UCLA study of satellite imagery casts doubt on surge's success in Baghdad

September 19, 2008
This image displays the proportion of change in night-light saturation in Baghdad between March 20, 2006, and Dec. 16, 2007. Image: UCLA

By tracking the amount of light emitted by Baghdad neighborhoods at night, a team of UCLA geographers has uncovered fresh evidence that last year's U.S. troop surge in Iraq may not have been as effective at improving security as some U.S. officials have maintained.

Night light in neighborhoods populated primarily by embattled Sunni residents declined dramatically just before the February 2007 surge and never returned, suggesting that ethnic cleansing by rival Shiites may have been largely responsible for the decrease in violence for which the U.S. military has claimed credit, the team reports in a new study based on publicly available satellite imagery.

"Essentially, our interpretation is that violence has declined in Baghdad because of intercommunal violence that reached a climax as the surge was beginning," said lead author John Agnew, a UCLA professor of geography and authority on ethnic conflict. "By the launch of the surge, many of the targets of conflict had either been killed or fled the country, and they turned off the lights when they left."

The team reports its findings in the October issue of Environment and Planning A, a leading peer-reviewed academic journal that specializes in urban and environmental planning issues.

The night-light signature in four other large Iraqi cities — Kirkuk, Mosul, Tikrit and Karbala — held steady or increased between the spring of 2006 and the winter of 2007, the UCLA team found. 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.

By contrast, the night-light signature in the notoriously impoverished, Shiite-dominated Sadr City remained constant, as it did in the American-dominated Green Zone. Light actually increased in Shiite-dominated New Baghdad, the researchers found.

Until just before the surge, the night-light signature of Baghdad had been steadily increasing overall, they report in "Baghdad Nights: Evaluating the U.S. Military 'Surge' Using Night Light Signatures."

"If the surge had truly 'worked,' we would expect to see a steady increase in night-light output over time, as electrical infrastructure continued to be repaired and restored, with little discrimination across neighborhoods," said co-author Thomas Gillespie, an associate professor of geography at UCLA. "Instead, we found that the night-light signature diminished in only in certain neighborhoods, and the pattern appears to be associated with ethno-sectarian violence and neighborhood ethnic cleansing."

The effectiveness of the February 2007 deployment of 30,000 additional U.S. troops has been a subject of debate. In a report to Congress in September of that year, Gen. David Petraeus claimed "the military objectives of the surge are, in large measure, being met." However, a report the same month by an independent military commission headed by retired U.S. Gen. James Jones attributed the decrease in violence to areas being overrun by either Shiites or Sunnis. The issue now figures in the U.S. presidential race, with Republican presidential candidate John McCain defending the surge and Democratic hopeful Barack Obama having been critical of it.

Reasoning that an increase in power usage would represent an objective measure of stability in the city, Agnew and Gillespie led a team of UCLA undergraduate and graduate students in political science and geography that pored over publicly available night imagery captured by a weather satellite flown by the U.S. Air Force for the Department of Defense.

Orbiting 516 miles above the Earth, Satellite F16 of the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, Operational Linescan System (DMSP/OLS) contains infrared sensors that calculate, among other things, the amount of light given off in 1.75-square-mile areas. Using geo-referenced coordinates, the team overlaid the infrared reading on a preexisting satellite map of daytime Iraq created by NASA's Landsat mapping program. The researchers then looked at the sectarian makeup in the 10 security districts for which the DMSP satellite took readings on four exceptionally clear nights between March 20, 2006, when the surge had not yet begun, and Dec. 16, 2007, when the surge had ended.

Lights dimmed in those neighborhoods that Gen. Jones pointed to as having experienced ethno-sectarian violence and neighborhood ethnic cleansing in his "Report of the Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq."

"The surge really seems to have been a case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted," Agnew said.

Long-term obstacles to meeting Baghdad's power needs may have contributed to the decrease in night lights in the city's southwestern parts, the researchers acknowledge. But Baghdad's shaky power supply does not fully account for the effect, they contend, citing independent research showing that decaying and poorly maintained power plants and infrastructure were meeting less than 10 hours of Baghdad's power needs prior to the fall of Saddam Hussein.

"This was the part of the city that had the best sources of connection and the most affluent population, so they could actually generate power themselves, and they were in the habit of doing so well before the U.S. invasion," said Agnew, the president of the American Association of Geographers, the field's leading professional organization. "But we saw no evidence of a widespread continuation of this practice."

In addition to casting doubt on the efficacy of the surge in general, the study calls into question the success of a specific strategy of the surge, namely separating neighborhoods of rival sectarian groups by erecting concrete blast walls between them. The differences in light signatures had already started to appear by the time American troops began erecting the walls under Gen. Petraeus's direction, the researchers found.

"The U.S. military was sealing off neighborhoods that were no longer really active ribbons of violence, largely because the Shiites were victorious in killing large numbers of Sunnis or driving them out of the city all together," Agnew said. "The large portion of the refugees from Iraq who went during this period to Jordan and Syria are from these neighborhoods."

Previous research has used satellite imagery of night-light saturation to measure changes in the distribution of populations in a given area, but the UCLA project is believed to be the first to study population losses and migration due to sectarian violence. The outgrowth of an undergraduate course in the use of remote sensing technologies in the environment, the UCLA project was inspired by a desire to bring empirical evidence to a long-running debate.

"We had no axe to grind," said Agnew. "We were very open. If we had found that the situation was different, we would've reported it. Our main goal was to bring fairly objective and unobtrusive measures to a particularly contentious issue."

The study will be available Sept. 19 at www.envplan.com/abstract.cgi?id=a41200.

Source: University of California - Los Angeles

Explore further: UCLA geographers urge U.S. to search 3 structures in Pakistan for bin Laden

Related Stories

Recommended for you

How the Elwha dam removals changed the river's mouth

January 19, 2018

For decades, resource managers agreed that removing the two dams on the Elwha River would be a big win for the watershed as a whole and, in particular, for its anadromous trout and salmon. The dams sat on the river for more ...

Glacial moulin formation triggered by rapid lake drainage

January 18, 2018

Scientists are uncovering the mystery of how, where and when important glacial features called moulins form on the Greenland Ice Sheet. Moulins, vertical conduits that penetrate through the half-mile-deep ice, efficiently ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

2.2 / 5 (14) Sep 19, 2008
This is laughable. These jokers have merely asserted that light levels seen from space have some negative correlation with violence on the ground. There's nothing in this summary to suggest, on the way from making this assertion to drawing their conclusion--which flies in the face of mountains of OTHER evidence--that they actually TESTED their assertion to establish its validity.

And people wonder why there's a growing sense that many institutions have pimped out their science programs in the service of political agendas.

Anthropogenic climate change, anyone?
1.8 / 5 (12) Sep 19, 2008
So I think what the brains who conducted this study tired to say in a very round about way was that America stepped in to soon to stop the savages, err, I meant the tolerant and peace loving people of that noble religion Islam before they could kill each other and it wasn't really evenly matched when they could go at each others throats unimpeded. It did not say in this article but did they come to any conclusion as to what should have been done such as arm Sunni muslin militias so that there would have been as many Shites getting killed as Sunni?
2.2 / 5 (9) Sep 19, 2008
And they cross checked this data with how many people on the ground?
2 / 5 (7) Sep 19, 2008
There are many reasons as to why this could be happening. Such as the one GrayMouser said. I read in the wallstreet journal about rolling blackouts they have been expiriencing a few days ago, due to a limited power supplies.

If I had tried to pull off a paper like this in highschool I would have recieved a D or an F for not fully exploring the reasons behind why it could be happening. The people in this study had a hyposthesis and then set out to prove it without even saying why other reasons for what they see are wrong.
3.7 / 5 (7) Sep 19, 2008
The city goes dark before the surge and stays dark. Even without power, people like to see at night, fire helps.

What are that many soldiers doing over there? You figure the first priority would be to get the citizens food, power and water. Starving a citizen is a great way to make an enemy. This is a city where people live. It's not a battlefield. All eyes are on a few cities in Iraq and these clowns can't even get them up to a basic level of civilization?

Sorry, anyway you cut it, the city is still dark and it shouldn't be after all the time, money and lives that have been spent there.
3 / 5 (5) Sep 19, 2008
Yes this is very laughable, jokers commenting on research from wich the only thing they have seen is a newsflash, but i guess thats more than enough to discard it.

There is no way anyone can determine the value of research from just a newsflash.
3.7 / 5 (7) Sep 19, 2008
"Lights dimmed in those neighborhoods that Gen. Jones pointed to as having experienced ethno-sectarian violence and neighborhood ethnic cleansing in his "Report of the Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq.""

So, GrayMouser, they crossed checked this with at least one person on the ground - a general.
1.9 / 5 (7) Sep 19, 2008
"... fairly objective and unobtrusive measures..."

Add "irrelevant" to the list.
1 / 5 (4) Sep 20, 2008
"Lights dimmed in those neighborhoods that Gen. Jones pointed to as having experienced ethno-sectarian violence and neighborhood ethnic cleansing in his "Report of the Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq.""

So, GrayMouser, they crossed checked this with at least one person on the ground - a general.

Was that General Disaster? Or his aide, Major Nuisance?
4 / 5 (4) Sep 20, 2008
Thats pretty smartass,and i can appreaciate smartasses.

Unfortunatly the timing is way off.
2.3 / 5 (3) Sep 20, 2008
Thats pretty smartass,and i can appreaciate smartasses.

Unfortunatly the timing is way off.

Timing was never my strong point >8-]

Cynicism is...
2 / 5 (4) Sep 21, 2008
And you believe anything coming out of UCLA?
2 / 5 (2) Sep 22, 2008
Did you mean U.S.A.?
3 / 5 (2) Sep 22, 2008
Rubberman, please.

The people who are alive and free today only as a direct result of U.S. military and economic intervention number in the hundreds of millions. Other nations typically demand territory and treasure in return for that kind of service; generally all we ask is enough real estate to bury our honored dead.

And for that... for having been and continuing to be the greatest beacon of hope and freedom in the history of the human race... we are reviled.

I imagine that the vast majority of those who post here are Americans, and most of THOSE love their country.

You are certainly entitled to your odious opinions regarding what may or may not be YOUR country... but I hope I speak for most here when I ask you to keep them to yourself.
3 / 5 (1) Sep 22, 2008
JSC, it is not the people who've died in the past nor is it your average american that I direct that comment towards. It is the biased nature of your media coupled with your government trying to intertwine the honourable military past that your country has (defense of human rights and civil liberties worldwide) with the current armed conflicts in which the U.S. is involved in, which in my "odious" opinion lack both honour and logic (from a global viewpoint, not an American domestic one). Although most of my friends that are American share my opinion about both the current administration and the media....

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.