This article was originally published in Asia Times.
The new consensus in Washington is that U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq are a question of when, not if, and how many.
Answers include U.S. military sources saying that the current force of about 160,000 could be reduced by two-fifths by the end of next year, and that, depending on the security situation, 20,000 or more troops could start to pull out in the next three months.
Some groups, such as the Washington, DC-based Center for American Progress, have released plans in which 80,000 of the total troops deployed in Iraq would be redeployed by the end of 2006.
However, all these plans depend on one thing; the ability of Iraqi military and security forces to operate effectively against the insurgents in the place of U.S. forces. This, in turn, is dependent on the ability of the United States and other coalition forces to equip and train these forces. Unfortunately, until about a year ago, this was something that was done as an afterthought, if at all.
Not now, though. U.S. President George W Bush, speaking to cadets at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, on Wednesday, spent considerable time outlining what has been done, and what will be done, to train up a "substitute" force in Iraq.
This is not going to be an easy task, with recent reports from Iraq suggesting that the Iraqi security forces - and their sectarian make-up - are themselves contributing to the country's destabilization.
An extensive article in the December issue of Atlantic Monthly by James Fallows details some of the problems:
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 U.S. 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 in 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 and 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.
As Fallows notes, it was not until mid-2004 that the US became serious about the training effort. After former ambassador Paul Bremer went home and the Coalition Provisional Authority ceased to exist, a new American army general, Dave Petraeus, arrived to supervise the training of Iraqis. He is one of the military's golden boys.
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. Contrary to procedures under Saddam Hussein, Petraeus introduced live-fire exercises for new Iraqi recruits.
Petraeus, however, is not without problems. His record indicates that through his career, starting in 1974, he was more of a military intellectual than a battlefield leader. Although he was in the top 50 of his class of 733 at West Point and received a PhD in just two years at Princeton, prior to Iraq he had only two field commands, with the 101st Air Mobile and 82nd Airborne divisions.
Next to doing body counts, assessments of military readiness have long been among the most controversial and easily manipulated of military measurements. And embedding U.S. advisers in Iraqi units is hardly novel. That is exactly what U.S. forces did in Vietnam 40 years ago.
On Nov. 30, at the time Bush was giving a speech at the US Naval Academy, the White House released a "U.S. National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" report. Among its talking points was the claim: "As of November 2005, there were more than 212,000 trained and equipped Iraqi security forces, compared with 96,000 in September of last year."
But as the blog Arms Control Wonk pointed out the same day, Iraq did not, however, have 96,000 trained and equipped Iraqi security forces in September 2004. Reuters obtained internal Defense Department documents in September
2004 that revealed only 8,169 had completed the full eight-week academy training. So 46,176 of what were publicly called "trained and equipped" forces were listed privately as "untrained".
It is true that Iraqi security forces are improving, both quantitatively and qualitatively. But they are far from being ready to operate on their own. A mid-November report by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies pointed out, "The progress the coalition has claimed does not mean that the Iraqi force development effort can, as yet, claim to be successful. Iraqi forces still do have major weaknesses, and the problems in the Ministry of Defense required a significant change in the coalition advisory effort as recently as Oct. 1, 2005."
It is best to view with skepticism administration claims when it comes to numbers about Iraqi military and security forces. As the Center for American Progress noted on Nov. 30:
In February 2004, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld claimed, "There are over 210,000 Iraqis serving in the security forces. That's an amazing accomplishment." Seven months later, in September 2004, Rumsfeld said that 95,000 trained Iraqi troops were taking part in security operations, less than half the number the administration had been publicizing. A year later, General George Casey testified before Congress that the number of Iraqi battalions rated at the highest level of readiness had dropped from three to one. "That number has apparently not changed." Now, just a few months later, the administration is claiming there are 212,000 trained and equipped Iraqi security forces. But as it has been for the past two-and-a-half years, it is unclear exactly what measuring sticks [the administration] is using, and whether they present the full picture.