Why Iraq Has No Army

An orderly exit from Iraq depends on the development of a viable Iraqi security force, but the Iraqis aren't even close. The Bush administration doesn't take the problem seriously—and it never has
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When Saddam Hussein fell, the Iraqi people gained freedom. What they didn't get was public order. Looting began immediately, and by the time it abated, signs of an insurgency had appeared. Four months after the invasion the first bomb that killed more than one person went off; two years later, through this past summer, multiple-fatality bombings occurred on average once a day. The targets were not just U.S. troops but Iraqi civilians and, more important, Iraqis who would bring order to the country. The first major attack on Iraq's own policemen occurred in October of 2003, when a car bomb killed ten people at a Baghdad police station. This summer an average of ten Iraqi policemen or soldiers were killed each day. It is true, as U.S. officials often point out, that the violence is confined mainly to four of Iraq's eighteen provinces. But these four provinces contain the nation's capital and just under half its people.

The crucial need to improve security and order in Iraq puts the United States in an impossible position. It can't honorably leave Iraq—as opposed to simply evacuating Saigon-style—so long as its military must provide most of the manpower, weaponry, intelligence systems, and strategies being used against the insurgency. But it can't sensibly stay when the very presence of its troops is a worsening irritant to the Iraqi public and a rallying point for nationalist opponents—to say nothing of the growing pressure in the United States for withdrawal.

Therefore one question now trumps others in America's Iraq policy: whether the United States can foster the development of viable Iraqi security forces, both military and police units, to preserve order in a new Iraqi state.

The Bush administration's policy toward Iraq is based on the premise that this job can be done—and done soon enough to relieve the pressures created by the large-scale U.S. presence in Iraq. These include strains on the U.S. military from its long overseas assignments, mounting political resistance in America because of the cost and casualties of the war, and resentment in Iraq about the open-ended presence of foreign occupation troops. This is why President Bush and other officials say so often, "As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down." American maximalists who want to transform Iraq into a democracy, American minimalists who want chiefly to get U.S. troops out as soon as possible, and everyone in between share an interest in the successful creation of Iraq's own military.

If the United States can foster the development of a sufficiently stable political system in Iraq, and if it can help train, equip, and support military and police forces to defend that system, then American policy has a chance of succeeding. The United States can pull its own troops out of Iraq, knowing that it has left something sustainable behind. But if neither of those goals is realistic—if Iraqi politics remains chaotic and the Iraqi military remains overwhelmed by the insurgent threat—then the American strategy as a whole is doomed.

As Iraqi politicians struggle over terms of a new constitution, Americans need to understand the military half of the long-term U.S. strategy: when and whether Iraqi forces can "stand up."

Early in the occupation American officials acted as if the emergence of an Iraqi force would be a natural process. "In less than six months we have gone from zero Iraqis providing security to their country to close to a hundred thousand Iraqis," Donald Rumsfeld said in October of 2003. "Indeed, the progress has been so swift that ... it will not be long before [Iraqi security forces] will be the largest and outnumber the U.S. forces, and it shouldn't be too long thereafter that they will outnumber all coalition forces combined." By the end of this year the count of Iraqi security forces should indeed surpass the total of American, British, and other coalition troops in Iraq. Police officers, controlled by Iraq's Ministry of the Interior, should number some 145,000. An additional 85,000 members of Iraq's army, plus tiny contingents in its navy and air force, should be ready for duty, under the control of Iraq's Ministry of Defense. Since early this year Iraqi units have fought more and more frequently alongside U.S. troops.

But most assessments from outside the administration have been far more downbeat than Rumsfeld's. Time and again since the training effort began, inspection teams from Congress, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), think tanks, and the military itself have visited Iraq and come to the same conclusion: the readiness of many Iraqi units is low, their loyalty and morale are questionable, regional and ethnic divisions are sharp, their reported numbers overstate their real effectiveness.

The numbers are at best imperfect measures. Early this year the American-led training command shifted its emphasis from simple head counts of Iraqi troops to an assessment of unit readiness based on a four-part classification scheme. Level 1, the highest, was for "fully capable" units—those that could plan, execute, and maintain counterinsurgency operations with no help whatsoever. Last summer Pentagon officials said that three Iraqi units, out of a total of 115 police and army battalions, had reached this level. In September the U.S. military commander in Iraq, Army General George Casey, lowered that estimate to one.

Level 2 was for "capable" units, which can fight against insurgents as long as the United States provides operational assistance (air support, logistics, communications, and so on). Marine General Peter Pace, who is now the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last summer that just under one third of Iraqi army units had reached this level. A few more had by fall. Level 3, for "partially capable" units, included those that could provide extra manpower in efforts planned, led, supplied, and sustained by Americans. The remaining two thirds of Iraqi army units, and half the police, were in this category. Level 4, "incapable" units, were those that were of no help whatsoever in fighting the insurgency. Half of all police units were so classified.

In short, if American troops disappeared tomorrow, Iraq would have essentially no independent security force. Half its policemen would be considered worthless, and the other half would depend on external help for organization, direction, support. Two thirds of the army would be in the same dependent position, and even the better-prepared one third would suffer significant limitations without foreign help.

The moment when Iraqis can lift much of the burden from American troops is not yet in sight. Understanding whether this situation might improve requires understanding what the problems have been so far.

Over the summer and fall I asked a large number of people why Iraq in effect still had no army, and what, realistically, the United States could expect in the future. Most were Americans, but I also spoke with experts from Iraq, Britain, Israel, France, and other countries. Most had served in the military; a large number had recently been posted in Iraq, and a sizable contingent had fought in Vietnam. Almost all those still on active duty insisted that I not use their names. The Army's press office did arrange for me to speak with Lieutenant General Dave Petraeus, who was just completing his year's assignment as commander of the training effort in Iraq, before being replaced by Martin Dempsey, another three-star Army general. But it declined requests for interviews with Petraeus's predecessor, Major General Paul Eaton, or others who had been involved in training programs during the first months of the occupation, or with lower-ranking officers and enlisted men. Many of them wanted to talk or correspond anyway.

What I heard amounted to this: The United States has recently figured out a better approach to training Iraqi troops. Early this year it began putting more money, and more of its best people, on the job. As a result, more Iraqi units are operating effectively, and fewer are collapsing or deserting under pressure. In 2004, during major battles in Fallujah, Mosul, and elsewhere, large percentages of the Iraqi soldiers and policemen supposedly fighting alongside U.S. forces simply fled when the shooting began. But since the Iraqi elections last January "there has not been a single case of Iraqi security forces melting away or going out the back door of the police station," Petraeus told me. Iraqi recruits keep showing up at police and military enlistment stations, even as service in police and military units has become more dangerous.

But as the training and numbers are getting somewhat better, the problems created by the insurgency are getting worse—and getting worse faster than the Iraqi forces are improving. Measured against what it would take to leave Iraqis fully in charge of their own security, the United States and the Iraqi government are losing ground. Absent a dramatic change—in the insurgency, in American efforts, in resolving political differences in Iraq—America's options will grow worse, not better, as time goes on.

Here is a sampling of worried voices:

"The current situation will NEVER allow for an effective ISF [Iraqi Security Force] to be created," a young Marine officer who will not let me use his name wrote in an e-mail after he returned from Iraq this summer. "We simply do not have enough people to train forces. If we shift personnel from security duties to training, we release newly trained ISF into ever-worsening environs."

"A growing number of U.S. military officers in Iraq and those who have returned from the region are voicing concern that the nascent Iraqi army will fall apart if American forces are drawn down in the foreseeable future," Elaine Grossman, of the well-connected newsletter Inside the Pentagon, reported in September.

"U.S. trainers have made a heroic effort and have achieved some success with some units," Ahmed Hashim, of the Naval War College, told me in an e-mail. "But the Iraqi Security Forces are almost like a black hole. You put a lot in and little comes back out."

"I have to tell you that corruption is eating the guts of this counter-insurgency effort," a civilian wrote in an e-mail from Baghdad. Money meant to train new troops was leaking out to terrorists, he said. He empathized with "Iraqi officers here who see and yet are powerless to stop it because of the corrupt ministers and their aides."

"On the current course we will have two options," I was told by a Marine lieutenant colonel who had recently served in Iraq and who prefers to remain anonymous. "We can lose in Iraq and destroy our army, or we can just lose."

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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