Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Five Years of War

After five long, hard years of war in Iraq, where do things stand? ABC News has produced what seems to me to be the most comprehensive poll of Iraqi public opinion (the article-length summary is here, the pdf with the complete questionnaire and charts is here). The results? "Improved security and economic conditions have reversed Iraqis' spiral of despair, sharply improving hopes for the country's future. Yet deep problems remain in terms of security, living conditions, reconciliation and political progress alike."

According to the survey:

Fifty-five percent of Iraqis say things in their own lives are going well, well up from 39 percent as recently as August. More, 62 percent, rate local security positively, up 19 points. And the number who expect conditions nationally to improve in the year ahead has doubled, to 46 percent in this new national poll by ABC News, the BBC, ARD German TV and the Japanese broadcaster NHK.

Without directly crediting the surge in U.S. forces, fewer report security as the main problem in their own lives  25 percent, nearly half its peak last spring. Forty-six percent say local security has improved in the past six months, nearly double last summer's level.

The number of Iraqis who feel entirely unsafe in their own area has dropped by two-thirds, to 10 percent. And with Sunni Arab buy-in, U.S.-funded Awakening Councils, created to provide local security, are more popular than the Iraqi government itself.

Even more striking is the halt in worsening views. In August, Iraqis by 61-11 percent said security in the country had gotten worse, not better, in the previous six months. Today, by 36-26 percent, more say security has improved. The new positive margin is not large. But the 35-point drop in views that security is worsening is the single largest change in this poll.

In almost all cases, however, the improvement since August and March still has not brought Iraqi sentiment back to its pre-2007 levels. While 46 percent now expect improvements for the country in the next year, that's still far below its level in November 2005, 69 percent. While 55 percent say their own lives are going well, that's down from 71 percent in late 2005.

Similarly, while there's been a big drop in the number who cite security as their own main problem, 50 percent still volunteer it as the nation's main problem overall  little changed from 56 percent in August. One in four Iraqis still report suicide attacks, sectarian fighting and other violence in their own area in just the past six months. And the provision of basic services has barely budged; 88 percent lack adequate electricity.

Much of the improvement since August is driven by Baghdad and Anbar provinces, focal points of the surge. Seventy-one percent in Anbar, and fewer in Baghdad but still 43 percent, now rate local security positively  up from zero in both locales last year. While a dramatic gain, most in Baghdad, home to a quarter of Iraqis, still say security is bad  a reflection of continued, albeit reduced, violence there.

Economic improvement complements the security gains. Fifty-seven percent rate their household finances positively, a 20-point jump, again steepest in Baghdad (especially its Sadr City area) and Anbar. The availability of basic consumer goods has soared even more sharply; 65 percent rate it positively, up by 26 points since August to its highest in polls dating to early 2004. And family incomes are up by 26 percent, about $80 a month.


Challenges remain broad and deep. Beyond their own lives, most Iraqis, 55 percent, still say things are going badly for the country, even if that's down from a record 78 percent in August. Violence remains common, particularly in the cities; local car bombs or suicide attacks, just within the past six months, are reported by 45 percent in Baghdad, 51 percent in Kirkuk and 39 percent in Mosul.

Living conditions for many remain dire, with sizable majorities reporting a lack of electricity, fuel, clean water, medical care and sufficient jobs. Improvement in all these has been modest at best. Six in 10 say they can't live where they choose without facing persecution, although this, too, is well down from its peak.

Sectarian differences remain vast. While more than six in 10 Shiites and seven in 10 Kurds say their own lives are going well, that drops to a third in the Sunni Arab minority. Eighty-three percent of Sunnis rate national conditions negatively. And while half of Shiites and six in 10 Kurds expect their children's lives to be better than their own, a mere 12 percent of Sunnis share that most basic hope.


Views of the United States, while still broadly negative, have moderated in some respects. Just shy of half, 49 percent, now say it was right for the U.S.-led coalition to have invaded, up by 12 points from August; the previous high was 48 percent in the first ABC News poll in Iraq in February 2004.

Similarly, the number of Iraqis who call it "acceptable" to attack U.S. forces has declined for the first time in these polls, down to 42 percent after peaking at 57 percent in August. Even with a 15-point drop, however, that's still a lot of Iraqis to endorse such violence. (Just 4 percent, by contrast, call it acceptable to attack Iraqi government forces.)

Sunni Arabs, dispossessed by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, are a good example. In August 93 percent of Sunnis called it acceptable to attack U.S. forces. Today, that's down to 62 percent  a dramatic decline, but one that still leaves six in 10 Sunnis on the side of anti-U.S. attacks.


An integral part of the surge strategy  the creation of U.S.-funded and -equipped "Awakening Councils" to provide local security  is generally popular. The councils are better-rated than the United States, local leaders, local militias and even the Iraqi government.

Fifty-six percent of Iraqis express confidence in the councils, compared with 49 percent in the national government of Iraq, 47 percent in local leaders, 22 percent in local militias and 20 percent in U.S. forces. The councils attract confidence from 73 percent of Sunni Arabs  generally the most alienated Iraqis  as well as from 60 percent of Shiites.


On a structural level, 66 percent of Iraqis say the country should continue as a unified nation with its central government in Baghdad, as opposed to a confederation of regional states or outright partition. While Sunnis have been and almost unanimously remain behind a single state, there's been an advance in this view among Shiites, from 41 percent last March to 56 percent in August and 67 percent now. The holdouts are Kurds, nearly all of whom want autonomy or semi-autonomy (details below).


ne thing on which Iraqis tend to agree is the difficult state of their living conditions. In the single worst item, 88 percent say their supply of electricity is bad. (In another measure, just two in 10 report receiving electricity from power lines for more than 12 hours a day, although that is up from just 12 percent last March.)

It's not just about power. Eight in 10 lack adequate fuel for cooking or driving. Sixty-eight percent rate their supply of clean water negatively. Sixty-two percent say they lack adequate medical care, a number that's grown sharply from 36 percent in November 2005  likely relating to the flight of doctors, among other professionals, who've had the wherewithal to leave the country.

As noted, ratings of local security and family finances are sharply better; so is protection from crime  closely related to security and now rated positively by 54 percent, up from 35 percent in August (but still below its peak, 66 percent in November 2005).

The biggest improvement, also as noted, is in the availability of basic household goods, up 26 points to 65 percent positive. Laggards, though, include some essentials: electricity, medical care, clean water, fuel, enough jobs to go around and freedom of movement.

That's certainly a better picture than I believe many of us in the US would have described.

So, what do we learn from these results? First, the surge must not be undone. In the wake of the successes stemming from the increase in US troop presence has come the inevitable, short-sighted response that it's time for troops to come home. Doing that could be disastrous. US forces must remain in Iraq until the security gains have had more time to coalesce into political and societal improvements. Yes, that could take a while. But the alternative is so disastrous as to be unthinkable.

Second, the US and the Iraqi government need to work at improving basic living conditions. It is inexcusable that, five years in, barely 20% of Iraqis have reliable electricity, 80% lack adequate fuel for heating and cooking, and that around 2/3rds of Iraqis lack clean water or adequate medical care. The improved security from the surge has made political reconciliation possible, but if people lack the essentials of day-to-day life, political gains rapidly become meaningless.

The picture in Iraq certainly doesn't seem to be as bleak as many here in the US describe. But it is, at best, extremely fragile. Keeping high levels of US troops in place may be necessary, but so is improving the lives of Iraqis. If these things can be done, the situation will likely continue to improve.


Todd said...

Who conducted the survey? Frank Luntz? Public opinion surveys are mostly bunk (just ask Bill Haltom). Public opinion surveys conducted by ABC news in Iraq? I'd be even a little extra suspicious of that one.

Anonymous said...

So 5 years of you supporting an occupation that has killed over 1 million people. I am sure you hope for many for years of the same.