Little Promise in Iraqi Security Forces

As Iraqis stand up the U.S. will stand down. But Iraqis aren't anywhere near standing up.

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.

Rotten to the core

Apart from the actual number of competent personnel, the Iraqi security forces are also cause for worry in other areas, reports Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service.

A spate of articles in the mainstream U.S. media since the discovery two weeks ago by U.S. troops of a secret underground prison in the Iraqi Interior Ministry, where some 170 Sunni Arab men and boys had been subjected to torture and ill-treatment, has detailed the existence of death squads in the largely Shi'ite police, or special commandos operating with their support.

These units appear to be under the control of two sectarian militias that have successfully infiltrated the security forces - the Iranian-trained Badr Organization, the armed wing of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI); and the Mahdi Army, which is led by the Shi'ite nationalist politician, Muqtada al-Sadr.

Operating through or with the Iraqi security forces, the two groups, which are themselves rivals, have abducted, tortured and executed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Sunni males, according to front-page reports that have appeared this week in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Knight-Ridder newspapers.

"Hundreds of accounts of killings and abductions have emerged in recent weeks, most of them brought forward by Sunni civilians, who claim that their relatives have been taken away by Iraqi men in uniform without warrant or explanation," the New York Times reported on Tuesday. "Some Sunni males have been found dead in ditches and fields, with bullet holes in their temples, acid burns on their skin, and holes in their bodies apparently made by electric drills. Many have simply vanished."

The motives for the abductions are mixed, according to the reports. In some cases, they appear directed against suspected insurgents or their supporters. In others, they seem designed to "ethnically cleanse" certain neighborhoods. In still others, they appear aimed at achieving revenge for decades of discrimination and repression by the Ba'athist regime, which generally privileged Sunni citizens.

The repression that is now directed against the Sunni community by the police and commandos and their sectarian auxiliaries threatens the Bush administration's plan to let the Iraqi security forces fight the largely Sunni insurgency on their own. The perception that those security personnel - about 110,000 of whom are controlled by the Interior Ministry - are in fact acting against Sunnis on behalf of Shi'ite political parties will likely only fuel the insurgency, despite new U.S. efforts to persuade Sunnis that their interests will be protected.

"[The abuses] undermine the U.S. effort to stabilize the nation, and train and equip Iraq's security forces - the Bush administration's key prerequisites for the eventual withdrawal of American troops," said the Los Angeles Times in a lengthy article that noted that U.S. military advisers in Iraq, as well as the Interior Ministry's inspector general, concurred that "death squads" were indeed operating within the security forces.

"It's increasingly becoming a war of all against all, with no rules," Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert London's International Institute for Strategic Studies, told the Wall Street Journal this week. "The Iraqi security forces themselves are becoming just another of the players, and if they owe allegiance to anything, it's to their commanders or communities, and not remotely to the state itself."

The problem itself is not a new one, particularly after U.S. forces began conducting "joint" operations with Iraqi forces - which had been largely purged of Ba'athists by the Coalition Provisional Authority - in 2004. The newly constituted Iraqi forces consisted largely of units recruited from Kurdish peshmerga or Shi'ite militias. Their operations in the so-called Sunni triangle - combined with and often following those of U.S. forces - clearly helped fuel the insurgency.

While U.S. commanders have tried to remedy this problem - in part by ending the Iraqi army's ban on recruiting most former Ba'athist junior officers in early November and paying tribal militias to maintain order - the SCIRI-controlled Interior Ministry has been more resistant, even after the discovery of the secret prison.

While Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari promised that the incident would be fully investigated and those responsible punished, Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, a former leader of the Badr militia, played down the abuses.

But it now appears that the prison was just the tip of the iceberg of anti-Sunni operations conducted by the police and commandos and their auxiliaries, as hundreds of bodies of Sunni males, many with their hands still bound by police handcuffs, have turned up in garbage dumps, rivers and alongside roads in recent months, according to the newspaper reports. In many cases, the victims had been abducted, sometimes in groups of a dozen or more, by individuals who identified themselves as police or commandos.

"These reports are definitely credible and very worrisome," said Joe Stork, a veteran Middle East specialist at Human Rights Watch in Washington.

Last week, former Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi'ite who is trying to woo Sunni support in next month's elections, charged that the level of repression recalled former president Saddam Hussein's reign.

"People are doing the same as Saddam's time and worse," he told the London Observer.

While Stork called that characterization "a bit much", he stressed that Washington should be very concerned about the situation.

But while U.S. military commanders were willing to tell reporters about the abuses, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld discounted the reports as "unverified" during a press conference on Tuesday.

"There's ... a political campaign [in Iraq] taking place, and we ought to be aware of that, that there are going to be a lot of charges and countercharges and allegations," he told a reporter who asked about the death squad reports. "And they may very well be timed - as they are in every country in the world that has a free political system - they may be timed in a way to seek advantage," he said.