One of the many striking moments in Gunner Palace, the new documentary about American troops in Iraq, involved a scene showing military trainers trying in vain to whip the fledgling Iraqi security forces into shape. The camera panned across row upon row of sweaty, overweight, mostly middle-aged Iraqis struggling to do push-ups, master a few clumsy wrestling moves, and mostly keep from vomiting in the heat. Nearby, the trainers sat slumped in their chairs, faces buried in their hands, massaging their temples and visibly dejected. To be sure, this was only one scene and without a doubt there are many brave Iraqis out there risking their lives each day, trying to keep law and order in what's essentially a war zone. Still, the movie highlighted what has been a stiff challenge to date: getting Iraqis trained, equipped, and actually willing to fight, so that they can defend their country once the U.S. leaves. Thus far the Iraqis have fared poorly.
Last week, however, news reports began to sound a more encouraging note. A top Marine general told reporters that fatalities caused by the insurgency were steadily declining. John Burns of the New York Times recently braved the notoriously dangerous Haifa Street in Baghdad and found "signs that the tide may be shifting," and noted, encouragingly, that two Iraqi battalions were patrolling the area—the first time any homegrown brigade had secured a combat zone. These are no longer the sweaty, overweight Iraqis of Gunner Palace. "Now, they're ready to fight," said Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, the American commander in charge of training, to a group of reporters in Baghdad.
Before anyone gets too optimistic, though, remember that we've heard this sort of thing many times before. Over the last two years the insurgency has surged and subsided, the violence has peaked and troughed, and all too often, Iraqi troops have stood their ground one day only to flee the next. Reporters like John Burns have done impressive work trying to size up the situation, but he can't be everywhere at once. On a broader level, no one seems to know exactly how many Iraqi troops have been trained, how many of those are actually prepared to fight insurgents and stand their ground, and, more importantly, what level of readiness would be sufficient to allow American troops to begin scaling back.
In order to properly gauge America's progress in Iraq, the public—and, more to the point, policymakers—need cold, hard statistics. And yet even the most basic of numbers remain up for dispute. In early February, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the Senate that the U.S. had trained 48 Iraqi battalions, or about 40,000 troops. Less than three hours later, though, the vice chairman told reporters that 74 battalions were ready to go—a difference of about 20,000 Iraqis. And it's not just reporters. Sen. Mark Dayton (D-MN) recently complained to his colleagues about the lack of hard information on both Iraqi troops and the Sunni insurgency: "It's impossible to get reliable answers from the military and from the administration."
Even if the number of troops could be established, however, there's still the question of whether the Iraqi security forces are ready to secure the country. It's not enough simply to count up how many troops and Iraqi police have been trained. As the weeks go by, the insurgency continues to swell—in the past year, the number of Sunnis who approve of attacks on American troops has risen from 33 to 52 percent—the crime rate explodes, local militias cause havoc in the countryside, and the need for more troops increases. Worse, according to the Pentagon's own estimates, that need is increasing far faster than the U.S. can train new troops. Official statistics currently claim that 145,000 Iraqi Security Forces are "trained and equipped." Yet the estimated number of troops required has ballooned from roughly 170,000 a year ago to over 270,000 today.
Even worse, the metrics for judging readiness, available publicly in the Iraq Weekly Progress Report on the Pentagon's website, change constantly from week to week. As late as November of last year, the data on Iraqi police and Army were broken down into subcategories. Police categories, for instance, once included the regular run-of-the mill police forces, border enforcement and the Iraqi Civil Intervention Force, which handles counterinsurgency. The Army's numbers, meanwhile, used to include the National Guard, the Prevention Force (the military counterinsurgency unit) and Special Forces. As of January, however, those classifications are no longer used, and the Pentagon simply lists the number of police and military trained. So there's no way to tell what specific needs are being met.
The distinctions here are hardly trivial. For instance, simply noting that 55,000 police have been trained, without saying what type of police, could give a false sense of preparedness. The United States, after all, simply cannot withdraw until Iraq has a robust Civil Intervention Force, under civilian control of the Ministry of the Interior, to wage a counterinsurgency campaign. Otherwise, Iraq will need to rely on the Army to fight the Sunni rebels, which could prove disastrous, given the country's long and sordid history with military rule. Moreover, if the security forces hail primarily from Iraq's Shiite and Kurdish populations, without a significant Sunni component, they run the risk of inflaming sectarian tensions. This too is important; yet the Pentagon offers no ethnic or sectarian breakdown of troop levels.
Information on the quality of training is even harder to come by. Jeffrey Miller, a researcher at the Carnegie Endowment, recently looked into the Pentagon's statistics on Iraqi forces and found that "categories of readiness come and go without explanation." The Pentagon once classified troops as untrained, partially trained, or fully trained. The "fully trained" category—the most important one—has now been dropped, making distinctions among "trained" troops impossible to judge. Officials who visit Iraq have had trouble figuring out what "trained and equipped" really means in concrete terms. During Condoleeza Rice's confirmation hearings last month, an exasperated Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) badgered the incoming Secretary of State on this issue, saying, "I think you'll find, if you speak to the folks on the ground, they don't think there's more than 4,000 actually trained Iraqi forces." But who knows?
The larger point is this: Over the next year or so American voters and policymakers are going to need to have an informed debate about laying out an exit strategy from Iraq. President Bush has said the United States won't pull out until we "finish the job," but at the moment, it's not clear that anyone has a good idea of what constitutes finishing the job. Obviously training a sufficient number of Iraqi troops—and figuring out what, exactly, "sufficient" means—is one step. Laying out solid metrics that can gauge the performance of the Iraqi government is another. Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies has made several suggestions for better data collection, including new maps showing areas of government control, detailed patterns of insurgent attacks, and mapping out the distribution of government services, among many others. As Cordesman puts it, until metrics like these are adopted, analysis of Iraq will remain "many strong opinions built on so weak a foundation of facts."