Kirkuk, Mosul, Tikrit, and Karbala; see Table 3). None of those cities had nighttime light loss (in fact, three had gains), while at the same time, none of them were subject to the “surge”.

Baghdad, on the other hand, did experience nighttime light loss and was subject to the “surge”. But the loss correlates to a high degree with the ethnic division data. It might be interesting to see if the data also correlates with increased/decreased surge activity in the specific neighborhoods (i.e., the areas that correspond to their pixels). Now that would make for a refutation of the study.

So again, despite my initial acceptance of your position, I don’t think you’ve actually provided much justification (if any at all) for dismissing the study or its results. Thoughts?


My point was that it’s a free-for-all. Lights being on in a house actually tells you nothing of its occupancy. Perhaps it was abandoned and the lights stay on 24/7.
Or, perhaps the people living in the house were unable to tap into a live power line, and have no power at all. They rely on a generator and they can’t often afford fuel. I’ve seen plenty of both.
I can’t comment on the 9 month span of the results though. I never observed the same area for that period of time. All I know is that people don’t bother to turn off the lights before they flee town, are kidnapped, are murdered, etc. So seeing a light on through the satellite doesn’t tell you much about that house. In fact, may lead you to the opposite conclusion as to its occupancy.
Similarly, I’ve been in plent of peoples’ houses who have no electricity. Or, they have a generator that goes out while I’m there.
Some neighborhoods have a central generator for just the people in their neighborhood. The men take turns guarding it with AK-47s to prevent outsiders from taping into it. People can still be sneaky, though, and splice into the power lines overhead or whatever.
Anyway, when that generator goes down, the ENTIRE neighborhood relying on it will go black.
If there is one thing in Iraq that’s the most random, nonsensical thing I’ve ever seen, it’s the electricity. Wires galore! So my first thought when reading about a study that based conclusions of assumptions it gathered from electricity use, it raised a brow. The one thing around here I’d thought you could make no predictions from, or find any kind of reliable, reproducable data from… it’s the lights and electricity.

Having said that, it’s quite possible that the 9 month time frame evens out all the randomness. I didn’t actually read the study. I was making a kneejerk reaction to statements about making reliable inferences from the Iraqi domestic lighting situation. If I have time later, I’ll read it and comment. But I fully admit that maybe the 9 month long span of data will cancel out all the crazy shit I’m seeing.

What do you think?

[quote=“Digital_Stimulus, post:13, topic:464702”]

What they refer to as the “‘typical’ nighttime light story for urban Iraq as a whole” was determined by examining similar satellite data from four other cities (Kirkuk, Mosul, Tikrit, and Karbala; see Table 3). None of those cities had nighttime light loss (in fact, three had gains), while at the same time, none of them were subject to the “surge”.

Baghdad, on the other hand, did experience nighttime light loss and was subject to the “surge”. But the loss correlates to a high degree with the ethnic division data.


Could it also be infered that because the surge was working, thousands and thousands of refugees returned home to Baghdad from Siria. This mass exodus may have put a huge burden on Baghdad’s fragile electrical grid (if you can call it that) causing huge, long lasting blackouts across neighborhoods? This would have a net result of less lights, even though–and because–there are more people.
I gotta run. I’ll be read the study when I get back.

This article gives more information. The guys who performed the study have done similar studies before; they didn’t just pull this notion out of their hindquarters.

Worse, they are assuming the lack of observable electricity use correlate with less inhabited neighborhoods. I think that in Baghdad of all places, the light signature of a neighborhood is quite irrelevant with respect to its population.
There are simply too many variables and explanations that the researchers never considered.

Though you were not speaking to me, I’m sure that after reading my two posts after yours, you’d want to ask me anyway. And because I want to make this point very clear, I will respond to this.
I am merely stating that visible electricity use isn’t a good indicator of what neighborhoods have been evacuated. I will give more details below, but I just want to make it clear that this is my argument. It’s their methods, and more importantly their many assumptions, that I find suspect. Their conclusion, though likely accurate, is a non sequitur.

Nope. Not arguing about any of that. Just saying the visible use of electricity is irrelevant, in my opinion. I think that the first line in the study sums it up. I think some Geographers just wanted in on the action. So they took a conclusion from other non geographical data, and then worked backwards, using some geography data to help them reach that initial conclusion. So they could basically come up with one big “me too”. They made incorrect, or at best debatable, assumptions and ignored many other variables and possibilities.
Let’s take a look at their assumptions:

  1. “If the surge has truly `worked’ we would expect to see a steady increase in nighttime light output over time, as electrical infrastructure is repaired and restored, with little discrimination across neighborhoods.”
    Why would they expect to see this trend so soon? Decreasing the violence–either through ethnic cleansing or straight-up military effectiveness–would not necessarily instantly create infrastructure or the type of government competence and efficiency it would take to actually send workers out to fix the power lines. The whole time I spent in Baghdad, I never once saw a single agency out repairing electrical infrastructure. In fact, there were only two times I saw any workers repairing anything. I watched Iraqi workers cleaning out a sewer, and I watched workers (local nationals paid by the US Military) fill a huge hole in a road and repave it. That’s it.

  2. “We assume here that the presence of nighttime light denotes a population with access to electricity, providing an indicator of relative quality and stability of everyday life”
    This assumption is highly contestable. First of all, what is the actual light signature of a house? I would think that the primary source of visible neighborhood light comes from street lights and exterior lighting. Working street lights doesn’t say much about individual houses. Also, they are assuming that Iraqis use electricity to light their homes. In my experience, light is not the highest demand for electricity. Mostly they’d use lanterns to light their homes. Rare, valuable electricity was used for fans and television for the most part. They made much use of oil lanterns. I actually handed out tons of battery and crank operated lights that were provided by members of this message board to Iraqis. Here’s a picture of some kids doing their homework using a Tap Light. Before I handed it to them, they were doing their math under lantern light.

  3. “The city as a whole, therefore, experienced a net decrease in its electricity output over the course of the surge. This was not just temporary, and thus cannot be put down to military operations disrupting supplies, because the end date of 16 December 2007 is well after the most intensive military sweeps in the city.”
    First of all, how can they say with certainty that this trend cannot be caused by military operations? What does the end date of December 2007 prove? Like I mentioned earlier, the infrastructure will not be repaired immediately. If lights or power lines are destroyed during military operations (and they are), how quickly do they think it will be repaired? I believe military operations had a huge effect on the light signatures of various neighborhoods.

Let’s take East Rashid for instance. I use East Rashid as a prime example for two reasons:
One, the researches use it as one of their main points, “The night-light signature in four other large Iraqi cities… held steady or increased between the spring of 2006 and the winter of 2007… None of these cities were targets of the surge. Baghdad’s decreases were centered in the southwestern Sunni strongholds of East and West Rashid, where the light signature dropped 57 percent and 80 percent, respectively, during the same period.”
Two, and most interestingly, because I personally had a huge effect on the overall light signature of East Rashid during the time period covered in the study.

The big question here is “Could the military operations of the surge effect the lighting of East Rashid without at all effecting the number or diversity of its population?” The answer, of course, is Yes! Some reasons:
Before the surge, there were not enough soldiers to patrol deep into the neighborhoods. Most night time operations consisted of setting up perimeters or cordons around a neighborhood and pulling security. Pretty ineffective for anything. The surge allowed units to start patrolling down the streets and alleys deep in the neighborhoods. When units are patrolling at night, it’s not uncommon to put out all light on the street. If I could get people to turn lights off, I would. But if not–and very often–the lights would be destroyed. Tactically, it is in our best interest to patrol in total darkness where we have the upperhand. I can’t count the number of exterior lights and street lights I broke in East Rashid–and I’m just one person.
Also, the surge sent Strykers into the neighborhoods. The wires that civilians used to run power all across everywhere would often hang very low above alleyways and small roads. Units driving down thost streets in Humvees would not have effected the lights or the power. However, Strykers are much higher and often take out many, many low hanging wires during the course of their daily operation. This damage was so prevalant, that it wasn’t uncommon to see Strykers driving around with 20-30 meters of tangled, broken wire dragging behind them. This was another effect on power distribution directly caused by surge without respect to violence or ethnic cleansing. Such damage would not be immediately repaired for a couple reasons. One, it was well known to Iraqis that being caught on rooftops or power poles stringing wire was enough to get the shot. Not saying it’s necessarily right, or that it happened often (or at all), but the fear was definitely there. Many times if we were in an area, people would come up to us and ask if it would be okay for them to fix their powerlines. If we were there, and they got permission, they felt safe. They wouldn’t dare fix the wires without talking to a unit for fear of snipers. Well, obviously many took the risks, but at any rate, the fear was there.
So here you have soldiers patrolling streets, purposely destroying external lights during military operations, and vehicles that accidentally rip through massive amounts of private power lines. Directly caused by the surge, yet having nothing to do with violence in a neighborhood.

Add to all of that, the fact that the surge scared thousands of military aged males into fleeing their homes. With no young, able men around the house, whose going to fix all the lights and shit the military damaged?

I simply don’t think there is much you can conclude or assume about a particular neighborhood from it’s light signature. Certainly not in a war-torn city that is host to ongoing military operations. And certainly not when those military operations are performed by units who prefer their night patrols to be in total darkness.
Again, I’m not saying that their conclusion about ethnic violence and such is wrong. I just think their methods and assumptions are suspect. I had a personal, direct effect on the data in that study, and I never discriminately killed, captured or removed anyone based on their religious/ethinic affiliations.

Sitting on a rooftop at night in East Rashid, I’d see countless houses–some dark, some brightly lit, and all lumens in between. I would never have been naive enough to make any sort of assumption about the occupancy of any particular house based on its light signature. Whether it was home to a family of 9, or completely abandoned, one could not assume anything based solely on the visible light emitting from the house. Some abandoned houses remain lit. Many houses packed with family remained dark. I found it impossible to make any assumption as to the occupancy of the house or the quality of life in the neighborhood based on visible light. Yet, for these geographers, it’s all too easy.

You make fine points, and not to minimize anything you’ve said, but I think the OP asked an outstanding question and we’re getting sidetracked onto a question that ultimately bears little importance to the price of tea in China.

So let’s simplify this: is the decrease in violence in Baghdad due to military factors (the surge) or due to the completion of ethnic cleansing? In other words, did Iraqis figure this out themselves by a de facto partitioning of the country?

I will admit that I actually thought the topic of the debate was the study itself. But after rereading the OP, I see that the OP’s question was this:
“So – since the ethnic-cleansing process was already under way, was the Surge necessary at all? Did it make any difference?”

However, if the premise that “the ethnic-cleansing process was already under way” is not first proven, then how can the discussion proceed from there? If he wants to start with that premise, should he not link to a study that effectively proves it. If, as he says, these are not the first people to say so, then link to some people who said and proved the premise a bit more reliably. Otherwise, we’re stuck with “IF the ethnic-cleansing…”.

I don’t feel qualified or knowledgable to answer such a question. But, personally, I dont see how the two are mutually exclusive. Can’t both the surge and the homogenization of neighborhoods have played a huge role in the decrease in violence? Could they not have had a symbiotic effect–each making the other more successful?
For one, if it were not for the surge, the thousands of T-Barriers dividing the neighborhoods would not have been emplaced.

Anyway, if I had looked past the title of the OP and realized the actual debate, I would not have contributed. As I said, I dont feel qualified to answer anything about the relevancy or effectiveness of the surge.