The List

Next Year's Wars

Ten conflicts to watch in 2012.

What conflict situations are most at risk of deteriorating further in 2012? When Foreign Policy asked the International Crisis Group to evaluate which manmade disasters could explode in the coming year, we put our heads together and came up with 10 crisis areas that warrant particular concern.

Admittedly, there is always a certain arbitrariness to lists. This one is no different. But, in part, that serves a purpose: It will, hopefully, get people talking. Why no room for Sudan -- surely a crisis of terrifying proportions? Or for Europe's forgotten conflicts -- in the North Caucasus, for example, or in Nagorno-Karabakh? You'll see also that we have not included some that are deeply troubling yet strangely under-reported, like Mexico or northern Nigeria. No room, too, for the hardy perennial standoff on the Korean Peninsula, despite the uncertainty surrounding the death of Kim Jong Il.

No reader should interpret their omission as meaning those situations are improving. They are not. But we did feel it is useful to highlight a few places that, to our mind, deserve no less attention. What follows is our top 10. At the end -- and just to remind ourselves that progress is possible -- we've included two countries for which we, cautiously, feel 2012 could augur well.


Many in Syria and abroad are now banking on the regime's imminent collapse and assuming everything will get better from that point on. The reality could turn out to be quite different. As dynamics in both Syria and the broader international arena turn squarely against the regime, many hope that the bloody stalemate finally might end. But however much it now seems inevitable that President Bashar al-Assad will leave the stage after his regime's terrifying brutality over recent months, the initial post-Assad stages carry enormous risks.

On the one hand, the emotionally charged communal polarization, particularly around the Alawite community, has made regime supporters dig in their heels, believing it is "kill or be killed," and their fears of large-scale retribution when Assad falls are very real. On the other, the rising strategic stakes have heightened the regional and wider international competition among all players, who now view the crisis as an historic opportunity to decisively tilt the regional balance of power. In that explosive mix, the first cross-border concern is surely Lebanon: The more Assad's ouster appears imminent, the more Hezbollah -- and its backers in Tehran -- will view the Syrian crisis as an existential struggle designed to deal them a decisive blow, and the greater the risk that they would choose to go for broke and draw to launch attacks against Israel in an attempt to radically alter the focus of attention. "Powder keg" doesn't begin to describe it. The danger is real that any one of these issues could derail or even foreclose the possibility of a successful transition.


Even if Iran and Israel somehow manage to sail safely past the rocks of the Syrian crisis, the enmity between them over the nuclear issue could blow them very dangerously off course. Though sanctions against Iran and saber-rattling all around intensified at the end of 2011, some may see this as merely the continuation of a long-term trend in the epically poor relations between Iran and Israel.

Two factors make 2012 a possible turning point for the worse, however. First, the most recent International Atomic Energy Agency report is particularly unambiguous: It may not have turned up significantly new evidence of Teheran's intention to build a nuclear weapon, but it did highlight more clearly than ever before Iran's obfuscation and unwillingness to cooperate with the international body. Second, the U.S. elections will force support for Israel onto the U.S. domestic agenda even more than usual, and generally create a favorable environment for Israel to act, with any number of unexpected, unintended -- and potentially disastrous -- consequences.


A decade of major security, development, and humanitarian assistance from the international community has failed to create a stable Afghanistan, a fact highlighted by deteriorating security and a growing insurgent presence in previously stable provinces over the past year. In 2011, the capital alone saw a barrage of suicide bombings, including the deadliest attack in the city since 2001; multiple strikes on foreign missions in Kabul, the British Council, and U.S. Embassy; and the assassination of former president and chief peace negotiator Burhanuddin Rabbani. The prospects for next year are no brighter, with many key provinces scheduled for transfer to the ill-equipped Afghan security forces by early 2012.

The litany of obstacles to peace, or at least stability, in Afghanistan is by now familiar. President Hamid Karzai rules by fiat, employing a combination of patronage and executive abuse of power. State institutions and services are weak or nonexistent in much of the country, or else so riddled with corruption that Afghans want nothing to do with them. Dari-speaking ethnic minorities remain skeptical about the prospects for reconciliation with the predominately Pashtun Taliban insurgency, which enjoys the backing of Pakistan's military and intelligence services. The Taliban leadership in Quetta seem to reason that victory is within reach and that they have simply to bide their time until the planned U.S. withdrawal in 2014.


Throughout 2011, Pakistan's relations with the United States were sliding from bad to worse, and NATO's deadly yet apparently accidental bombing of Pakistani soldiers in November turned a miserable relationship into an all but openly hostile one. Partially as a result, but also due to the Pakistani military's support of militants operating in Afghanistan, ties between Islamabad and Kabul are fraying. The elected government has made some progress in its rapprochement with India, moving to normalize trade relations. Yet the process remains hostage to the military's continued support for militant groups such as the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the renamed Lashkar-Tayyeba, responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Another terror attack could result in all-out war between the two nuclear-armed adversaries.

The biggest dangers for Pakistan, however, come not from external sources but rather from within. The transition from dictatorship to democracy is not at all consolidated, and the military still control crucial areas of foreign and security policy. Radical Islamism is destabilizing and even dominating the country at times, with violent attacks on leading liberal political figures shaking what little confidence anyone may have had that Pakistan can escape disaster. Yet there is still some hope, because radical Islamists lack popular support, and the two political parties that are likely to win the next general election in 2013 (provided the democratic transition is not disrupted by the military) -- the ruling PPP and the opposition PML-N -- have the capacity and the political will to take the country back to its moderate moorings.


Yemen stands between violent collapse and a thin hope of a peaceful transfer of power. Under increasing pressure from international and regional actors, President Ali Abdullah Saleh finally signed a transition agreement on Nov. 23. Under the agreement, he immediately transferred significant authorities to his vice president and is scheduled to officially leave office after early elections that are scheduled for Feb. 21. This was an important first step, but one that fell far short of solving Yemen's problems.

Many challenges remain, including holding signatories responsible for implementing the transitional agreement, adequately addressing unresolved issues of political inclusion and justice, and improving dire economic and humanitarian conditions. Moreover, tensions between Yemen's competing armed power centers, particularly Saleh's family on one hand versus defected general Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and the (unrelated) powerful al-Ahmar clan on the other, remain unresolved and are a potential flashpoint for further violence. One of the most challenging tasks during the first phase of the transition will be securing a durable ceasefire, removing all military and armed tribesmen from urban centers, and beginning meaningful reform of the military and security forces.

It's a tall order, and international actors have a part to play. Threats of targeted sanctions against Saleh and his family from members of the U.N. Security Council played a part in bringing some regime hard-liners to the negotiating table. Now, with an agreement signed, implementation requires that pressure must be applied to all sides: Saleh and his supporters on one hand and the opposition parties and their affiliates on the other. For now, support has coalesced around Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who, according to the agreement, will be the consensus candidate in the February elections. As a relatively neutral figure, Hadi may encourage some measure of compromise and security.

Adding to the uncertainty over Yemen's future are southern activists whose demands may yet range from immediate independence to a federation of North and South Yemen, and Houthi rebels in northern Yemen who seek greater rights for their community and a degree of local autonomy. And, while politicians negotiate in Sanaa, government forces and local tribesmen are in an ongoing fight against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Abyan governorate. The one certainty is that the struggle for Yemen will last long into 2012.


Several states in the region are surviving on luck: their infrastructure near collapse, their political systems eaten away by corruption, their public services almost nonexistent. On top of all this, Tajikistan, for example, now faces a growing security threat from both local and external insurgencies, something it has almost zero capacity to contain. Adding to the country's woes, relations with neighboring Uzbekistan are at an all-time low, with their long-running water dispute no closer to resolution and occasionally deadly border incidents threatening to spark deeper violence.

As for Uzbekistan itself, Washington increasingly relies on Tashkent for logistics in Afghanistan, but the brutal nature of the regime means it is not only an embarrassing partner but also, ultimately, a very unreliable one. Already there has been at least one attack on the rail line transiting U.S. material through the country. Given how U.S.-Pakistan relations seem to hit a new low every week, Washington may feel it has little choice, but it certainly seems to be "out of the fire and into the frying pan" at best.

Then there is volatile Kyrgyzstan. Without prompt, genuine and exhaustive measures to address the damage done by the 2010 ethnic pogroms in the south, the country risks another round of mass violence. The ultranationalist mayor of Osh, Melis Myrzakmatov, who has in the past claimed that Bishkek's writ does not extend to the southern city and now muses out loud about creating a municipal police force independent of the Ministry of Interior, will no doubt continue to fire shots across the bows of the central government in 2012.


Reassuring declarations from the government in Bujumbura sound hollow, as the end of the Arusha consensus, which concluded the civil war in 2000, combined with the deteriorating political climate that followed the boycott of the 2010 elections, have contributed directly to an escalation of violence and insecurity. The elements of the peace deal are being dismantled one by one. The not-so-hidden struggle between the opposition and the ruling party, combined with the government's intensifying repression, is leaving ever more victims since the 2010 polls. Independent media are harassed by the authorities, who are allegedly commissioning targeted assassinations. At the same time, state corruption is on the rise, governance indicators are in the red, and social tension is mounting as living conditions deteriorate due to rising prices of basic commodities. Unless the government takes measures to reverse these trends, Burundi could edge toward renewed civil war in 2012.


Joseph Kabila has been re-elected president and officially sworn in, but that's unlikely to satisfy his political opponents, particularly supporters of opposition candidate Etienne Tshisekedi. The vote was badly flawed, with reports of pre-marked ballots, voter intimidation, localized violence, widespread mismanagement and fiddled results. The election commission and Supreme Court were also stuffed with Kabila loyalists, rendering their arbitration worthless in the eyes of an angry opposition that may be marginalized for the next five years if legislative election results are also mishandled.

The election standoff is a symptom of larger trends. In his five years in power, Kabila has stacked many national institutions in his favor, leaving his opponents with few avenues to pursue grievances peacefully. International players have also quietly disengaged from Congolese affairs. Despite the sizable U.N. presence in Congo, and the involvement of donor countries like the United States and Britain, together with the European Union, little has been done to check Kabila's consolidation of power.

As calls for international arbitration fall on deaf ears in Kinshasa and most Western capitals, Congo's electoral authorities appear unable to salvage any sense of credibility from results. Kabila's illegitimate mandate threatens not only Congo's peace and stability. The muffled international response to the flawed polls, and the silent acquiescence of regional leaders, bode ill for democracy across the continent. If only the African Union reacted to stolen elections with the outrage it reserves for coups -- both are, after all, equally unconstitutional changes of government -- politicians might at least think twice before rigging.


It is too soon to tell whether Kenya's recently launched military campaign in southern Somalia will succeed in defeating al-Shabaab -- the militant Islamist group that formed during the fragmentation of the Islamic Courts Union, which controlled most of southern Somalia for part of the last decade -- or end up a protracted and messy conflict. Now that Kenya will become part of the African Union's mission in Somalia, however, it looks like it is there for the duration. Its prolonged presence in southern Somalia could be very unpopular, and the risks for Kenya's internal stability are very real. Following the launch of the campaign in mid-October, al-Shabaab immediately threatened retaliatory attacks. The possibility of an al-Shabaab terror campaign has to be taken very seriously and there is a palpable sense of unease in Nairobi. In late October, the organization carried out two grenade attacks in the capital on Kenyan, not Western, targets. A Kenyan al-Shabaab member was jailed for the attacks. Since then there have been a number of incidents near the border with Somalia.

Kenya has a sizable ethnic Somali and wider Muslim population, most of whom are critical of the government's military campaign in Somalia, the more so for its associations with the Western-led counterterrorism struggle. There is significant risk that the military campaign exacerbates already worrisome radicalization in Kenya, particularly if it goes badly and civilian deaths mount.

In response to the threat of al-Shabaab attacks on Kenyan soil, the Kenyan government has launched a massive sweep in ethnic-Somali majority areas, aiming to flush out the group's supporters. Although the police and security services have mostly shown restraint, local leaders in the northeastern border region have already accused the military of excessive force. The real test will come if al-Shabaab carries out a major attack in Kenya. There are fears this would trigger a draconian crackdown on ethnic Somalis in Kenya, with grave consequences for intercommunal relations and societal cohesion and harmony, especially ahead of general elections this year, the first since the 2007 polls sparked widespread ethnic violence.


Venezuela's homicide rates are among the highest in the hemisphere -- twice those of Colombia and three times those of Mexico -- despite largely escaping the world's attention. Rates were rising even before Hugo Chávez assumed power. But under his 12 years they have skyrocketed, from 4,550 in 1998 to 17,600 last year. The victims are predominantly poor young men -- killed for as little as a mobile phone, caught in gunfire between gangs, or even subject to extrajudicial killings by security forces.

Criminal violence has not yet permeated the country's politics. But signs ahead of presidential elections next year are ominous. The regime itself has armed local civilian militias to, in its own words, "defend the revolution." Thus far it has failed to tackle corruption within the security forces, or their complicity in crime. Arms are easily available -- reportedly more than 12 million weapons circulate in a country with a population of only 29 million. Impunity is a major driver of violence, with judicial independence eroded through sustained attacks by the government. According to some estimates, fewer than one in 10 police investigations ever leads to arrest.

It's not yet clear who will face off against Chávez for the presidency, nor do we know the extent of political space in which candidates will be able to contest for office. But with the president's ailing health adding considerable uncertainty, bitter enmity between him and some opposition leaders, and Venezuelan society polarized, militarized and lacking credible institutional conflict-resolution mechanisms, next year could prove testing indeed.

Now for the good news. Here are two countries whose 2012 is looking relatively bright.


The victory by the moderate Islamist An-Nahda Party in October's elections is a victory for democracy. Of course, no one would underestimate the major challenges the nation still confronts. There is a continuing threat of violence, whether from agents provocateurs bent on discrediting An-Nahda, the more radical Salafists marginalized by the An-Nahda victory, or working class towns and cities in the country's interior, which have been largely sidelined since the fall of president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and where the economic, social, and security situation continues to worsen. Small vestiges of the old regime in ministries and the Constituent Assembly, while weak, could still play a spoiler role. New business elites, meanwhile, appear only too quick to adopt the poor practices of their predecessors. The new government will have to move quickly away from wrangling over transitional details -- prime ministerial powers, constitutional reform and new elections -- and concentrate on reversing the country's economic decline and tackling corruption and unemployment.

Still, having held the first free, competitive election to follow the onset of the Arab Spring -- in a relatively transparent manner and in an atmosphere of enthusiasm -- it is clear that Tunisians already have much to be proud of. If the country's relative stability and evident progress could be a beacon to the rest of the wider region, that would be no bad thing.


The government's pledges on reform are being fulfilled: The military has moved out of front-line politics; top opposition figure Aung San Suu Kyi was released, is engaging with the government at top levels, and is set to run in elections; many other political prisoners were also released; there are livelier debates in parliament that are even broadcast on TV; and some previously banned websites are now unblocked. There is a major opportunity for this long-suffering country to continue in a positive direction in 2012.

The outside world, particularly the West, needs to respond by engaging further and dropping counterproductive sanctions that have harmed civilians without loosening the junta's grip on power. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to Myanmar in early December was the right move at the right time, but it is not enough. Key next steps to watch for from the regime include releasing all remaining political prisoners, passing a new media law that would curtail censorship, and signing ceasefires with armed ethnic groups that would be a key step towards ending abuses by the military in these border conflicts.


The List

The Damage Done

The 10 big takeaways from America's adventure in Iraq are also clues to its uncertain future. 

With a wave of over a dozen bombings ripping through Baghdad just a week after U.S. troops officially pulled out, new questions are being raised about the country's ability to stand on its own without U.S. security assistance. Before looking ahead to whether Iraq can withstand a potential new wave of sectarian violence, it's crucial to take measure of where the country currently stands and the effect of eight years of war on its people and institutions.

Shortly after the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, researchers at the Brookings Institution began the Iraq Index to keep tabs on how the war progressed. As students of counterinsurgency know, it is difficult to find the right metrics to evaluate how a war effort of this type is going. It is also challenging to obtain reliable data even if relevant metrics have been identified. The most important metrics can also change with time; additionally, some can be leading indicators of change, while others tend to lag broader improvements.

In the war's early days, the general sense of disorder and chaos and the disempowerment of many former Baathists and former soldiers were probably the most important metrics. They augured poorly for the future -- while official U.S. data focused more on restoration of infrastructure and other generally positive indicators that though important may not have been quite as crucial as they seemed at the time. Then U.S. attention turned to building up Iraqi security forces, but, alas, progress in their training, numbers, and equipment could not trump the growing sectarian fissures that were widening within the government, Army, police, and country writ large.

Metrics of violence were recognized as the most important indicators by 2006 and 2007, when the country was being ripped apart. The success of the surge was fairly easy to see, as these numbers plummeted in late 2007 and 2008. Since then, however, tracking Iraq's changes has become harder as progress has slowed and politics have become at least as important as security and quality-of-life indicators.

With U.S. military engagement in Iraq having come to an end, here are 10 key metrics that reveal both the damage wrought by the war and the state of the country that U.S. forces are leaving behind:

Scott Peterson/Getty Images

U.S. and Coalition Fatalities and Injuries

At least 4,487 U.S. soldiers died during the war, in addition to 318 from other foreign countries. Additionally, 32,226 more U.S. troops were seriously wounded in action. The highest tolls were suffered from 2004 through 2007 or so as the security situation worsened across the country following an increase in sectarianism, all of which arguably became a full-fledged civil war on or about the time of al Qaeda in Iraq's 2006 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra.

Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were the weapon of choice for insurgents as they found U.S. defenses against them generally lacking -- and found direct firefights with coalition forces too unappealing. Through much of the heavy fighting against insurgent groups, IEDs accounted for as many as 55 to 65 percent of the deaths and an even larger percentage of American injuries. Overall, IEDs killed about 40 percent of those slain during the conflict, and due to their effectiveness they have also been the weapon of choice for attacking U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, even as the widespread introduction of mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs) has improved the security of troops in many types of situations.

Brendan Smialowski/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Iraqi Civilian and Security Force Fatalities

The war took a major toll on Iraqis. By our estimates, more than 115,000 Iraqi civilians died in violence associated with war, though this number is approximate and the correct figure could well be tens of thousands higher. At the peak of the civil war -- characterized by sectarian violence and spurred on by outside influences like al Qaeda -- during much of 2006 and the first half of 2007, monthly death tolls of 3,000 or greater were seen. In 2006 alone, roughly 35,000 civilians died from war.

Additionally, over 10,000 Iraqi security force personnel perished from June 2003 through the end of 2011, and as many as 200 to 300 Iraqi Army and police deaths per month occurred from 2005 to 2007. As the surge of U.S. and Iraqi troops, improved tactics, and political changes in Iraq shifted the course of the war in 2007, the rates of both civilian and security force deaths dropped dramatically heading into 2008. These rates continued downward thereafter to a fairly steady state of considerable but significantly less violence at the end of the U.S. involvement in Iraq, with monthly civilian tolls now in the range of 100 to 300 fatalities. Daily attacks and minor bombings are still commonplace, as are larger coordinated attack like the one on Dec. 22, though many Iraqis report feeling safer now than at any time since Saddam Hussein fell, and violence levels are now akin to those of high-crime but "peaceful" countries like South Africa and Mexico. (For example, Mexico has been losing around 10,000 people a year from a population of about 110 million; Iraq, at one-fourth that population, has of late been suffering less than one-fifth that number of deaths from organized violence.)


The Difficulties of Standing Up a New Government

Although the invasion and subsequent toppling of the Iraqi regime was about as quick a process as one could hope for in war, the reconstruction phase was and continues to be anything but easy. In July 2003, the Iraqi Governing Council was established under the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority. From there, the Iraqi interim government took over in 2004 and was followed by the Iraqi transitional government in 2005.

The first free elections took place in the beginning of 2005, which led to a constitution and the first full-term government of the new Iraq one year later. It was, however, seen as largely sectarian and did perhaps more to fuel than quell the violence. The year 2010 witnessed the second series of major elections in Iraq, resulting in further political turmoil. After nine months of deliberation, a negotiated settlement creating a new unity government was reached, though even today some key positions remain unfilled and the government verges on a state of crisis that grew notably more intense in the second half of December just as the last U.S. military units left the country.


Oil Revenue and Energy Infrastructure

Oil is Iraq's lifeblood, and today it typically generates more than $5 billion a month in export revenues. The process of increasing oil production has, however, been slow and tedious, with most of the increase in revenues due to the rise in world oil prices rather than greater output. The prewar rate of production -- around 2.5 million barrels per day -- was briefly stunted during the war's initial phase but quickly returned to the 2 million-barrel-a-day range by the end of 2003. Since then, only a slight increase has occurred, and current production is around 2.7 million barrels per day.

Iraq hopes to increase production manyfold, to 13.5 million barrels per day by 2018, yet at the moment this hope seems more like a dream than an actual plan. Foreign investment is less than hoped for, owing in part to numerous administrative and political hurdles as well as the security situation. A hydrocarbon law promised in 2005, defining the revenue-sharing arrangement between Iraq and the semiautonomous Kurdish region, has still not been passed. Insurgents still attack deteriorating and war-ravaged infrastructure relatively frequently. Recently, a mid-December bombing of the expansive Rumaila oil field cut its daily production in half, or by 700,000 barrels per day.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Battle to Keep Electricity Flowing

When it comes to disappointed expectations, the Iraqi oil sector is not alone. In fact, Iraq's electricity problem may be one of its greatest, despite some real progress. Although generation has climbed a good deal compared with prewar levels -- from an average of 4,000 to 6,500 megawatts -- demand has grown at a greater pace. Even with a patchwork of private utilities, sometimes creating dangerous tangles of lines in cities and neighborhoods, the Iraqi electrical grid often fails to reach 50 percent of demand. This discrepancy helps make power disruptions common and complaints rampant, contributing to political instability.

China recently signed a $1.2 billion contract to build new electric plants near Baghdad that will increase generation ability by 1,260 megawatts, and Iraq is also increasing transmission from neighboring Iran to bolster its capabilities. Iraq expects to be self-sufficient by 2014, but that could be a challenge.


A Proliferation of Modern Communications

Iraq's most significant material gain in recent years may be the proliferation of cell phones and the Internet. Before the war, fewer than 1 million Iraqis had a phone and fewer than 5,000 had access to the web. Today there are more than 22 million phone subscribers and about 2 million people online. In addition to phones and Internet, access to satellite television has had a massive impact on those who previously were only able to watch state propaganda, cartoons, or sports. Modernization of telecommunications continues today, and foreign investment is quite good in this sector. Although growth has been tremendous, there is still much work to be done to reach full modernization. Roughly half the country's citizens still do not have a phone of any kind, and computers are still only in a small fraction of Iraqi homes.


Life in Iraq: Essential Services and the Economy

Iraqis have more access to the world today than ever before, at least when there is power to run their electronics. Other aspects of life have improved as well, but more progress is still needed. Individuals able to access modern sanitation services rose from 8 percent in 2008 to near 30 percent today, but a large portion of the population remains in need. On the water front, things are better. More than 70 percent of the population has access to drinkable water now, a major increase from just a few years ago when less than 25 percent had access.

A growing economy will be critical to public services. Iraq's GDP has expanded from $20 billion per year before the war to about $108 billion this year. If oil production increases as hoped, Iraq could become a rich country capable of rebuilding itself, if it does not fall back into war in the meantime.




Coalition and Iraqi Troop Strength and the Security Handoff

More than 1 million U.S. troops served in Iraq throughout the course of the war. Total international troop strength reached as high as 180,000 on two occasions -- during parts of 2005 and again at the peak of the surge in 2007, when as many as 170,000 U.S. troops were stationed in Iraq. By mid-2009, the last of the non-U.S. contingent of forces -- once numbering as many as 25,000 -- left the country as the war became solely a U.S. and Iraqi mission.

Although the Iraqi military was initially disbanded after the invasion (a fateful decision, as we now know), a small force of several thousand police was formed immediately. By late 2003, the first of the new armed forces, including border patrol and national guard units, entered the security picture. Overall Iraqi force numbers quickly increased to more than 100,000 by the start of 2004, though most were still not effective when operating alone, absent foreign help. By 2007, the Iraqi numbers had climbed to 400,000. When the U.S. combat mission ended in August 2010, Iraqi forces on duty -- running missions on their own -- closed in on 670,000, where they remain today. Their effectiveness remains mixed, but as noted there is considerable reason for hopefulness, as violence has continued to decline in Iraq over the last four years even as U.S. troops have progressively done less and less each year. 


Flows of People

With up to 1 million Iraqis already displaced prior to the war, millions more fled their homes in the aftermath of the invasion and during escalating sectarian violence in the country in the years that followed. Between 2.5 million and 3 million Iraqis ended up displaced at the peak, many in disheveled camps and squatter communities. An additional 2 million refugees ended up outside the country, primarily in neighboring Syria and Jordan.

Asylum seekers -- individuals not recognized as refugees by their host country -- increased as well, reaching a peak of over 45,000 individuals in 2007. Many headed to developed countries like the United States or to parts of the European Union. Only a little over 100,000 refugees have come home since 2008; the number of internally displaced has declined more, but still remains around 1.5 million. Many Iraqis who have returned report that they regret coming back. The possibility of future violence and additional displacement remains palpable.

Iraqi Views on the Country's Future

Recent surveys produced by the International Republican Institute show that, unfortunately, a majority of Iraqis now think the country is headed in the wrong direction. This finding contrasts with the fact that a majority viewed things as headed in the right direction during the last few years. In Baghdad in particular, a survey released in early December 2011 indicated that 62 percent thought the country was headed the wrong way, compared with 28 percent who believed it was headed in a positive direction.

More hopefully, strong majorities think security is better now than a year ago. In similar light, the Iraqi Army and Iraqi National Police often score higher than the government in rankings of performance. Going into the 2010 election, approval was about 60 percent, with only 25 percent disapproving. As for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, ratings are now about 50-50. And much of the worry is concentrated among Sunni populations that created much of the initial resistance after the 2003 invasion. Iraq has come a long way, but its progress is fragile and the moment is fraught.