Iraq Index: Measuring Progress in Security, Services

President Bush argues that progress in Iraq can be measured in a handful of categories. Michael O'Hanlon, who directs the Iraq Index Project at the Brookings Institution, talks about the facts behind President Bush's statement. In certain categories — available security forces, electricity, and oil production — O'Hanlon says progress is limited.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

President Bush told reporters yesterday they could gauge developments in Iraq by watching what Iraq's new government does.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I do think we'll be able to measure progress. You can measure progress in capacity of Iraqi units. You can measure progress in megawatts of electricity delivered. You can measure progress in terms of oil sold on the market on behalf of the Iraqi people. There's ways to determine whether or not this government's plans are succeeding.

INSKEEP: That's President Bush yesterday giving three different ways that you can measure progress of Iraq's government. In order to get a sense of where those three items are now, so that we can more easily follow them in the future, we brought in Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.

Michael, welcome to the program.

Mr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies, Brookings Institution): Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: And let's listen again to the first of those three items the President mentioned.

President BUSH: You can measure progress in capacity of Iraqi units...

INSKEEP: Capacity of Iraqi units. He's talking about security forces there and their ability to fight.

Where do those units stand now, in terms of the number of people trained and how strong they are?

MR. O'HANLON: Over all, they are about a quarter million, or a little bit more, in the way of Iraqi security personnel. And of that total, about 60,000 are now considered to be in one of the top two tiers of readiness by the U.S. training standards that were set out by the two U.S. generals who have really been responsible for this training program.

However, a big caveat - and this is the sort of thing that's going to haunt Mr. Bush's list of criteria in general - there are downsides. For example, the likelihood these Iraqi forces will fight each other as they get better armed, because they are largely of one ethnic group or another. That's going to be the sort of thing we're going to see throughout this kind of a conversation.

INSKEEP: So that's the first item the President mentioned. Let's listen again to the second.

President BUSH: You can measure progress in megawatts of electricity delivered...

INSKEEP: There is an issue, Michael O'Hanlon, where Iraqis have complained for years, that they're getting less electricity, less consistently than they were in some cases before the war. Can we get a sense of just where that stands right now, so that we know whether it moves forward in the future?

MR. O'HANLON: Yes. And the U.S. government, again, is an important source of data here. And the over all story is that nationwide the average electricity level in Iraq today is roughly comparable to, or just a little below, where it was in Saddam Hussein's era. But unfortunately, demand has gone through the roof, as Iraqis have become unleashed in their expectations about their lives and their future. So relative to demand, electricity is far worse. Overall, it's about a wash.

INSKEEP: Paul Bremer, the former U.S. administrator, has cast that almost as a good news story at times, saying, look, the economy is increasing so rapidly, and that's what's so hard to keep up with.

MR. O'HANLON: He's right. Unfortunately, it's just one more way in which Iraqis are becoming frustrated. And so I think what initially had some promise and some good news in it requires some interpretation. This is where statistics by themselves cannot tell the whole story. You've got to put it in some kind of a political context. And the broader context here I think is becoming at least as negative as positive, because it's one more instance of failed ability of the Iraqi state to meet the expectations of its citizens.

INSKEEP: Let's get one more benchmark that the President says we can look at, as we look for progress in the future.

President BUSH: You can measure progress in terms of oil sold on the market on behalf of the Iraqi people.

INSKEEP: How much oil is Iraq pumping and selling today?

MR. O'HANLON: Iraq is pumping about two million barrels a day, which is about 80 percent of what happened under Saddam. So it's still not up to Saddam standards. And the amount of export revenue, however, is pretty good. Because, of course, the high price of oil that you and I complain about at the gas pump compensates more or less completely for Iraq's reduced production. So the overall story here is that, yes, Iraq is making a lot of money from oil. Maybe to the rough tune of about $2 billion a month.

INSKEEP: Are there any other figures that you, Michael O'Hanlon, would be watching to see in the future if Iraq's government is making progress?

MR. O'HANLON: There are a lot of them. But let me emphasize two right now, Steve. One is the unemployment rate and the second is the crime rate. Iraq is, evenly leaving aside the insurgency, the most violent country by far in the region. Iraq's unemployment is in the 30 to 40 percent range, which then means more people are bored, angry, unemployed, and I think more prone to join the insurgency. And I think we have a lot more work to do there.

INSKEEP: Michael O'Hanlon directs the Iraq Index Project at the Brookings Institution that tracks statistics relating to the reconstruction in Iraq.

Thanks very much.

MR. O'HANLON: Thank you, Steve.

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