Thursday, July 19, 2007


Training the Iraqis: A contrary view

There was very little in the December 6, 2006 report of the Iraq Study Group (IRQ) that George Bush liked. Bush prefers to receive his recommendations directly from God (read "Cheney"), and God and the IRQ were mostly at odds.

Despite the advice from IRQ co-chair Lee Hamilton not to cherrypick the report (or treat it as a "fruit salad," as he put it), Bush did just that. The fruit he found most tasty was this—

The Iraqi government should accelerate assuming responsibility for Iraqi security by increasing the number and quality of Iraqi Army brigades. While this process is under way, and to facilitate it, the United States should significantly increase the number of U.S. military personnel, including combat troops, imbedded in and supporting Iraqi Army units.

The report urged increased training for the Iraqi army and an increase in its size.

Integrating the militias Sunni tribes

Recommendation 39 was another favorite, even if it was slightly misconstrued—

The United States should provide financial and technical support and establish a single office in Iraq to coordinate assistance to the Iraqi government and its expert advisors to aid a program to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate militia members.1

It turns out that the "integration" recently reported is more with the insurgents rather than with the militias.

Lately we've been bombarded by news accounts of how Sunni tribes in Anbar and Diyala provinces have turned their sights on al-Qaeda insurgents while they entertain an uncomfortable alliance with U.S. forces. Although this news has been promoted by the military both this month and last as a positive development (as though it were a sign of the success of the "surge"), it is old news. The IRQ report noted it last December.2

Some tribesmen have even been cajoled into the Iraqi army. On June 29, Maj. Gen. Fil (Commanding General of Multinational Division Baghdad and 1st Cavalry Division) offered this upbeat assessment to the press—

You asked, though, about the work that we're doing as we are in reconciliation with many of the tribes both inside and outside of Baghdad, and it is not a matter of arming militias. In fact, these tribes are already well armed, and we are not arming any of them here in Baghdad. What we are doing, though, is we're embarking in a dialogue with them, and some of them who have previously been fighting us have come to us as we have spoken with them and they want to fight with us. They are tired of al Qaeda and the influence of al Qaeda in their tribes and in their neighborhoods, and they want them cleaned out. And they want to form an alliance in order to rid themselves of this blight. We think it's a very positive development, we're excited about it, but we are, frankly, being cautious.

How cautious are we, you wonder? To hear Gen. Fil tell it, these new recruits to the Iraqi Army might have had an easier time joining the National Guard—

First of all, they have to sign up with an oath of allegiance to the nation of Iraq. They have to renounce violence.... [F]or example, the Abu Ghraib area, ... we've got more than 1,500 of them who have signed up to serve in the security forces of Iraq, and we're signing up about 300 a day in the application process. We are taking fingerprints and all the biometric data. They are very carefully vetted with tribal leadership, and then they are brought before a panel of Iraqi positions and leadership out of the Ministry of Interior for the interview process.

In a concerted propaganda effort on that very same date, Bush cheered us with the news that the good citizens of Baghdad were organizing themselves into "neighborhood watch groups," whereupon Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks remarked that—

It is not clear what the difference is between those groups and armed militias, which U.S. officials have said in the past must be disbanded or incorporated into Iraqi security forces.

Some new acronyms for your Iraq lexicon: AQI and LRF

But integrating Sunni tribal insurgents into the Iraqi Army and forming "neighborhood watch groups" is not the only tack we're taking. Two days ago Sam Dagher reported

Dalli Abbas, Iraq - In the pursuit of an elusive enemy the US loosely labels AQI (Al Qaeda in Iraq), US Green Berets and soldiers in this remote corner of Iraq have enlisted the help of a new ally that they have christened LRF, the "Legitimate Resistance Force."

It includes ex-insurgents, police dropouts with checkered backgrounds, and former Al Qaeda-linked fighters – all united by a desire to rid Diyala Province of the network's influence, say US officers.

"A lot of them are former Al Qaeda operatives ... but when they saw the stealing, murder, and terrorism, they realized it was not the way forward for Iraq," says Maj. John Woodward of San Antonio.

Al-Qaeda members have been overcome by their consciences, it seems.

Most of the LRFs are Sunni, though some are Shia. But the U.S. must turn to someone since the Iraqi military remains—at best—useless—

So far, however, it is too early to judge the effectiveness of this new group, but its creation clearly demonstrates a desire by the US to look for grass-roots solutions amid increasing frustration with the combat readiness – and even loyalty – of Iraqi forces.

Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki is on record against the LRFs—

Maliki warned US forces last month against creating new militias in their fight against Al Qaeda-linked operatives. He insisted that all collaboration with local groups must be done through his government.

"What the Americans are doing is very risky and unwise. They are planting the seeds for future wars," warned Sami al-Askari, a parliamentarian close to Maliki, commenting on groups like the LRF.

Is this the right strategy?

The arming and training of the Iraqi military along with support for assorted "neighborhood watch groups" and LRFs appears to have won universal acceptance in the U.S. Ask yourself when, if ever, you have heard this strategy questioned in the news. Antiwar Democrats are as willing to spout this advice as are the most war-crazed Neocons. At last, something we can agree upon.

Well, maybe not. Retired Lt. General William Odom, who has been an advocate for total troop withdrawal, and Lawrence Korb,3 former Asst. Secretary of Defense under Reagan, wrote a piece yesterday for the Financial Times that would turn this strategy on its head—

Once again, as in previous times when the US has supported a battle against insurgencies, our political leaders are suffering from the illusion that success can be won by training local security forces.

All sides to the debate about Iraq agree that we should continue training and equipping Iraqi security forces. Both the bipartisan Iraq Study Group and President George W. Bush, through his surge strategy, support this policy because they believe that these forces will prevent the outbreak of a genocidal conflict as well as a regional conflict when we withdraw.

But continued training and equipping of the security forces will have the opposite effect. In effect we are arming different sides in a civil war. It is no accident that as the number of trained Iraqi security forces has grown, so have attacks on coalition forces, Iraqi civilians and the Iraqi security forces themselves.

Training or equipping these forces is not a solution. Many Iraqi soldiers have more training than some young American men and women who are being sent to Iraq right out of basic training so that our overstretched ground forces can support this ill-conceived surge. The fundamental problem with the Iraqi security forces is that they lack allegiance to the national government and the will to fight and die for a non-existent Iraqi nation.

The 350,000 security forces are not being asked to fight against a big foreign conventional military power but to deal with an insurgency that consists of a tiny section of the population totalling no more than 20,000. They are already equipped well enough for that task. Giving them more weapons and training will only increase the level of violence.

Odom and Korb compare our efforts to train local forces with our training of the Vietnamese and Salvadoran government forces—

In Vietnam, training the South Vietnamese forces failed, not because they were incompetent, but because the government lost the banner of nationalism to the Viet Cong. In El Salvador in the 1980s, elections and the training of government forces ended up putting back into power the very politicians who had provoked the insurgency with death squads. Soon afterwards, their death squads were back in action. The insurgency failed because all outside supplies were cut off, not because of US military assistance training.

And they conclude—

In Iraq, the same politically naive illusion of success through training the local security forces will yield the same or worse results. We must set a deadline to withdraw our troops and cease supplying weapons and training to all sides, or our forces will be in jeopardy as we leave and the violence among all sides in the civil wars will be greater after we depart.

I think they have a point.

Related posts
The denial of impotence (2/24/06)
While waiting for the civil war ... (3/6/06)
The media discover themselves discovering a civil war (11/28/06)
The Bush plan for Iraq: What you should expect (1/11/07)
Getting it wrong is usually right (1/17/07)
Neocons fear the pain of premature withdrawal (1/29/07)
Muqtada al-Sadr and a date to watch (2/9/07)



1As with almost all official American reaction to the Iraqi conflict, the IRQ report places more emphasis on the Shia militias than on the Sunni insurgency while acknowledging that "Most attacks on Americans still come from the Sunni Arab insurgency." [page 3]

What's the difference?

Militias are currently seen as legitimate vehicles of political action. Shia political leaders make distinctions between the Sunni insurgency (which seeks to overthrow the government) and Shia militias (which are used to fight Sunnis, secure neighborhoods, and maximize power within the government). [page 19]

You might think that the U.S. would set its sights more on groups committed to overthrowing the government and killing Americans. You would be wrong.

You see, militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr and others want the U.S. out of Iraq forthwith (see "Muqtada al-Sadr and a date to watch"). Their success would threaten the interests of Big Oil and is viewed as likely to consolidate the influence of Iran over Iraq. In the latter event the American invasion would be revealed for what it was—a coup to the benefit of the Iranian government. Hence we hear a great deal more about the "threat" of the militias than of the insurgents.


2From p. 20—

Too often, insurgents tolerate and cooperate with al Qaeda, as they share a mutual interest in attacking U.S. and Shia forces. However, Sunni Arab tribal leaders in Anbar province recently took the positive step of agreeing to pursue al Qaeda and foreign fighters in their midst, and have started to take action on those commitments.


3Lawrence Korb was sent to Iraq by the Defense Department in December 2003. We can now look back and see that his assessment of the situation was breathtakingly accurate.

When pundits are this honest, you may be sure that the press will ignore them. (See "Getting it wrong is usually right.") [back]

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