Inside The Pentagon
by Elaine M. Grossman
September 15, 2005
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Officers Worry Iraqi Army Will Disintegrate After U.S. Draws Down
A growing number of U.S. military officers in Iraq and those who have returned from the region are voicing concern that the nascent Iraqi army will fall apart if American forces are drawn down in the foreseeable future, Inside the Pentagon has learned.
Newly trained forces generally exhibit “a lack of willingness to fight for something,” says retired Army Col. Gerry Schumacher, a former Green Beret who was recently in Iraq. More than two years of insurgent violence and a U.S.-led occupation have left Iraqi troops with “a lack of a cause to believe in,” says Schumacher, who anticipates a civil war may break out between tribal and ethnic groups when American forces leave.
Army Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said in July that he is laying the groundwork for a “substantial” force withdrawal beginning as early as next spring. He cautioned at the time that any U.S. troop reduction would depend on continued progress in Iraq’s political environment and in training its new security forces.
In August, efforts to achieve a full consensus across all three major ethnic groups in writing a national constitution failed, and many predict an upcoming national vote on the draft document will force the current government to dissolve.
It remains unclear how the latest developments or potential ramifications of the Oct. 15 constitutional referendum may affect U.S. hopes for a near-term cut in its forces deployed to Iraq.
In Washington this week, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said that despite his belief that new Iraqi forces could replace up to 50,000 U.S. troops by the end of this year, “we will set no timetable for withdrawal” because that would “help the terrorists.” By the end of 2006, perhaps Iraqi troops could relieve much of the burden on U.S.
forces, Talabani said Sept. 13 after meeting with President Bush.
Newsweek reported this week that the Defense Intelligence Agency has begun analyzing what might happen in Iraq if U.S. forces were reduced or eliminated there. The wargaming may support a delay in the drawdown to avoid a surge in insurgent violence or a civil war, the magazine reported.
Behind the scenes, many officers are cautioning that even under the best circumstances the emerging Iraqi army does not appear ready to fill the security vacuum left by departing U.S. troops, regardless of Casey’s earlier optimism.
While selected Iraqi units appear ready to fight without U.S. support, many of them are more loyal to their tribes than to a unified army, officials say. For example, with considerable support from the U.S. 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, units drawn primarily from the Kurdish pesh merga — a militia reportedly feared by many Arab fighters — recently led the charge in the Tal Afar area of Iraq, where hundreds of enemy fighters have been killed or detained.
Many of those concerned about the fate of the national Iraqi army question the feasibility of efforts to create an institution that spans ethnic and religious lines. There is little sense of national purpose among the emerging forces and morale is often low, military officials said in interviews with ITP.
“War is 90 percent an art, 90 percent a psychological thing,” said a senior U.S. officer with Iraq experience. “As these young Iraqi soldiers stand up, they’re with Iraqi security force units that have no tradition. They don’t have any of the kind of support structures and coherence of ours.”
When U.S. commanders have attempted to partner with Iraqi units, at times they have found they could not rely on their local counterparts to fight against insurgents, several officers point out. In Sunni-dominated areas, American leaders have sometimes imported Shiite or Kurdish troops from other regions to help counter the resistance, as is the case in Tal Afar, officials say.
In the Sunni Triangle around Baghdad, “we’re going to have to use nationally recruited forces, not tribal [troops] from that area, because they simply are not able to break with their tribal affiliations,” says the active-duty senior officer. “They won’t arrest a friend of theirs if they catch him with a truckload of explosives in the car. Or worse, they’ll help the enemy.”
Yet the practice of bringing in troops from other areas may unintentionally invite revenge killings, or at the very least can aggravate ethnic tensions by using one group to police another, some defense officials and experts worry.
U.S. officials are now attempting to create Iraqi units with more of an ethnic mix.
“We have to build a system for them that is built for diversity,” the Los Angeles Times quoted Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who leads to effort to train Iraqi security forces, as saying in Baghdad last week.
“We are very careful to encourage and in some cases insist on diversity.”
The 115 Iraqi army and special police battalions already declared battle ready, each numbering about 700 troops, are dominated by Shiites and Kurds, including many former members of political militias, the newspaper reported. (Those numbers are still well short of the 185,000 troops a Pentagon spokesman recently cited for total Iraqi security forces, Reuters wire service reported early this month.)
“Creating a coalition out of” the roughly 150 tribes in Iraq “would require systematically mapping tribal structures, loyalties and blood feuds within and among tribal groups; identifying unresolved feuds; detecting the political inclinations of dominant tribes and their sources of power and legitimacy; and determining their ties to tribes in other countries, particularly in Iran, Syria and Turkey,” writes Andrew Krepinevich, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, in the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs.
Tribal loyalties aside, many U.S. officers note Iraqi units in large part remain poorly trained.
Iraqi security forces receive, at maximum, three weeks of military training, which may provide them basic rifle skills if they are lucky, says one Marine officer recently returned from Iraq. Like a number of officers in Iraq or recently returned, he spoke on condition of not being named.
“We’re not expecting elite shock troops out of these guys,” notes retired Marine Col. Gary Anderson, who helped train military advisers to the Iraqi army in early 2004. To take over security functions from U.S. forces, the new Iraqi units simply must be better than the insurgents, which should not be too difficult, Anderson and others say. He suggests a phased hand-off might be feasible as Iraqi units come up to speed, with, say, 80 percent or more of a battalion on payroll for at least 90 days, particularly if it has been in combat.
“The don’t have to be as good as Americans,” says the senior officer on active duty. “They’re not up against people as good as Americans.”
Meanwhile, another officer tells ITP, “we will need to help the Iraqis fight until their capability overmatches the enemy’s.”
Yet even among the better-trained forces, “the only people the Iraqi people will fight for are their tribes, their family members and their friends,” Schumacher asserts. “They’ll even fight for their U.S.
friends. But they won’t fight for their country.”
Typically lacking in education, Iraqi men often come under “pressure from local clerics and insurgents to stop people from joining” the army, says Michael Janke, a former Navy SEAL who heads a contracting firm that provides security services to the U.S. military in Iraq.
Retired Army Col. David Hunt, a former airborne Ranger and Green Beret, sees a passivity in Iraqi troops that could take generations to reverse.
“They’re not a warrior people. They’re very submissive” after years of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s violent rule, says Hunt, who maintains contact with troops in Iraq as a security consultant. “We haven’t found the key to turning that around.”
Even after years of investment in training, “there’s no evidence the Iraqis can do this,” Hunt says.
“That cultural mindset only respects power,” Schumacher opines.
The senior officer with Iraq experience attributes reports of poor cohesion and lagging morale among Iraqi troops to a form of battle fatigue.
“This is not a seven- or 12-month tour for them. This is a marathon,” says this officer. “When you’re involved in a marathon, you perhaps don’t have the intensity of what could be considered a sprint by the American forces, which seem to have this never-ending supply of fresh units to rotate in and out. They’re there for the duration.”
This officer is among several who say the Iraqi army may rise to the occasion only after U.S. forces transfer to it greater responsibility for the nation’s security. In fact, if the army can hang together, it might only be led by commanders not perceived as being too close to the American occupation, some say.
Selected Iraqi “institutions, including the police, the military and other security agencies, could well survive with different people, untainted by association with the U.S. occupation, emerging from within them to assert new leadership,” according to a recent report by Phyllis Bennis and Erik Leaver of the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies.
“What emerges has to be of their invention and creation or it will not survive,” says retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, a former armored cavalry officer who led troops in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Though the new Iraqi army will not meet American norms or standards, it will be forced to deal with the remnants of the insurgency, “which is actually a rebellion against our occupation,” he says.
“I think you’ll see increasingly that Iraqis are dissatisfied with having people come in from other countries and bring war into their streets,” says the senior officer, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“And so that will help.”
Macgregor and others note the current Iraqi army leadership is rife with officers stealing cash and supplies intended for rank and file troops.
“Corruption within the IA [Iraqi army] chain of command … prevents resources from reaching the Iraqi soldier,” says one U.S. Army officer in Iraq.
“We’ve had the wrong training focus” for the nation’s army, police and civil defense troops, concentrating “on individual cops rather than their leaders,” Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, then deployed to train forces in Iraq, conceded to Associated Press in June 2004.
Moreover, “abhorrent conditions [prevail] at most, if not all, Iraqi training locations,” one Army officer in Iraq says. The environment “would challenge the best U.S. leaders and, in an impossible situation for the average Iraqi leader, AWOLs [are] rampant in many units,” the officer adds.
As a reflection of poor morale, “for the most part the Iraqi soldiers care more about leave and pay than fighting for their country,” says the officer. “The average IA soldier gets 120 days of leave [a year] or 10 days a month.”
This source says that by dominating security functions in Iraq, U.S. military leaders have denied Iraqi troops the experience and incentive they need to excel against the insurgency. Though U.S. troops this past spring were assigned as a primary mission in Iraq the training of Iraqi security forces, the Americans have continued to take the lead in most counterinsurgency battles.
“Many commanders in Iraq at the [brigade] and [battalion] level have not changed their mission, which should focus on training the Iraqi army — or more importantly, allowing the Iraqis to fight the insurgency. … They use the Iraqi army to mainly occupy fixed sites and permanent traffic controls around the city,” complains one U.S. officer there. “U.S. forces use the Iraqi army mainly as a manpower tool, not as a coherent, organic unit.”
The officer adds: “You cannot train or be proficient at fighting insurgents when you are sitting for weeks and months at fixed sites, watching the Americans chase the insurgents.”
Another Army officer in the region disagrees, saying the best way to strengthen the fledgling force is to provide security functions the Iraqis cannot yet handle.
“The Iraqi army needs some breathing space to develop some basic capabilities,” this officer tells ITP. “These include the ability to command and control operations, sustain themselves logistically and establish basic systems for pay, personnel management and supply that we take for granted in our armed forces.”
A number of others interviewed note a serious lack of logistical support within the Iraqi military — a gap that may require U.S. involvement long after combat troops depart, some say.
The Iraqi army has “no coherent logistical system,” says one Army officer in Iraq. “We built fighting units and did not develop the capacity for them to sustain themselves in the field without massive U.S. support.”
Anderson says the Iraqi troops also lack their own capability to provide fire support to infantry on the ground.
Meanwhile, “Iraqi units also need time to develop competent leadership — something that we know cannot be done overnight,” another Army officer says. “We have to defeat the enemy’s ability to conduct effective offensive operations against the Iraqi army so this new institution cannot only survive, but develop an increased capability.”
“Americans can buy time,” says the senior military officer. “Americans can do an awful lot to help them. But the defeat mechanism of the [militant leader Abu Musab] Zarqawi foreign-led insurgency or of the other insurgents will be Iraqis — Iraqi security forces and police forces [and] army. It will not be outsiders.”
Eventually, says this officer — who remains relatively optimistic — “you’ll have the U.S. forces there to reinforce the Iraqis, who are doing more of the fighting on the front lines. And then there’ll be a lot of American involvement in training and equipping them.”
But others say the Iraqi army will likely undergo serious changes before it is able to effectively assume security functions from departing U.S. troops.
“Once we are out of there, the Arabs will do a better job of dealing with these elements than we do,” Macgregor tells ITP. “They don’t have to be as good an army as we have, but they must be a Muslim Arab army.”
—Elaine M. Grossman