The Pentagon ushered in the New Year with seemingly welcome news: Iraq's security is improving. Attacks across the country fell 62% and, according to aid organization Iraqi Red Crescent, 20,000 Iraqi refugees returned home from Syria in December alone. The U.S. troop surge must be working. Even the Democratic opponents of President George Bush's agenda in Iraq are befuddled by the news, unclear how to proceed.
But wait, before America breathes a much wanted sigh of relief, do these measurements have merit? A closer look reveals that the refugee numbers, in context, are misleading and that security in Iraq remains ever elusive.
Take the numbers first. Iraqi Red Crescent reports indicate that 40,000-plus refugees returned home from Syria between September and December 2007. In theory, this is a good thing because it implies increased safety in Iraq. At least that is how Western media is telling the story. Yet even Said Hakki, the organization's president, is downplaying the numbers, recognizing that given the 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria alone and the 1 million in neighboring countries such as Jordan, Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, and Turkey, these returnees remain a small part of the picture.
The U.S. military, furthermore, appears disinclined to see an increase in the numbers of refugee returns. Afraid that a flood of refugees will incite further sectarian violence, General David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, refuses to put resettlement responsibilities in the hands of U.S. forces. In his words, "We obviously do not have that kind of capability on the ground here." That means that over 4 million total displaced Iraqis, 2.2 million inside Iraq and over 2 million outside, are on their own. To put it differently, one-fifth of the nation's entire population, many of whom left in response to the 2003 U.S. invasion, should head home without expectation of American assistance.
What Petraeus and the Pentagon fail to factor in is the impending impact on public services when refugees return. Security, it seems, will quickly go south. Not only will conflict increase when those displaced are determined to reclaim property rightfully theirs. But perhaps even more significant is the inevitable conflict arising when the burden on government services intensifies. Given the current state of Iraq's electricity, water, health care and nutrition and it becomes painfully clear that services are already overburdened.
With Iraq's oil production at prewar levels, production capacity for electricity is barely at 50% of the country's current demand. The urban environments benefit most while the rural towns remain dark. Baghdad had 9 hours of electricity daily at the end of 2007 while rural residents in Hawijah, for example, hardly got half that at 4 hours a day. When all 700,000 displaced Baghdadis return to their capital city, convinced by U.S. forces that the troop surge is working and that security has improved, electricity capacity will be quickly compromised.
Clean water and sanitation capacity is certainly no better. A 2007 report by international aid organization Oxfam concluded that nearly 70% of Iraq remained without access to clean water with a higher majority, 80%, still lacking effective sanitation. Petraeus is right in one sense; a flood of refugees might result in higher levels of violence, but not because of sectarian reasons. The national utilities sector is saddled in servicing even its non-displaced. More numbers, then, mean more insecurity-explaining, perhaps, why Petraeus is protesting plans for resettlement.
Health services remain the least secure, bordering on catastrophic. Ninety percent of the hospitals in Iraq lack basic medical and surgical supplies. Even if the hospitals were fully equipped, few professionals remain in-country, able to use the equipment. Fifty percent of the country's trained medical staff fled in recent years, leaving a nation with nearly half its population struggling in absolute poverty.
One wonders, then, how the United States can call this country secure. If attacks were the sole barometer of security and the key indicator of state stability and military success, then yes, America's New Year's message might make sense. But with 4 million of Iraq's citizens still displaced and electricity, water, sanitation, and health services struggling, calling this country secure is not only indefensible but unethical.
Security in Iraq will only come after basic needs are met for the displaced and the non-displaced, something that has never been a priority for Petraeus or the Pentagon. Now in the silent aftermath of the surge, these needs beg our political and moral attention.
Michael Shank is a contributor to Foreign Polcy in Focus and an analyst with George Mason University's Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.
Copyright © 2008, Institute for Policy Studies