Through the second year of occupation most of the indications were dark. An internal Pentagon report found, "The first Iraqi Army infantry battalions finished basic training in early 2004 and were immediately required in combat without complete equipment ... Absent-without-leave rates among regular army units were in double digits and remained so for the rest of the year.
I asked Robert Pape about the AWOL and desertion problems that had plagued Iraqi forces in Mosul, Fallujah, and elsewhere. Pape, of the University of Chicago, is the author of Dying to Win, a recent book about suicide terrorism. "Really, it was not surprising that this would happen," he said. "You were taking a force that had barely been stood up and asking it to do one of the most demanding missions possible: an offensive mission against a city. Even with a highly loyal force you were basically asking them to sacrifice themselves. Search and destroy would be one of the last things you would want them to do."
A GAO report showed the extent of the collapse. Fifty percent of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps in the areas around Baghdad deserted in the first half of April. So did 30 percent of those in the northeastern area around Tikrit and the southeast near al-Kut. And so did 80 percent of the forces around Fallujah.
This was how things still stood on the eve of America's presidential election and the beginning of a new approach in Baghdad.
At the end of June 2004 Ambassador Bremer went home. His Coalition Provisional Authority ceased to exist, and an interim Iraqi government, under a prime minister selected by the Americans, began planning for the first nationwide elections, which were held in January of this year. The first U.S. ambassador to postwar Iraq, John D. Negroponte, was sworn in as Bremer left. And a new American Army general arrived to supervise the training of Iraqis: Dave Petraeus, who had just received his third star.
The appointment was noticed throughout the military. Petraeus, who holds a Ph.D. from Princeton, had led the 101st Airborne during its drive on Mosul in 2003 and is one of the military's golden boys. What I heard about him from other soldiers reminded me of what reporters used to hear about Richard Holbrooke from other diplomats: many people marveled at his ambition; few doubted his skills. Petraeus's new assignment suggested that training Iraqis had become a sexier and more important job. By all accounts Petraeus and Negroponte did a lot to make up for lost time in the training program.
Under Petraeus the training command abandoned an often ridiculed way of measuring progress. At first Americans had counted all Iraqis who were simply "on duty"—a total that swelled to more than 200,000 by March of 2004. Petraeus introduced an assessment of "unit readiness," as noted above. Training had been underfunded in mid-2004, but more money and equipment started to arrive.
The training strategy also changed. More emphasis was put on embedding U.S. advisers with Iraqi units. Teams of Iraqi foot soldiers were matched with U.S. units that could provide the air cover and other advanced services they needed. To save money and reduce the chance of a coup, Saddam Hussein's soldiers had only rarely, or never, fired live ammunition during training. According to an unpublished study from the U.S. Army War College, even the elite units of the Baghdad Republican Guard were allowed to fire only about ten rounds of ammunition per soldier in the year before the war, versus about 2,500 rounds for the typical U.S. infantry soldier. To the amazement of Iraqi army veterans, Petraeus introduced live-fire exercises for new Iraqi recruits.
At the end of last year, as the Iraqi national elections drew near, Negroponte used his discretion to shift $2 billion from other reconstruction projects to the training effort. "That will be seen as quite a courageous move, and one that paid big dividends," Petraeus told me. "It enabled the purchase of a lot of additional equipment, extra training, and more rebuilding of infrastructure, which helped us get more Iraqi forces out in the field by the January 30 elections."
The successful staging of the elections marked a turning point—at least for the training effort. Political optimism faded with the subsequent deadlocks over the constitution, but "we never lost momentum on the security front," Petraeus told me. During the elections more than 130,000 Iraqi troops guarded more than 5,700 polling stations; there were some attacks, but the elections went forward. "We have transitioned six or seven bases to Iraqi control," he continued, listing a variety of other duties Iraqi forces had assumed. "The enemy recognizes that if Iraqi security forces ever really get traction, they are in trouble. So all of this is done in the most challenging environment imaginable."
Had the training units avoided the "B Team" taint? By e-mail I asked an officer on the training staff about the "loser" image traditionally attached to such jobs within the military. He wrote back that although training slots had long been seen as "career killers," the importance of the effort in Iraq was changing all that. From others not involved in training I heard a more guarded view: If an Iraqi army emerges, the image of training will improve; if it doesn't, the careers of Petraeus and his successor Dempsey will suffer.
Time is the problem. As prospects have brightened inside the training program, they have darkened across the country. From generals to privates, every soldier I spoke with stressed that the military campaign would ultimately fail without political progress. If an army has no stable government to defend, even the best-trained troops will devolve into regional militias and warlord gangs. "I always call myself a qualified optimist, but the qualification is Iraqi leaders muddling through," one senior officer told me. "Certain activities are beyond Americans' control."
Ethnic tensions divide Iraq, and they divide the new army. "Thinking that we could go in and produce a unified Iraqi army is like thinking you could go into the South after the Civil War and create an army of blacks and whites fighting side by side," Robert Pape, of the University of Chicago, told me. "You can pay people to go through basic training and take moderate risks. But unless they're really loyal to a government, as the risks go up, they will run." Almost every study of the new Iraqi military raises doubts about how loyally "Iraqi" it is, as opposed to Kurdish, Shiite, or Sunni. The most impressive successes by "Iraqi" forces have in fact been by units that were really Kurdish peshmurga or Shiite militias.
"There is still no sense of urgency," T. X. Hammes says. In August, he pointed out, the administration announced with pride that it had bought 200 new armored vehicles for use in Iraq. "Two-plus years into the war, and we're proud! Can you imagine if in March of 1944 we had proudly announced two hundred new vehicles?" By 1944 American factories had been retooled to produce 100,000 warplanes. "From the president on down there is no urgency at all."
Since last June, President Bush has often repeated his "As Iraqi forces stand up ..." formula, but he rarely says anything more specific about American exit plans. When he welcomed Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, to the White House in September, his total comment on the training issue in a substantial welcoming speech was "Our objective is to defeat the enemies of a free Iraq, and we're working to prepare more Iraqi forces to join the fight." This was followed by the stand up/stand down slogan. Vice President Cheney sounds similarly dutiful. ("Our mission in Iraq is clear," he says in his typical speech. "On the military side we are hunting down the terrorists and training Iraqi security forces so they can take over responsibility for defending their own country." He usually follows with the slogan but with no further details or thoughts.)
Donald Rumsfeld has the same distant tone. Condoleezza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz have moved on to different things. At various times since 9/11 members of the administration have acted as if catching Osama bin Laden, or changing Social Security, or saving Terri Schiavo, or coping with Hurricane Katrina, mattered more than any possible other cause. Creating an Iraqi military actually matters more than almost anything else. But the people who were intent on the war have lost interest in the only way out.
A Marine lieutenant colonel said, "You tell me who in the White House devotes full time to winning this war." The answer seems to be Meghan O'Sullivan, a former Brookings scholar who is now the president's special assistant for Iraq. As best I can tell from Nexis, other online news sources, and the White House Web site, since taking the job, late last year, she has made no public speeches or statements about the war.
Listening to the Americans who have tried their best to create an Iraqi military can be heartening. They send e-mails or call late at night Iraq time to report successes. A Web magazine published by the training command, called The Advisor, carries photos of American mentors working side by side with their Iraqi students, and articles about new training techniques. The Americans can sound inspired when they talk about an Iraqi soldier or policeman who has shown bravery and devotion in the truest way—by running toward battle rather than away from it, or rushing to surround a suicide bomber and reduce the number of civilians who will be killed.