“War of Words” at the American Enterprise Institute – Part 3

(On May 17, 2006, AEI hosted the “War of Words” veterans in a panel discussion entitled “Veterans Speak Out on the Coverage of the Iraq War.” DD will publish their statements on May 17, 18 and 19.)

Lt. Lawrence Indyk,
U.S. Army

First, I’d like to thank Danielle Pleitka, and the rest of the staff at A-E-I for giving us this big microphone to air our views on Operation Iraqi Freedom. Most of the guys who fight America’s wars never get that. But a lot of us wish for one.

You won’t find an Iraqi vet who doesn’t have strong opinions about his service, and whose opinions aren’t colored by his particular experience. I’m no exception.

I was stationed in Northern Iraq – in areas that were primarily Kurdish. And that colors how I think about the war. Ever since the US imposed a no-fly zone after the first Gulf War, the Kurds, under the curtain of American air cover, have been developing their own vigorous democracy and economy.

But the “Kurdish North” of media fame is quite a bit more complex. From biblical times, the rulers of the Tigris-Euphrates basin have displaced conquered peoples, and replaced them with groups loyal to the government. Saddam did this on a large scale, just as the Turks did in a previous age. The result is a highly heterogeneous population – predominantly Kurdish, but with many Arabs, Assyrians, and Turkmen as well. Some of these groups enjoyed special favor under Saddam, and are therefore ill-disposed to the American-led coalition that destroyed the old order.

I can’t minimize either attitude. I saw the gratitude of Iraqis who greeted us as liberators. And I’m still carrying a bit of shrapnel from Iraqis who didn’t.

But this war isn’t about my personal experience – or Paul Hacket’s for that matter. Iraq is a big place. People who have been there tell you, truthfully, a lot of different things. So how do we assess the truth?

U.S. policy in Iraq aimed to replace an ultra-aggressive, terror-harboring tyranny with a stable, constitutional democracy, at peace with its neighbors. And to assess our progress on that track, we need metrics that are not personal — criteria we can measure.

One set of metrics relates to security. Is the insurgency growing or declining? And are Iraqis safer or less safe under the new regime?

A second set of metrics is institutional. One goal of U.S. policy is to create the civic institutions of democracy – a constitution, a free press, political parties, minority rights, and democratic elections.

A third set of metrics is economic. How are Iraqis living? How is business faring? Are vital services, like health care, transportation and education, improving or declining? And what of the infrastructure – roads, electricity, water supply, and, yes, oil?

Now, the overwhelming bulk of statistical metrics available on Iraq comes from coalition sources — the MNF headquarters, the Iraq inspector general’s office, U.S. AID, and the Department of Defense. This is true whether the reporting body is inclined to support administration policy, or inclined to criticize it.

At Americas Majority, we decided to use the most reputable polls of the Iraqi people to cross-check these metrics. Whether we are discussing security, democracy, or economics, if circumstances are really improving, then that fact will show up in the attitudes of the Iraqi people themselves. The polls will either confirm what the official statistics tell us, or they will contradict those statistics. And often, they help explain them.

To this end, we have used polling by the Gallup, Zogby, the International Republican Institute, and Oxford Research to elucidate what the raw numbers are saying.
Now, I’ve got a lot of ground to cover, and little time to do it. So I will summarize our conclusions regarding America’s progress toward its policy goals in Iraq.

Regarding security – the first set of metrics – the Iraqi democracy and its coalition allies are clearly defeating the two main insurgent groups – jihadists and Ba’athist recidivists. The first turning point occurred last March, when the numbers of Iraqi security forces on the ground surpassed those of Coalition troops. Today, IDF forces outnumber the Multi-National Force two-to-one. And their quality is rising. The elected Iraqi government, aided by the MNF, now has the capacity to “clear, hold, and build,” as the generals put it.
The second tipping point occurred on December 15, 2005, when Iraqis elected their first national four-year legislature, with a high turnout in the majority Sunni areas. This obviously strengthened the government. But more subtly, it splintered the insurgency. Faced with the rapidly increasing force capability of a popularly elected government, the strategic plans of the two chief insurgent groups diverged sharply.

For the Ba’athist recividists, always the numerical core of the insurgency, anti-government and anti-MFN terror became a negotiating tools, to be deployed to win favorable terms for amnesty for past misdeeds, or for entrance into the government going forward. But for the jihadis, the new government itself became the primary target. Spectacular assaults against unarmed Shi’ite civilians became the operation of choice. The object was to excite retribution by Shi’ite milias, or, better still, by Shi’ites in the IDF, thereby radicalizing Sunnis both inside Iraq, and outside of it.

The paradoxical impact of this decision is that it has kept the insurgency going by constantly narrowing its base. Anti-civilian terror has generated an explosion in actionable intelligence that pro-government forces receive from the Iraqi population – from 483 tips in March of 2005 to over 4000 per month in 2006. Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq is being dismantled by the equivalent of a tips hotline.

The objective metrics of security on the ground are confirmed by polling data. Anti-civilian operations are loathed almost unanimously by Iraqis of all ethnicities and religions.

An interesting aspect of the Iraq polls on security is that whereas the ‘right-way-wrong-way’ assessments have varied in different phases of the insurgency, most Iraqis consider their personal security in their own neighborhood to be good. And a plurality consistently rates both security and freedom from crime as better post-Saddam than under the Ba’athists.

This doesn’t mean security is good – it’s not. It means that the baseline under Saddam’s rule – 75 to 125 regime-caused deaths daily – was abysmal. In vast swathes of Iraq, especially the northern and southern governates, the overthow of the regime has improved public safety, according to the people who live there.

The metrics on the progress of Iraqi democracy are also positive. They include the massive turnouts for the elections of the Transitional National Assembly, the local and provincial assemblies, the new Constitution, and the National Council elected under that Constitution. A free press has thrived since the regime change.

What do Iraqis think of these new freedoms? By 77%-to-22%, Iraqis support the regime change that has occurred. The majority want a strong central government, democratically elected. But they want it to be a unity government – one that includes all the major factions of Iraqi society.

Surveying the metrics of Iraq’s economy, the progress is less certain. Real GDP grew 3.7% last year, according to the World Bank. But there are powerful cross-currents, some building the country up, others dragging it down.

The latest report of the Special Auditor for Iraq records that oil and electricity production, though improved, have yet to equal their pre-war peaks. Oil piracy has cost the government billions of dollars. On a brighter note, Iraqi oil exports earnings hit $3 billion in April – the highest post-invasion total, and one of the highest ever.

You’ve heard a lot about the blackouts in Baghdad. You’ve probably heard less about the increased megawattage available outside of Baghdad.

Sinan Al-Shibibi, who ran Iraq’s central bank, contends that currency stabilization and debt relief have been an enormous boon to the ecconomy.

Then, there are the tales of roads and schools built, and of clinics botched; of rampant corruption in some contracts, and heroic effort in others.

But beneath the glitz and turmoil of the big projects, a new entrepreneurial class is thriving, less because we’ve helped it than because Iraqis, freed from the Ba’ath Party, are helping themselves. There has been a colossal increase in the registration of businesses. There has been an amazing proliferation of household appliances, cell phones, and motor vehicles.

All these trends are true: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Iraq is enjoying, and suffering through, the conversion of a command-and-control economy to a market economy. And nothing in the objective metrics can tell us whether the coalition is “winning” or “losing”, because the situation is a long way from resolved.

Under Saddam, 94% of central government revenues were generated by oil. With those revenues, Saddam built of the core of support for his regime, in the form of armed services, spy networks, security police, and subsidies to favored groups.

Entrepreneurship was discouraged, and foreign ownership outlawed.

Saddam used his oil revenues to underwrite massive debt, which he applied primarily to an arms buildup – including WMDs — and massive public construction projects. He sought to allay this debt via conquest – first in Iran, later in Kuwait, always with an eye toward Saudi Arabia. These projects assassinated the Iraqi economy. Two massive inflations destroyed personal savings, the first during the Iraq-Iran war, the second following his expulsion from Kuwait.

The new government, building on the broken husk of an oil-export economy, faces a much tougher problem than Saddam ever faced. He needed only the support of a portion of the population sufficient to repress the rest. A stable democracy needs far broader legitimacy.

The energies of Iraqis have been liberated. But the conundrum of maintaining Iraq’s energy and food subsidies long enough for the fruits of enterprise to take hold will occupy the Iraqi democracy for a long time to come.

It is fascinating to see how these cross-currents play out in the polls of Iraqi citizens. Iraqis confirm the major problems in the reconstruction effort.

  • They appreciate America’s assistance in building Iraq’s services and infrastructure, but believe that the U.S. is doing a miserable job.
  • With state employment down, joblessness is a major problem.
  • Some services, the Iraqis tell us, are worse now than before the war. Electricity is a particular complaint, especially in Baghdad.
  • Other services have improved. A plurality of Iraqis tell pollsters that access to education and medical care are better now than under the Ba’athists. And they contend that the availability of household necessities has also improved.

Nowhere is optimism more evident than among businessmen.

  • By two-to-one, entrepreneurs regard the business environment of Iraq to have improved post-Saddam.
  • By 82%-to-10%, business owners believe that the democracy will be good for business.

One consistent finding of surveys of post-war Iraqis is the optimism of the people. By 48%-to-18%, Iraqis expect their circumstances to improve over the next year, and by 61%-to-12%, they anticipate improvement over the next five years.

Americans expect the opposite. By 49%-to-31%, our citizens expect the situation to deteriorate.

But then, Iraqis don’t get their info from American media. They live there.

Thank you for your attention.

Comments are closed.