So here we are on the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, and some sort of assessment seems almost mandatory. It doesn't start off with good news. The tenuous cease fire with the Iranian-backed Mahdi Militia broke down this week, leading to a new outbreak of violence in southern Iraq and some areas of Baghdad. the U.S. death count in Iraq topped 4000 on Tuesday. But maybe we didn't notice, because the news media and the public seem to have lost interest and coverage of the war has been eclipsed by the economy and the election to the point that it's down to about 4% of what's mentioned in the news.
So the questions are where do we stand and have we made progress and will the war ever end? The answer isn't going to be terribly satisfying for those who support or those who oppose the war, because the basic assessment of the situation in Iraq is that we've achieved a level of managed chaos which could literally go on forever, or which could be ended through means that one or the other side finds absolutely unacceptable.
As demonstrated by recent events, the major downside of the situation in Iraq is that violence continues, although at a substantially lower level than in the past. Violence has become part of everyday life in Iraq, but it is at a lower level and it is no longer pervasive. Businesses are operating and people are going to work in most of the country. But the threat of violence remains present and people have just learned to live with it and accept it as inevitable. This balance of ongoing violence with some level of normality in life is relatively stable and could continue for a very long time. So long as American soldiers remain there they will suffer some casualties. So long as no absolute resolution of the various volatile issues in the country is found, civilians will continue to suffer and life will continue to be harsh and dangerous.
While the continuing violence makes Iraq a highly dysfunctional nation, at the same time there are some remarkable successes, especially on the economic front. The Iraqi economy can only be described as vibrant. Their banks are doing brisk business, their stock market is active and investment in business is booming. The oil industry is back on its feet, they just reopened their largest refinery and they are exporting oil at pre-war levels again. That is producing a lot of revenue for the government to throw at other problem areas like rebuilding infrastructure. They're even predicting massive budget surpluses, something cash strapped American leaders might be jealous of. Small businesses are open again, including markets, cafes and even liquor stores (despite Islamic prohibitions on alcohol).
Iraq is chimerical. A few areas are still plagued by violence, but at this point about two-thirds of the country is fairly peaceful. Kurdistan has been peaceful and prosperous since soon after the invasion. Anbar province has been a great success since Sunni tribal leaders allied with former insurgents to restore order. And with the introduction of more troops and new strategies, sectarian violence has largely stopped in Baghdad and life is slowly returning to normal. Violence remains strongest in the areas where the Iranians have the most influence through the Shiite militias, like the area around Basra. Things are going well enough that in a recent survey Iraq was rated more stable than 21 other countries, a number of which aren't generally considered hotspots of violence. In fact, the murder rate in New Orleans is higher than the U.S. casualty rate in Iraq, and overall there are more violent deaths in Mexico on a per capita basis than there are in Iraq. Yet Mexico remains a tourist destination, while Iraq is a source of horror stories. Of course, in Mexico just as in Iraq there are areas you'd be taking your life in your hands to visit and others which are stable and quite pleasant.
The odd thing about Iraq five years after the invasion is that it appears to be a country which is both extremely violent, but also economically productive and sort of functional in the same way that Pakistan and Nigeria and other violent but viable nations seem to be. Chaos has become a way of life, and one which is quite profitable for the leadership of the nation. It is the ongoing violence which brings foreign aid money and military backing, all with very limited oversight. And the economy is doing well, so that's even more money in the government coffers for bribes and skimming and fattening of purses. It is a situation where the leadership has no real motivation to make things signficantly better because a state of chaos serves them quite well.