War Stories

How Are We Doing?

What Iraqis think of the U.S. occupation.

Iraqi men. Click image to expand.
Iraqis sit on the street during a protest against a U.S airstrike

Beyond the disputes over whether and why Iraqi and American casualties are up or down (or up and down), the status of the war—specifically, the success or failure of the “surge”—comes down to two issues: security and trust. Do the Iraqi people feel more secure? Do they trust their government, their police, and the U.S. occupation forces?

These are the critical questions in a counterinsurgency campaign, in which the goal is not so much to kill insurgents (though that’s part of it) but rather to win the allegiance of the population in order to deny the insurgents support and sanctuary.

The only way to know whether this is succeeding is to ask the Iraqi people. Their answers are not assuring.

It is, of course, hard to gauge popular opinion in a war-torn country while a war is still going on. However, ABC; BBC; NHK; D3 Systems of Vienna, Va.; and KA Research of Istanbul, Turkey; jointly undertook an effort to do so in early March and again in late August of this year. While all such polls have their limits, this one seems as close to truth as we’re going to get. (For their methodology, click here.)

Anthony Cordesman, chief military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, summarized the poll’s findings in a 51-page report last week. I highly recommend a thorough reading, though its gist can be summarized as follows:

The Iraqis don’t much like us or trust us. They see us as more a threat than a protector. Their hostility has, by and large, worsened in recent months. Yet, while the vast majority of Iraqis want the American troops (and their few remaining coalition partners) to leave at some point, most of them don’t want us to leave just yet.

Perhaps the poll’s most dismaying finding is the dramatic deepening of the Iraqi people’s pessimism. In a similar poll taken in November 2005, two-thirds of those surveyed said life was getting better. In March 2007, this figure fell to 35 percent. In August, it dropped further to 29 percent.

Asked about the effect that the surge has had on security in the six months leading up to August, 22 percent of all Iraqis surveyed said the situation had improved, but 30 percent said it had worsened; 42 percent said it had no effect at all. Among Shiites, the figures were roughly the same (30 percent said better, 20 percent said worse, 48 percent said no effect). But for all the talk of a “Sunni awakening,” only 7 percent of Sunni Arabs said the surge had improved security, 55 percent said conditions had worsened, and 38 percent said nothing had changed. Even the Kurds, the clearest beneficiaries of America’s military presence, were divided between those who thought the surge had made things better (48 percent) and those who thought it made no difference (47 percent). (Just 6 percent of them thought it made things worse.)

More telling still were the results when Iraqis were asked—in March and again in August—whether security conditions were “good” or “bad” in their own neighborhoods. Respondents in four provinces said security had improved—though majorities in all but one province still said conditions were bad. (The highlight here, as might be expected, is Anbar province, where the percentage of those saying security is bad dropped from 100 percent in March to 61 percent in August.) However, in all the other areas, the percentages of those who replied “bad” went up between those two months—and, in most cases, went up sharply.

Compared with the poll last March, the August poll revealed more Iraqis saying they knew of kidnappings and car bombings in their neighborhoods in all parts of the country.

As for how they view us, except in the Kurdish provinces, the vast majority of those surveyed think the United States is doing a bad job in protecting Iraqis and in providing basic services.

More alarming, 57 percent of Iraqis think that it is acceptable to attack American soldiers. That figure is up from 51 percent in March and a mere 17 percent back in February 2004. (Only 7 percent of Kurds agree with this sentiment; if they are removed from the poll, the hostility is more glowering still. Half of Shiites think it’s all right to attack Americans, up from 35 percent in March; 94 percent of our new allies the Sunni Arabs think it’s fine to do so, statistically unchanged from the 93 percent who thought so back in March.)

So much for our perceived legitimacy as an occupying power.

The Iraqis don’t look so kindly on their own leaders, either. In March, 49 percent of those surveyed said they had confidence in the Iraqi central government. In August, that figure had fallen to 39 percent.

The poll contains some good news, too. The image of the Iraqi army and police forces is improving. In March, when Iraqis were asked who was most in command of security in their area at that time, a majority in several cities and provinces said nobody was in command. When the question was asked again in August, a plurality said the Iraqi security forces were. (Fewer Iraqis, across the country, said U.S. forces were.)

In March, when Iraqis were asked whom they blamed most for the violence, a majority blamed the United States. In the August poll, a vast array of entities gets considerable blame; none of them, including America, dominates the list.

But then the question arises, just as it arises in discussions stateside: What is to be done? The answer is muddled, but it is fairly clear what most Iraqis want not to be done. Nearly all of them want the Americans to leave at some point—when their government is stronger or when security is better or when their army can act independently. But most of them don’t want us to go home just yet.

Nationwide, the percentage of those who do want us to leave now has grown, from 35 percent in March to 47 percent in August, but they still fall short of a majority. In two cities (Basra and Kirkuk), a slight majority (51 percent to 55 percent) wants us and other members of the coalition to go now. In only two provinces does a substantial majority want us out immediately: Ninevah (67 percent) and—oddly, given the alliance we’ve struck with the tribal leaders there—Anbar (70 percent). In most provinces, only one-quarter to two-fifths feel that way. Among Kurds, it’s more like one-tenth.

And so, in this regard, Iraqis are not so different from Americans: They hate the war, they hate the occupation, but they don’t know what to do about it; they don’t know how to bring it to an end without very possibly sowing still greater destruction.