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

"Training is not just learning how to fire a gun," I was told by a congressional staff member who has traveled frequently to Afghanistan since 9/11. "That's a part of it, but only a small part." Indeed, basic familiarity with guns is an area in which Iraqis outdo Americans. Walter Slocombe says that the CPA tried to enforce a gun-control law—only one AK-47 per household—in the face of a widespread Iraqi belief that many families needed two, one for the house and one for traveling.

Everyone I interviewed about military training stressed that it was only trivially about teaching specific skills. The real goal was to transform a civilian into a soldier. The process runs from the individual level, to the small groups that must trust one another with their lives, to the combined units that must work in coordination rather than confusedly firing at one another, to the concept of what makes an army or a police force different from a gang of thugs.

"The simple part is individual training," Jay Garner says. "The difficult part is collective training. Even if you do a good job of all that, the really difficult thing is all the complex processes it takes to run an army. You have to equip it. You have to equip all units at one time. You have to pay them on time. They need three meals a day and a place to sleep. Fuel. Ammunition. These sound simple, but they're incredibly difficult. And if you don't have them, that's what makes armies not work."

In countless ways the trainers on site faced an enormous challenge. The legacy of Saddam Hussein was a big problem. It had encouraged a military culture in which officers were privileged parasites, enlisted soldiers were cannon fodder, and noncommissioned officers—the sergeants who make the U.S. military function—were barely known. "We are trying to create a professional NCO corps," Army Major Bob Bateman told me. "Such a thing has never existed anywhere in the region. Not in regular units, not in police forces, not in the military."

The ethnic and tribal fissures in Iraq were another big problem. Half a dozen times in my interviews I heard variants on this Arab saying: "Me and my brother against my cousin; me and my cousin against my village; me and my village against a stranger." "The thing that holds a military unit together is trust," T. X. Hammes says. "That's a society not based on trust." A young Marine officer wrote in an e-mail, "Due to the fact that Saddam murdered, tortured, raped, etc. at will, there is a limited pool of 18-35-year-old males for service that are physically or mentally qualified for service. Those that are fit for service, for the most part, have a DEEP hatred for those not of the same ethnic or religious affiliation."

The Iraqi culture of guns was, oddly, not an advantage but another problem. It had created gangs, not organized troops. "It's easy to be a gunman and hard to be a soldier," one expert told me. "If you're a gunman, it doesn't matter if your gun shoots straight. You can shoot it in the general direction of people, and they'll run." Many American trainers refer to an Iraqi habit of "Inshallah firing," also called "death blossom" marksmanship. "That is when they pick it up and start shooting," an officer now on duty in Baghdad told me by phone. "Death just blossoms around them."

The constant attacks from insurgents were a huge problem, and not just in the obvious ways. The U.S. military tries hard to separate training from combat. Combat is the acid test, but over time it can, strangely, erode proficiency. Under combat pressure troops cut corners and do whatever it takes to survive. That is why when units return from combat, the Pentagon officially classifies them as "unready" until they have rested and been retrained in standard procedures. In principle the training of Iraqi soldiers and policemen should take place away from the battlefield, but they are under attack from the moment they sign up. The pressure is increased because of public hostility to the foreign occupiers. "I know an Iraqi brigade commander who has to take off his uniform when he goes home, so nobody knows what he's done," Barak Salmoni told me. The Iraqi commander said to him, "It really tugs at our minds that we have to worry about our families' dying in the insurgency when we're fighting the insurgency somewhere else." The GAO found that in these circumstances security units from "troubled townships" often deserted en masse.

The United States, too, brought its own range of problems. One was legislative. Because U.S. forces had helped prop up foreign dictators, Congress in the 1970s prohibited most forms of American aid to police forces—as distinct from armies—in other countries. For the purposes of containing the insurgency in Iraq the distinction was meaningless. But administration officials used up time and energy through 2004 figuring out an answer to this technical-sounding yet important problem.

Language remained a profound and constant problem. One of the surprises in asking about training Iraqi troops was how often it led to comparisons with Vietnam. Probably because everything about the Vietnam War took longer to develop, "Vietnamization" was a more thought-through, developed strategy than "Iraqization" has had a chance to be. A notable difference is that Americans chosen for training assignments in Vietnam were often given four to six months of language instruction. That was too little to produce any real competence, but enough to provide useful rudiments that most Americans in Iraq don't have.

The career patterns of the U.S. military were a problem. For family reasons, and to keep moving up in rank, American soldiers rotate out of Iraq at the end of a year. They may be sent back to Iraq, but probably on a different assignment in a different part of the country. The adviser who has been building contacts in a village or with a police unit is gone, and a fresh, non-Arabic-speaking face shows up. "All the relationships an adviser has established, all the knowledge he has built up, goes right with him," Terence Daly, the counterinsurgency specialist from the Vietnam War, says. Every manual on counterinsurgency emphasizes the need for long-term personal relations. "We should put out a call for however many officers and NCOs we need," Daly says, "and give them six months of basic Arabic. In the course of this training we could find the ones suited to serve there for five years. Instead we treat them like widgets."

All indications from the home front were that training Iraqis had become a boring issue. Opponents of the war rarely talked about it. Supporters reeled off encouraging but hollow statistics as part of a checklist of successes the press failed to report. President Bush placed no emphasis on it in his speeches. Donald Rumsfeld, according to those around him, was bored by Iraq in general and this tedious process in particular, neither of which could match the challenge of transforming America's military establishment.

The lack of urgency showed up in such mundane ways as equipment shortages. In the spring of 2004 investigators from the GAO found that the Iraqi police had only 41 percent of the patrol vehicles they needed, 21 percent of the hand-held radios, and nine percent of the protective vests. The Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, a branch of the military, had received no protective vests at all. According to the GAO report, "A multinational force assessment noted that Iraqis within the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps felt the multinational force never took them seriously, as exhibited by what they perceived as the broken promises and the lack of trust of the multinational force."

Although most people I spoke with said they had warm relations with many of their Iraqi counterparts, the lack of trust applied on the U.S. side as well. American trainers wondered how many of the skills they were imparting would eventually be used against them, by infiltrators or by soldiers who later changed sides. Iraq's Ministry of Defense has complained that the United States is supplying simpler equipment, such as AK-47s rather than the more powerful M4 rifles, and pickup trucks rather than tanks. Such materiel may, as U.S. officials stress, be far better suited to Iraq's current needs. It would also be less troublesome if Iraq and the United States came to be no longer on friendly terms.

And the biggest problem of all was the kind of war this new Iraqi army had to fight.

"Promoting disorder is a legitimate objective for the insurgent," a classic book about insurgency says: "It helps to disrupt the economy, hence to produce discontent; it serves to undermine the strength and the authority of the counterinsurgent [that is, government forces]. Moreover, disorder ... is cheap to create and very costly to prevent. The insurgent blows up a bridge, so every bridge has to be guarded; he throws a grenade in a movie theater, so every person entering a public place has to be searched."

The military and political fronts are so closely connected, the book concludes, that progress on one is impossible without progress on the other: "Every military move has to be weighed with regard to its political effects, and vice versa."

This is not a book about Iraq. The book is Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, which was published nearly forty years ago by a French soldier and military analyst, David Galula, and is based on his country's experiences in Algeria and Vietnam.

Counterinsurgency scholarship has boomed among military intellectuals in the 2000s, as it did in the 1960s, and for the same reason: insurgents are the enemy we have to fight. "I've been reading a lot of T. E. Lawrence, especially through the tough times," Dave Petraeus said when I asked where he had looked for guidance during his year of supervising training efforts. An influential book on counterinsurgency by John Nagl, an Army lieutenant colonel who commanded a tank unit in Iraq, is called Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife. That was Lawrence's metaphor for the skills needed to fight Arab insurgents.

"No modern army using conventional tactics has ever defeated an insurgency," Terence Daly told me. Conventional tactics boil down to killing the enemy. At this the U.S. military, with unmatchable firepower and precision, excels. "Classic counterinsurgency, however, is not primarily about killing insurgents; it is about controlling the population and creating a secure environment in which to gain popular support," Daly says.

From the vast and growing literature of counterinsurgency come two central points. One, of course, is the intertwining of political and military objectives: in the long run this makes local forces like the Iraqi army more potent than any foreigners; they know the language, they pick up subtle signals, they have a long-term stake. The other is that defeating an insurgency is the very hardest kind of warfare. The United States cannot win this battle in Iraq. It hopes the Iraqis can.

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 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.


Photos of New York City, in Motion

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In