Thursday, September 09, 2004

The CSIS Report

Andrew Sullivan links to a Center for Strategic and International Studies report on reconstruction in Iraq, which he characterizes as follows:

Going backward in Iraq? That's part of the extremely depressing message from the latest CSIS report on the liberation. Reconstruction is pitiful; the Shi'a and Sunni insurgencies remain intact; there is growing restlessness in the north. I don't think CSIS has an ax to grind; and their report is chock-full of data and interviews and on-the-ground reporting. It seems to me that the question of how we turn things around should be the most important question of the campaign. And yet it's barely mentioned.

The first thing to realize about the report is that it is an attempt to capture a state of mind. It does not attempt to measure things like GNP, hospital beds available or miles of concreted roads. Toward this end, the authors of the study attempted to measure Iraqi attitudes in five areas which they deemed essential to "jumpstarting" a successful democratic nation: security, governance, economic opportunity, services and social-well being. "Our focus on trends rather than particular events or inputs was deliberate: we wanted to move away from the idea of nation building, in favor of nation jumpstarting. Reconstruction efforts should be a catalytic process, centered on developing institutions and programs that move a country in the right direction." (page 22). "We developed the rating scale discussed above to measure Iraqis’ perceptions and satisfaction in these five areas, based on an adaptation of Dr. Abraham Maslow’s humanistic psychological theory of a hierarchy of human needs." (page 24)

Based on this measured state of mind, the report's authors hoped to say something meaningful about a "tipping point" which is notionally where the Iraqis can take over for themselves. "The tipping point is often viewed as a take-off point, ... a break-even point, at which a struggling nation can take over running things itself and be reasonably successful." To avoid cherry-picking paragraphs to support a conclusion, the best summary of the report would be a verbatim recital from its own findings (page 32). Here they are:

"I take it that rebuilding Iraq faces two stages: a terrible stage and eventually a very successful one." In many ways, this quote is reflective of the current state of play in Iraq, at least as Iraqis seem to see it. Iraqis are enormously frustrated with the pace of reconstruction and the state of affairs across most of the five sectors we examined, with social wellbeing a possible exception. Yet, they are not willing to write off the possibility that things will turn around. With the exception of Kirkuk residents, most do not take seriously the possibility that Iraq could descend into civil war, pointing out that there has never been one in the past.

Although Iraqis we interviewed as part of this project express optimism in virtually every area of the reconstruction, the quotes taken from interviews are often critical or negative. One explanation for this, according to our researchers, is that Iraqis actually expect less out of the reconstruction process than is generally assumed. They have lived through a terrible government, and they did not expect much better from the CPA. Because their expectations are low, they are more optimistic about meeting them.

The area by area assessment of each area is given below, again verbatim (pages 12-13).

Security continues to be the predominant issue, hampering reconstruction efforts on all other fronts. Crime is rampant, and, along with fears of bombings, militias’ roadblocks, banditry on the highways, and regular kidnappings, continues to impact Iraqis’ ability to go about their daily lives with any semblance of normalcy. Iraqis are well disposed toward their own security forces and clearly want them to play the leading role in bringing stability to the country, but those forces are still not up to the task. Iraqis have little confidence in U.S. and other international forces.

Governance and Participation is a largely negative picture, despite a slight boost in optimism related to the June 28 transfer of sovereignty. Iraqis are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the January elections but otherwise remain starkly pessimistic about governance and participation issues. Most are willing to give their government a chance, although they continue to question its credibility. Corruption is rampant, and there are worrisome trends in terms of protection of women’s and minority rights and religious freedom. Kurds showed surprisingly negative results on governance; they are frustrated with their own political parties and wary about protection of Kurdish interests by a new Iraqi government. U.S. efforts have been overly focused on national level politics and central government institutions. Efforts to develop local and regional political bodies have not been adequately backed up by the resources and technical assistance that would meaningfully empower decentralized governance institutions.

The continuing lack of Economic Opportunity and high levels of unemployment impact reconstruction in other sectors, fueling security problems and leading to entrenched frustration and anger at the occupying forces. Iraq’s perceived wealth sustains Iraqis’ positive view of the future, but security problems continue to undermine oil production and export. Unemployment continues to overshadow the U.S.-driven macroeconomic reform efforts and salary increases for Iraq’s civil servants. Iraqis currently have a negative view of job availability, and those who choose to work for foreign companies or in Iraq’s security forces face serious security risks.

Iraqis remain unhappy with the level of Services they are receiving. The lack of sufficient electricity in major cities continues to undermine public confidence, fueling worrisome discontent in cities like Falluja and Mosul, which were favored under Saddam and now receive considerably less power than in prewar days. Sewage systems are worse than they were under Saddam, causing spillover health and environmental problems. There is a wide gap between the level of services actually being provided (at least, according to U.S. government sources) and Iraqis’ perception that services are inadequate.

Social Well-Being has seen significant improvement in terms of access to education and health care, although there has been a downward trend in recent months. There was an initial boost in the education sector with thousands of schools rebuilt and children returning to school, but this has been countered in recent months by Iraqi frustration at the lack of longer-term, sustainable efforts in the education sector. There are signs that Iraqi children continue to drop out of school at high rates in order to work and help supplement the family income. The health care sector has suffered due to Iraq’s security problems and inadequate basic services. Militias’ roadblocks and highway banditry hinder access to and supplies for medical care, and the lack of a functioning sewage system has led to an increase in water-borne diseases.

Having laid out what the report objectively says by quoting it, I will lay out my subjective analysis of the report in three sentences. If anyone is hoping Iraq will become an infamous, unmitigated catastrophe, don't hold your breath. This report does not predict it. If anyone is hoping that America will be able to leave Iraq in a couple of years to the tune of brass bands marching over a carpet of strewn flowers, don't hold your breath either.

In the key area of security, the authors state that everyone says it's getting better, but that's not what they mean. On page 35 the report says.

Iraq has not reached the tipping point in this sector, meaning the average Iraqi cannot yet say “I travel throughout my community, avoiding only areas that are known to be dangerous.” The data collected in this sector is largely negative, with a lower percentage of positive data points than in the other four sectors we reviewed. Unlike most of the other sectors, which have at least shown some initial progress since the fall of Saddam, security has been static, not showing a clear trend-line in any direction (see Graph 2). Moreover, there is little variance among sources in this sector, with the exception of the interviews, which reflected more positive results than any of the other sources (see Graph 3). At the same time, the more positive interview results appear to be an initial reaction to recent events such as the formal end of the occupation and the pullout of U.S. forces from Falluja in the late spring.

Well here are Graphs 2 and 3. Graph 2 measures indicators which are judged to have a static trend. Graph 3 shows Iraqis polling that security is improving but this conclusion is discounted as an initial euphoria over the transfer of power.

Graph 2 
Static trends

Graph 3
Positive perception trends in security ... but discounted

Let's examine the report's look into security in a little bit more detail. "Iraqi Security Force Capacity Iraqis throughout the country have reacted positively to the heightened presence of Iraqi police officers and the ICDC, optimistic that they will ultimately gain the upper hand in dealing with crime and the public safety situation generally." (page 37).  "Although they tend to express optimism in their security forces, Iraqis’ daily lives are profoundly affected by the security environment, both by high crime and the ongoing insurgency." (page 38) But this is discounted because "the data we collected suggests that Iraqis have had to alter their daily activities because of security concerns. Thus, shop owners have started to close their businesses earlier and girls’ school attendance is down because parents do not want their daughters to go outside the home. The dire security situation seems to be impacting women and girls disproportionately, with girls largely confined to their homes with the exception of going to school." (page 38) However "Iraqi men will still leave their homes, even in the midst of a live battle, in order to get to work or attend to the family’s needs." (page 38). On the all-important matter of the insurgency, the report reaches no hard conclusions. One interesting tidbit is the wide variance, by a factor of 3 to 7 between "official" insurgent casualties and "unofficial" tolls. (pages 39-40)

The three-week relative calm in Iraq after the United States transferred power to Iraq’s interim government on June 28, 2004 provided a fleeting moment of hope that perhaps the insurgency would die down with the formal end of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. A resurgence of violence quickly belied this hope. Active fighting, bombings, assassinations, and kidnappings continue to dominate the daily news coverage of Iraq and show no signs of abating. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the data collected on the insurgency is its constancy. U.S. government and military sources tend to focus on how many Iraqi insurgents have been killed by U.S. forces, estimates of numbers of insurgents, or numbers of attacks on U.S. forces. This input driven data almost seems to exist in a vacuum, unrelated to the persistence of the insurgency and its continued effect on daily life in Iraq, in particular on the high numbers of Iraqi civilians who have been killed in its wake. Senior U.S. officials continue to estimate the number of insurgents at around 5,000, although these are far off from the 15,000-35,000 totals quoted by Iraqi and U.S. intelligence officials. It is still unknown exactly how much of the insurgency represents terrorists who have flooded across Iraq’s open borders, and how directly those terrorists are working with the Iraqi insurgency.

Although in the immediate aftermath of the war, the insurgency focused on attacking U.S. forces and Iraqi infrastructure, massive bombing attacks that have disproportionately impacted Iraqi civilians began late last summer and have continued since then. The insurgency’s focus also shifted early on to targeting Iraqis seen as collaborating with the U.S.-led occupying authority, including Iraqi police officers and government officials. Those attacks have continued since the transfer of power, and the insurgency now seems to be aimed at anyone, Iraqi or foreigner, who is linked to Iraq’s interim government or efforts to support that government. Moreover, sabotage of Iraq’s key infrastructure, particularly oil pipelines and the power grid, has continued in force, undermining economic reconstruction efforts.

The insurgency will continue to be the dominant security issue for Iraqis and the United States in Iraq, and it shows no signs of easing in the near-term. Iraq’s interim government seems to have a two-pronged strategy for dealing with the insurgency— approving the U.S. use of heavy force to go after insurgents while also trying to entice or co-opt the insurgents to join the political mainstream—but it is too early to determine the plan’s effectiveness.

Personally, I think the CSIS report is putting the most conservative possible face on the data, "talking it down" so to speak, which might be justified because it is better to err on the side of caution than over-optimism, to prepare for the worst instead of hoping for the best. But I don't think that any reasonable reading of the data will support a conclusion that there any Groupement Mobile 100s or Dien Bien Phus in the offing.

Whether the glass half-empty or half-full depends on one's perspective of the Iraqi campaign. If it is regarded as a battlezone, a "flypaper" trap for terrorists, in the words of David Warren, then it is a remarkably hospitable battle zone, as these things go. Baghdad is not Grozny. But if it is regarded as a preview of the difficulties that will be encountered in extending the campaign to other terrorist strongholds, it leaves much to be desired. One of the principal conclusions of the CSIS report, with which I wholeheartedly agree, is the pivotal role that Iraqi institutions themselves must play in reaching the "tipping zone". It is not American boots on the ground that constitute the long-term critical resource, but Iraqi ones.