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The Damage Done

The 10 big takeaways from America's adventure in Iraq are also clues to its uncertain future. 

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With a wave of over a dozen bombings ripping through Baghdad just a week after U.S. troops officially pulled out, new questions are being raised about the country’s ability to stand on its own without U.S. security assistance. Before looking ahead to whether Iraq can withstand a potential new wave of sectarian violence, it’s crucial to take measure of where the country currently stands and the effect of eight years of war on its people and institutions.

Shortly after the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, researchers at the Brookings Institution began the Iraq Index to keep tabs on how the war progressed. As students of counterinsurgency know, it is difficult to find the right metrics to evaluate how a war effort of this type is going. It is also challenging to obtain reliable data even if relevant metrics have been identified. The most important metrics can also change with time; additionally, some can be leading indicators of change, while others tend to lag broader improvements.

In the war’s early days, the general sense of disorder and chaos and the disempowerment of many former Baathists and former soldiers were probably the most important metrics. They augured poorly for the future — while official U.S. data focused more on restoration of infrastructure and other generally positive indicators that though important may not have been quite as crucial as they seemed at the time. Then U.S. attention turned to building up Iraqi security forces, but, alas, progress in their training, numbers, and equipment could not trump the growing sectarian fissures that were widening within the government, Army, police, and country writ large.

Metrics of violence were recognized as the most important indicators by 2006 and 2007, when the country was being ripped apart. The success of the surge was fairly easy to see, as these numbers plummeted in late 2007 and 2008. Since then, however, tracking Iraq’s changes has become harder as progress has slowed and politics have become at least as important as security and quality-of-life indicators.

With U.S. military engagement in Iraq having come to an end, here are 10 key metrics that reveal both the damage wrought by the war and the state of the country that U.S. forces are leaving behind:

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U.S. and Coalition Fatalities and Injuries

At least 4,487 U.S. soldiers died during the war, in addition to 318 from other foreign countries. Additionally, 32,226 more U.S. troops were seriously wounded in action. The highest tolls were suffered from 2004 through 2007 or so as the security situation worsened across the country following an increase in sectarianism, all of which arguably became a full-fledged civil war on or about the time of al Qaeda in Iraq’s 2006 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra.

Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were the weapon of choice for insurgents as they found U.S. defenses against them generally lacking — and found direct firefights with coalition forces too unappealing. Through much of the heavy fighting against insurgent groups, IEDs accounted for as many as 55 to 65 percent of the deaths and an even larger percentage of American injuries. Overall, IEDs killed about 40 percent of those slain during the conflict, and due to their effectiveness they have also been the weapon of choice for attacking U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, even as the widespread introduction of mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs) has improved the security of troops in many types of situations.

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Iraqi Civilian and Security Force Fatalities

The war took a major toll on Iraqis. By our estimates, more than 115,000 Iraqi civilians died in violence associated with war, though this number is approximate and the correct figure could well be tens of thousands higher. At the peak of the civil war — characterized by sectarian violence and spurred on by outside influences like al Qaeda — during much of 2006 and the first half of 2007, monthly death tolls of 3,000 or greater were seen. In 2006 alone, roughly 35,000 civilians died from war.

Additionally, over 10,000 Iraqi security force personnel perished from June 2003 through the end of 2011, and as many as 200 to 300 Iraqi Army and police deaths per month occurred from 2005 to 2007. As the surge of U.S. and Iraqi troops, improved tactics, and political changes in Iraq shifted the course of the war in 2007, the rates of both civilian and security force deaths dropped dramatically heading into 2008. These rates continued downward thereafter to a fairly steady state of considerable but significantly less violence at the end of the U.S. involvement in Iraq, with monthly civilian tolls now in the range of 100 to 300 fatalities. Daily attacks and minor bombings are still commonplace, as are larger coordinated attack like the one on Dec. 22, though many Iraqis report feeling safer now than at any time since Saddam Hussein fell, and violence levels are now akin to those of high-crime but “peaceful” countries like South Africa and Mexico. (For example, Mexico has been losing around 10,000 people a year from a population of about 110 million; Iraq, at one-fourth that population, has of late been suffering less than one-fifth that number of deaths from organized violence.)

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The Difficulties of Standing Up a New Government

Although the invasion and subsequent toppling of the Iraqi regime was about as quick a process as one could hope for in war, the reconstruction phase was and continues to be anything but easy. In July 2003, the Iraqi Governing Council was established under the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority. From there, the Iraqi interim government took over in 2004 and was followed by the Iraqi transitional government in 2005.

The first free elections took place in the beginning of 2005, which led to a constitution and the first full-term government of the new Iraq one year later. It was, however, seen as largely sectarian and did perhaps more to fuel than quell the violence. The year 2010 witnessed the second series of major elections in Iraq, resulting in further political turmoil. After nine months of deliberation, a negotiated settlement creating a new unity government was reached, though even today some key positions remain unfilled and the government verges on a state of crisis that grew notably more intense in the second half of December just as the last U.S. military units left the country.

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Oil Revenue and Energy Infrastructure

Oil is Iraq’s lifeblood, and today it typically generates more than $5 billion a month in export revenues. The process of increasing oil production has, however, been slow and tedious, with most of the increase in revenues due to the rise in world oil prices rather than greater output. The prewar rate of production — around 2.5 million barrels per day — was briefly stunted during the war’s initial phase but quickly returned to the 2 million-barrel-a-day range by the end of 2003. Since then, only a slight increase has occurred, and current production is around 2.7 million barrels per day.

Iraq hopes to increase production manyfold, to 13.5 million barrels per day by 2018, yet at the moment this hope seems more like a dream than an actual plan. Foreign investment is less than hoped for, owing in part to numerous administrative and political hurdles as well as the security situation. A hydrocarbon law promised in 2005, defining the revenue-sharing arrangement between Iraq and the semiautonomous Kurdish region, has still not been passed. Insurgents still attack deteriorating and war-ravaged infrastructure relatively frequently. Recently, a mid-December bombing of the expansive Rumaila oil field cut its daily production in half, or by 700,000 barrels per day.

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The Battle to Keep Electricity Flowing

When it comes to disappointed expectations, the Iraqi oil sector is not alone. In fact, Iraq’s electricity problem may be one of its greatest, despite some real progress. Although generation has climbed a good deal compared with prewar levels — from an average of 4,000 to 6,500 megawatts — demand has grown at a greater pace. Even with a patchwork of private utilities, sometimes creating dangerous tangles of lines in cities and neighborhoods, the Iraqi electrical grid often fails to reach 50 percent of demand. This discrepancy helps make power disruptions common and complaints rampant, contributing to political instability.

China recently signed a $1.2 billion contract to build new electric plants near Baghdad that will increase generation ability by 1,260 megawatts, and Iraq is also increasing transmission from neighboring Iran to bolster its capabilities. Iraq expects to be self-sufficient by 2014, but that could be a challenge.

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A Proliferation of Modern Communications

Iraq’s most significant material gain in recent years may be the proliferation of cell phones and the Internet. Before the war, fewer than 1 million Iraqis had a phone and fewer than 5,000 had access to the web. Today there are more than 22 million phone subscribers and about 2 million people online. In addition to phones and Internet, access to satellite television has had a massive impact on those who previously were only able to watch state propaganda, cartoons, or sports. Modernization of telecommunications continues today, and foreign investment is quite good in this sector. Although growth has been tremendous, there is still much work to be done to reach full modernization. Roughly half the country’s citizens still do not have a phone of any kind, and computers are still only in a small fraction of Iraqi homes.

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Life in Iraq: Essential Services and the Economy

Iraqis have more access to the world today than ever before, at least when there is power to run their electronics. Other aspects of life have improved as well, but more progress is still needed. Individuals able to access modern sanitation services rose from 8 percent in 2008 to near 30 percent today, but a large portion of the population remains in need. On the water front, things are better. More than 70 percent of the population has access to drinkable water now, a major increase from just a few years ago when less than 25 percent had access.

A growing economy will be critical to public services. Iraq’s GDP has expanded from $20 billion per year before the war to about $108 billion this year. If oil production increases as hoped, Iraq could become a rich country capable of rebuilding itself, if it does not fall back into war in the meantime.

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Coalition and Iraqi Troop Strength and the Security Handoff

More than 1 million U.S. troops served in Iraq throughout the course of the war. Total international troop strength reached as high as 180,000 on two occasions — during parts of 2005 and again at the peak of the surge in 2007, when as many as 170,000 U.S. troops were stationed in Iraq. By mid-2009, the last of the non-U.S. contingent of forces — once numbering as many as 25,000 — left the country as the war became solely a U.S. and Iraqi mission.

Although the Iraqi military was initially disbanded after the invasion (a fateful decision, as we now know), a small force of several thousand police was formed immediately. By late 2003, the first of the new armed forces, including border patrol and national guard units, entered the security picture. Overall Iraqi force numbers quickly increased to more than 100,000 by the start of 2004, though most were still not effective when operating alone, absent foreign help. By 2007, the Iraqi numbers had climbed to 400,000. When the U.S. combat mission ended in August 2010, Iraqi forces on duty — running missions on their own — closed in on 670,000, where they remain today. Their effectiveness remains mixed, but as noted there is considerable reason for hopefulness, as violence has continued to decline in Iraq over the last four years even as U.S. troops have progressively done less and less each year. 

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Flows of People

With up to 1 million Iraqis already displaced prior to the war, millions more fled their homes in the aftermath of the invasion and during escalating sectarian violence in the country in the years that followed. Between 2.5 million and 3 million Iraqis ended up displaced at the peak, many in disheveled camps and squatter communities. An additional 2 million refugees ended up outside the country, primarily in neighboring Syria and Jordan.

Asylum seekers — individuals not recognized as refugees by their host country — increased as well, reaching a peak of over 45,000 individuals in 2007. Many headed to developed countries like the United States or to parts of the European Union. Only a little over 100,000 refugees have come home since 2008; the number of internally displaced has declined more, but still remains around 1.5 million. Many Iraqis who have returned report that they regret coming back. The possibility of future violence and additional displacement remains palpable.

Iraqi Views on the Country’s Future

Recent surveys produced by the International Republican Institute show that, unfortunately, a majority of Iraqis now think the country is headed in the wrong direction. This finding contrasts with the fact that a majority viewed things as headed in the right direction during the last few years. In Baghdad in particular, a survey released in early December 2011 indicated that 62 percent thought the country was headed the wrong way, compared with 28 percent who believed it was headed in a positive direction.

More hopefully, strong majorities think security is better now than a year ago. In similar light, the Iraqi Army and Iraqi National Police often score higher than the government in rankings of performance. Going into the 2010 election, approval was about 60 percent, with only 25 percent disapproving. As for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, ratings are now about 50-50. And much of the worry is concentrated among Sunni populations that created much of the initial resistance after the 2003 invasion. Iraq has come a long way, but its progress is fragile and the moment is fraught.

KHALIL AL-MURSHIDI/AFP/Getty Images 

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