Been There, Done That, Not Over It

We tried the Iraq Study Group's prescription already. It failed.

The Iraq Study Group's major recommendation regarding the U.S. military commitment in Iraq has been tried before and failed. The group favors an accelerated "Iraqization" of the conflict in which American units are to shift from major combat operations to supporting Iraq's army and police. Thousands of additional American advisers, embedded down to the company level with Iraqi units, will provide the steely resolve Iraqi forces so far have failed to demonstrate. The group's report does not explain how these newly bolstered units will be purged of the corrupt leaders and sectarian recruitment process that have produced a force feared more by innocent Iraqi civilians than by terrorist groups. Nevertheless, they are expected to calm Iraq's deadly streets and defeat an ever more effective Sunni insurgency, tasks the American military has been unable to achieve.

The proposed approach is not new. In March 2005, Marine Corps Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, director of operations for the Joint Staff, said the United States could begin withdrawing its troops within a year or two. That drawdown was to be enabled by a shift on the part of American units from combat operations to training Iraqi security forces. That spring, Army Gen. George Casey announced a new strategy of moving the main counterinsurgency effort from American to Iraqi forces. American commanders were told that up to one-third of their units would be dedicated to training and advising the Iraqi military. The ambitious plan called for embedding 61-member military transition teams with Iraqi Army battalions. The hope was that by December 2005, the Iraqi army would be able to conduct combat operations without U.S. military support. It didn't happen.

As a U.S. Army officer in Baghdad said at the time, "If I lose one-third of my unit, I'm considered combat ineffective." The attempt to pull American troops off the streets coincided with a renewed insurgent bombing offensive. That summer, as many as 18 suicide car bombs were detonated in a single day in Baghdad. American military leaders realized the only thing keeping a lid on the insurgency was the constant presence of American patrols, so they resumed.

The numbers of trained Iraqi personnel cited in the study group report look impressive: 138,000 Iraqi army soldiers in 118 battalions and 188,000 Iraqi police by the end of 2006. But numbers fail to tell the whole story, says Anthony H. Cordesman, military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. Many of the 100 Iraqi army battalions currently on the rolls don't really exist; only 10 to 20 can be considered remotely effective.

Cordesman's analysis, perhaps the most comprehensive nongovernmental accounting available, shows the top Iraqi army units in American estimation are at 30 percent of their authorized strength at best. After three years and billions of dollars in training, Iraq's forces still can't provide security to the Iraqi populace.

A vast gulf separates the process of training soldiers and creating a cohesive combat force. This was a lesson the United States learned from "Vietnamization." In 1975, after American soldiers pulled out, the South Vietnamese army largely dissolved when the North invaded. Some argue that massive U.S. air strikes could have saved the South Vietnamese regime. But a military force that crumbles so readily belies an inherent fragility.

American officers who have spent time training Iraqi security forces say they are similarly fragile. Both the army and police are riddled with a rot that starts at the top and seeps through the entire force. "The Iraqi army is not a meritocracy," a U.S. Army officer says. Iraqi army battalion commanders are selected on the basis of connections within the Ministry of Defense, he says. They treat an officer's commission as a license to steal and make money on the side. The Iraqi people tell U.S. troops that when Americans accompany the Iraqi army and police on searches of houses, they at least can expect their belongings will remain when the troops depart. Not true of purely Iraqi searches. A young U.S. Army captain says he had difficulty getting the Iraqi army battalion he was working with to stop the established practice of gang-raping suspected insurgent detainees.

Iraqis sign up for the security forces because they receive the two things vital for survival in today's Iraq: a paycheck and a weapon. It's a mistake and dishonest to claim they join on the basis of a shared Iraqi national spirit, Cordesman says. And it will take many years, not months, and billions more dollars to shape an effective Iraqi fighting force.

It also would require the United States to overhaul its entire advisory effort. "Our advisers in Iraq are not water-walkers," says Michael Vickers, a former Special Forces and CIA officer, now director of strategic studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. American officers typically view advising a foreign military as a career-ending assignment devoid of the acclaim that comes from commanding an infantry or a tank unit. Somehow military leaders must convince officers that promotion and career advancement will result from advising Iraqi security forces, Vickers said at an Oct. 27, 2006, Council on Foreign Relations discussion of irregular warfare in Washington.

To carry out the training mission envisioned by the Iraq Study Group would require a major increase in the size of the U.S. Army, says Andrew F. Krepinevich, a retired Army officer and Pentagon consultant, now executive director at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. He says the regular Army never was designed to provide large numbers of trainers to foreign armies, a mission typically performed by Special Forces. To do so would require wholesale re-crafting, and serious beefing up, of the force. At Fort Riley, Kan., dozens of 11-member teams of soldiers with skills such as logistics, communications, human intelligence and fire support are training for Iraq duty. The teams are meant to imitate the skill mix found in Special Forces A-Teams, says Army Lt. Col. David Seigel, who is overseeing part of the effort.

Close to 100 such teams are training now and discussions are under way that could increase unit size to 35. "The transition team training is either going to make us successful [in Iraq], or not," Seigel says. Another senior Army officer says creating the teams is breaking an army already stretched thin in Iraq and Afghanistan: "They're pulling from across the force, raiding units to stand up the teams, rather than creating integral units."

Even a stepped up American advisory effort likely will have limited effect, according to Stephen Biddle, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "In an ongoing civil war, it is far from clear that Shiite units could be motivated to fight Shiite militias or defend Kurds on behalf of a government that many view as corrupt or inept," he writes in a Dec. 7, 2006, online roundtable conducted by Foreign Affairs, the council's journal.

Military historian John Keegan says military organizations are expressions of the social order from which they spring. Iraqi society is based on tribal, not national, order. It is riven by deep sectarian mistrust and hostility. In many ways, Iraq has been in a constant state of civil war among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds since its borders were drawn nearly a century ago. "If the civil war's violence escalates enough, there is likely to be an explicit breakup of the 'national' military into its component factions (as happened in Lebanon)," writes Biddle, an outcome that could leave the small teams of embedded trainers vulnerable.

That possibility demands a sizable American military presence in Iraq as long as the trainers are there.

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