U.S. Troops to Iraqis: Leave Your Lights on at Night

A fascinating U.C.L.A. study challenges the success of the U.S. troop surge using a creative metric: satellite images capturing the amount of light at night in Iraqi neighborhoods. The idea is simple: lights at night are an indication of activity. According to the article, no lights imply that people have fled or have been ethnically cleansed. (It also might mean that there is no electricity, or that strict curfews are being enforced, but the authors say that is not a full explanation.)

From the press release:

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 U.C.L.A. 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.

Here’s the question: Will it be enough for the U.S. troops to command the Iraqis to leave their lights on so that things look good for the surge, or will we need to assign troops to shine lights skyward themselves?

(Hat tip: Claude Eilers)


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  1. Charles says:

    Simple is the correct description of the idea. There are so many holes in this I don’t know where to begin.

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  2. Raj Pandravada says:

    Studying night-light signatures seems to be a clever way to detect activity, or inactivity. But it can also be misleading, IMHO.

    Here’s a link to a ‘Strange Map’ of the Korean peninsula.


    According to the study, most of North Korea must be unpopulated or extremely inactive. This is of course untrue – there are 27 million people in the ‘dark’ half of Korea….

    Even so, kudos on a novel way to try to debunk this ‘surge is working’ assertion that’s been floating around.

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  3. Aaron Durst says:

    Despite what the press release says, if you look at the study, you see that they only looked at 3 nights (March 20, 2006, March 21, 2007 and December 17, 2007). What if there were power outages on December 17, 2007? If so, all of the studies conclusions would seem to be very flawed. If scholars are going to attempt to answer questions, shouldn’t they be as thourough as possible? Does this study actually meet the criteria of being a credible study?

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  4. armchairpunter says:

    It would also seem that the number of Mercedes dealerships opening in surge-targeted neighborhoods has been much smaller than one would expect in view of the surge succeeding “beyond our wildest dreams”.

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  5. Alex says:

    Simple is not bad, Charles. Simple is good.

    The question is whether the drop is violence is a result of fewer people in the neighborhood, or actually due to improvement in the rule of law.

    The data is clear. There is less nighttime light. There are controls — looking in other neighborhoods and other cities.

    So, what inference can be make from this. They offer at least one. Come up with your alternative explanations/inferences.

    Perhaps a power outlet on that one night, suggested Mr. Durst. That is relative easy to verify, right? Did this neighborhood suffer more power outages at that time than the control neighborhoods and cities, right?

    The fact is that many sources on the ground have been reporting ethnic homogenization of Bagdad neighborhoods for years, now. Here is some data that supports that. (In other words, the theory makes a prediction that can be verified or shown false. In this case, it is that there would be less nighttime light in those neighborhoods.)

    That’s a credible test of a valid theory.

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  6. BT says:

    Number of bomb attacks or human fatalities is not good enough, is it?

    In a non-freakonomic sense, I see too many flaws in this study upon first glance.

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  7. cirby says:

    The best indication that this is a flawed study was the comment by one of the authors:

    “”We had no axe to grind”

    In academic circles, this is usually a very strong indication that yes, they were furiously grinding away.

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  8. Robert L. www.neolibertarian.com says:

    So before the surge all the liberals said that the surge would either make things worse or do nothing at all and now we have yet another think piece explaining that the decline in violence just happened to coincide with the surge and was actually due to _________ (fill in the blank with anything else).

    Plus, if this study is correct about de facto ethnic cleansing being completed before the surge, violence levels would have already dropped before the surge and then stayed level throughout the surge. IIRC that is not what happened at all.

    I’ve hit a point where I just assume any study like this is purely politically motivated and even a cursory look at the study seems to bear that out.

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