December 13, 2006
Tour diary shows unready recruits
By Bryan Bender, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON -- The day's mission was straightforward: Show the local Iraqi police how to escort a convoy of new recruits from Baqubah to the police academy in Sulymaniyah , about 125 miles to the north.
But like just about everything else involving the US training of Iraqi police, a relatively simple task quickly became complicated.
"The Iraqi police slept in, missing their movement," Army Captain Phillip Carter wrote of the April incident. Carter and his unit ultimately decided that it would be more trouble to roust them than it was worth.
"My sergeant decided not to wake them or take them," Carter wrote. "He thought it wasn't worth the effort."
The Iraqi police eventually caught up with the convoy about 30 minutes outside town, but "they did not bring any extra fuel, nor did they bring any money for fuel," Carter recalled. "Instead, they found a street vendor selling fuel cans on the side of the road and strong-armed him."
The episode was among dozens detailed in a diary kept by Carter, a military police officer, during his yearlong tour training Iraqi police. Carter provided his computer diary entries to the Globe under the condition they would not be published until after his return in September.
Now, as last week's Iraq Study Group report urges President Bush to step up the training of the Iraqi Army and the police, Carter's diary entries from his tour with the 101st Airborne Division provide a first-person view of the challenges that remain before the nation's fledgling security forces can become viable.
Most US military officials agree that the Iraqi Army , whose mission is to protect the country, is better trained than the highly decentralized police, elements of which have been implicated in some of the sectarian violence that has engulfed the country.
Iraq currently has about 188,000 US-trained police officers, responsible for maintaining law and order. But only two of the 27 national police battalions are taking the lead in law enforcement operations, down from six last month, according to military officials. One entire battalion was sidelined in October after being linked to sectarian killings.
Carter's record of his tour with Task Force Blue, the US-led police transition team in Diyala Province, north of Baghdad, shows how the corruption of police and judges, the diversion of supplies to the black market, and an inflexible US bureaucracy have combined to make the training mission a story of embarrassing failures and only fitful successes.
Carter, now 31, was a military police captain in the 1990s. As a reservist, he later earned a law degree from the University of California, Los Angeles, where he specialized in the international legal aspects of fighting terrorism. He volunteered to go to Iraq in 2005 to train Iraqi police -- seemingly a perfect match for his skills.
But he soon realized what he was up against, according to one diary entry.
"Before 2003, the Iraqi police did not exist as a viable entity in this society," Carter wrote on his laptop computer in December 2005. "Sure, there were police, and sure, there was a state security apparatus. But it did not exist the way we think of police -- to uphold and enforce the rule of law; it simply existed to protect and serve the Hussein regime. So in many ways, perhaps more even than the military, the Iraqi police are being built from the ground up."
Reports of police abuse The Iraqi judge's order arrived at Carter's headquarters in April: Transfer a former Iraqi police colonel being held on murder charges in Baqubah from the provincial jail to the nearby major crimes unit -- where his brother was in charge.
Carter was perplexed.
"Everybody agrees that he's a pretty bad dude," Carter later wrote from his barracks in the corner of the state capitol building of Diyala Province. "Unfortunately, this pretty bad dude has friends in very high places -- including his brother."
It appeared to be a classic case of official corruption, but there was little the Americans could do, even in the face of such an obvious ploy. "The police chief says not to transfer this detainee, and the US would rather see him in jail, but a judge's order is a judge's order," Carter wrote.
The episode was among many frustrations in Carter's efforts to foster the rule of law.
For example, he said, there were rampant reports of police abuse last summer in the provincial jail.
"The Iraqi Army arrested each man, bound him, and took him to a set of bunkers nearby," Carter wrote. "Once there, they beat him for several days, using medieval and modern techniques I recognized from my research and writing on detention and interrogation practices."
He didn't have the authority, however, to compel the Iraqis to take the complaints seriously.
"It's easy to advise the judges in their offices and train the police in their stations," Carter wrote. "It's much harder to deal with transgressions like this, and to push them to punish their own."
Judges weren't the only high-ranking officials who needed schooling in the basics.
Carter helped organize a training course for high-ranking police officials to receive instruction on the new Iraqi constitution, Iraqi criminal law, the handling of evidence, and ethics.
"For all the hundreds of millions of US dollars poured into training for the Iraqi police, we're finding that the leaders still need training on these basics," Carter wrote after the day long course. "Which is bad, obviously, since the police can't enforce the law if they don't know it."
'Critical gear goes AWOL' One day in December 2005, Carter was assigned to help distribute new Chevy pickups and Blazers to Iraqi police in the province -- a task that made him feel "like a rental car agent."
The lucky officers arrived at the base, "inspected the vehicles, signed our paperwork, and then drove off in a very orderly process," Carter wrote.
But he couldn't be sure where the vehicles would end up: Supplies, particularly those with high resale value, often ended up on the black market, not at the police station.
"The thing is, the money is there and the equipment has been bought," he wrote in a later dispatch. "But at some point in the system, the money has been skimmed, or the items pilfered, with the result that the critical gear goes AWOL before it reaches the Iraqi police who need it in the field."
After one of his countless spot-checks of police stations in February, Carter despaired over how vital equipment was being diverted from local police: "I am always disappointed that the [Iraqi police] lack basic equipment like uniforms, AK-47 magazines, vehicles, radios, body armor, etc."
Indeed, the "skimming" of government supplies by the Interior Ministry was the most obvious reason why police training was progressing so slowly, he said.
And the challenges included the unauthorized borrowing of police by locally powerful Iraqis for private missions.
"Local politicians liberally borrow bodyguards, weapons, and vehicles from the police in order to outfit themselves and their entourages," Carter wrote in May.
Cumbersome bureaucracy The US trainers came to call it "our monthly science project."
In February, US military headquarters in Baghdad introduced a computer tool to help Carter and his team assess Iraqi police stations.
If the Police Station Management Report was a model for anything, however, it was the cumbersome US bureaucracy. It was a 55-page Excel spreadsheet with a total of 794 questions to measure police readiness.
The Iraqis were noticeably annoyed.
"The acting police chief at one station went so far as to start picking his nose with his radio antenna to show his boredom or displeasure," Carter wrote.
But when Carter included the anecdote in an official report, his commanders rebuked him.
"It's unclear how high the nose-picking story actually went; it might have made it all the way into the dispatches which get sent back to Washington," Carter wrote. "What I do know is that I got a very blunt phone call from the brigade operations officer."
Again and again Carter and his team tried unsuccessfully to appeal to his higher-ups to streamline the paperwork.
"We've sent feedback up the chain and it's gotten to the top generals in Baghdad," he wrote in May, "but the Army bureaucracy is strong here, and resilient."
Too few bright spots On April 27, Carter had just finished lunch when he heard the crackle of gunfire. Police stations and checkpoints across Baqubah, a city of 300,000, were coming under assault.
He rushed to the joint US-Iraqi command center, where he was pleased to see Iraqi police taking charge. The Iraqis had "read the tea leaves and figured out where the enemy's main effort was hitting about as fast as the US figured it out," Carter recalled in an April report.
A fierce battle ensued.
"You could see the fight unfold from our roof, about three kilometers to our south," Carter wrote. "By day's end, the Iraqi Army and police had basically schwacked the insurgents. It was a good day for the good guys."
It was a bright spot in Carter's tour -- not the only one, but one of too few, in his opinion.
"I know we've made a difference, and I know that we've helped the Iraqi police, courts, and jails to become better than they were when we arrived, just like the unit before us," he wrote in his last dispatch, on Aug. 30.
But he held no illusions about how much more is needed.
"In theory, according to the US strategy of standing up Iraqi security forces, things should get better with the development of capable Iraqi Army and police units. That's not happening."