You can't see it with the naked eye but orbiting 516 miles above the Earth's surface is Satellite F16. It's part of the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP), Operational Linescan System.
The satellite is equipped with infrared sensors that can measure the amount of electric night-light emanating in a 1.75-square-mile area. Cool, right?
Well, this team of UCLA geographers, using "geo-referenced coordinates," took those DMSP readings and laid them over preexisting NASA satellite maps of Iraq in the daytime. They had this simple and scientifically-reasonable idea: an increase in household electrical power use would be an objective way to measure stability in Baghdad. While the political establishment argues about a metaphorical "surge," the UCLA team zeroed-in on actual electrical surges.
What they found (http://www.envplan.com/epa/editorials/a41200.pdf) is evidence that calls into question the Bush administration-conceived/uncritically reported/McCain campaign mantra "the surge was a success."
The team of researchers - led by John Agnew, a UCLA professor of geography and an expert on ethnic conflict - took the satellite maps and examined the sectarian makeup of the 10 security districts encompassed by "the surge." They focused on four clear nights between March 20, 2006 - before "the surge" - and Dec. 16, 2007, when "the surge" ended.
And guess what? Night-light in mostly Sunni neighborhoods, specifically the Sunni-dominated enclaves of East and West Rashid, declined between 56 and 80 percent, just before the February 2007 "surge." It never returned to normal.
By way of comparison, the Shiite sanctuary of Sadr City - Baghdad's "ghetto" with even shoddier electricity service - registered a steady "night-light signature."
In other words, the residential night-lights were flicked off before the "surge" and were never turned back on in the very neighborhoods Gen. Jones identified in his "Report of the Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq" as neighborhoods that experienced heavy sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing.
Meanwhile, the "night-light signature" in four other Iraqi cities outside the "surge" zone - Kirkuk, Mosul, Tikrit, and Karbala - remained steady, or increased, during that same time period.
All of that, Agnew says, suggests that ethnic cleansing by rival Shiites may have been what was behind the decline in violence for which Bush, and now McCain, take credit.
"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," Agnew said in a university press release this week, in advance of the study being published in a leading peer-reviewed journal, the October issue of Environment and Planning A.
"The surge really seems to have been a case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted."
Accounting even for the on-again/off-again electricity in Baghdad, the study also found the dim light signatures in Baghdad's Sunni neighborhoods came before Gen. Patraeus erected those concrete blast walls as called for in the "surge" plan.
"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 in the press statement, noting that most of those Sunni refugees from Baghdad fled to Jordan and Syria.
From the report's conclusion:
"In classic Clausewitzian terms, the surge was an extension of politics by other means. It was never primarily about reducing US military casualties but about abetting a political process in which while the US handled 'security' that would see an improvement in the quality of everyday life the various groups would come to a political reconciliation that would in turn make it easier for the US government to withdraw its troops from Iraq.
"Our findings suggest that in these terms the surge has had no observable effect, except insofar as it has helped to provide a seal of approval for a process of ethno-sectarian neighborhood homogenization that is now largely achieved but with a tremendous decline in the extent of residential intermixing between groups and a probable significant loss of population in some areas."
If the moderators for this Friday's foreign policy "debate" are on their game, they'll ask McCain and Obama about the UCLA study and whether or not either them has a new understanding of the so-called success of the "surge."