The Right Way

Seven steps toward a last chance in Iraq

Once these enclaves are secured, and as additional Iraqi security forces are trained, they should be slowly expanded to include additional communities. This approach, which has been put forward most notably by the military analyst Andrew Krepinevich, is typically referred to either as a “spreading ink spot” or as a “spreading oil stain” because the counterinsurgency forces slowly spread their control over the country, depriving the guerrillas of support piece by piece. The administration has embraced this idea rhetorically, but not operationally.

If implemented properly, a true counterinsurgency approach can succeed in winning back the entire country. However, it means ceding control over some parts at first and taking some time before all of Iraq will be seen as a stable, unified, pluralist state. Nevertheless, it is worth considering that the United States and the Iraqi government currently do not control much of the country, because it is in the hands of insurgent groups or militias. Thus, the strategy is really about acknowledging that we can control only part of the country with the forces currently available—and using them to exert our control over the most important parts rather than squandering them playing Whac-A-Mole with insurgents in parts that we cannot control.

The key to this approach is that it “solves” the problem of inadequate force levels, which was one of the original mistakes of the war. The problem here was that we did not have an adequate concentration of forces to secure the country against either the insurgents or the problems of Iraq as a failed state (like organized crime and the militias). The guiding principle of a spreading-oil-stain approach is that it allows the counterinsurgent force to concentrate in part of the country and then slowly pacify the rest, using time to substitute for numbers.

Numbers in warfare are always slippery, but it is impossible to avoid them for planning purposes. For both counterinsurgency operations and stability operations, the canonical figure is that there need to be twenty security personnel (military and police) per 1,000 of the population. The population of Iraq today is roughly 26 million, which would suggest the need for 520,000 security personnel. However, the 4 million or so Kurds who live inside Iraqi Kurdistan enjoy considerable safety because they are protected by approximately 70,000 peshmerga fighters. To secure the remaining 22 million people, then, would require about 440,000 security personnel. This number is the baseline figure for what will be required ultimately to stabilize Iraq. Unfortunately, we are far from that number. At present, the United States has 135,000 to 160,000 troops in Iraq at any given time. They are joined by roughly 10,000 British and Australian troops, along with a grab bag of other detachments that may withdraw in 2006 and so should not be considered for planning purposes. There are probably some 40,000 to 60,000 Iraqi security personnel in the army, national guard, police force, and other units that are capable of participating in security operations in a meaningful way. This yields a total of 185,000 to 230,000 Coalition security personnel, a force that should be capable of securing a population of 9 million to 11.5 million, or about half of Iraq’s population outside Kurdistan.

If the United States and the Iraqi government were to begin with only this baseline of troops and were to employ a traditional counterinsurgency strategy, withdrawing most of their forces from those areas of Iraq most opposed to reconstruction and instead concentrating the troops and resources on areas of high importance and high support for reconstruction, its starting oil stain could encompass Baghdad, all of central Iraq, and a significant portion of southern Iraq, with a smaller “economy of force” presence in northwest Iraq to prevent the situation there from deteriorating. Different strategists might draw the oil stain differently, but that is a very big area to start with and would allow the further pacification of the rest of Iraq within a number of years.

4. Train Iraqi forces properly. A showy  “acceleration” is worse than useless.

The single greatest problem with all American efforts to train a new Iraqi military has been (and to some extent, continues to be) political pressure to quickly produce more trained Iraqi units in order to “show progress” in Iraq. This has been disastrous. The first training program instituted by Major General Paul Eaton’s team was a perfectly reasonable one, and could have achieved its objectives had the Bush administration not demanded that Eaton both speed up the training course and increase the numbers of Iraqis trained. Even today, both the administration and its critics continue to press for accelerated training—meaning getting people through the training pipeline in shorter amounts of time—and a more rapid deployment of Iraqi forces to take over for American soldiers.

This is the worst approach we could take. The quality of Iraqi forces is far more important than their quantity if our goal is for the Iraqis to shoulder a greater and greater share of the burden of securing their country. The only way to produce troops sufficiently capable of doing so is to give them the time, in both formal and informal training, to develop such quality.

Like all new military units, Iraqi formations, even after their formal training is completed, need time to further jell. Unit cohesion starts to be formed in training, but it is inevitably tested by the first operations that a formation undertakes and can really emerge only in an operational environment—and only if the unit survives its early experiences. So, too, with the confidence of Iraqi recruits, and with the leadership skills of their officers. What’s more, the process of vetting—weeding out those unsuited for the tasks at hand or those working for the enemy—is a lengthy one, and it is not unusual for soldiers and officers to do well in training but fail once placed in actual combat situations. Therefore, Iraqi troops not only need longer periods of formal training; they desperately need longer periods of informal training in the kind of permissive conditions that will enable them to learn and bond without being thrown into high-intensity combat.

The United States believed, at least twice since the fall of Baghdad, that it had adequately trained and prepared Iraqi security forces only to have them collapse in combat. In April of 2004, roughly half of the security forces in southern and central Iraq melted away when confronted by the revolt of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Similarly, in November of 2004, coalition personnel believed that the Iraqi security forces around Mosul were doing fine: they had gone through the existing training programs, were deployed in and around the city, and seemed to be doing an excellent job maintaining law and order. However, that month, Sunni insurgents mounted a series of major attacks, and all but one battalion of these Iraqi security forces evaporated.

Presented by

Kenneth M. Pollack is the director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is The Persian Puzzle (2004).

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