Measuring Iraq's Security Forces

Measuring Iraq's Security Forces
May 3rd, 2008  
Team Infidel

Topic: Measuring Iraq's Security Forces

Measuring Iraq's Security Forces
May 12, 2008 By Abigail Hauslohner, Baghdad
Lieut. Colonel William Zemp is full of praise for the 700 Iraqi troops who have been helping bring peace to the countryside around Mahmudiya, a town 20 miles (30 km) south of Baghdad. As he leads his troops on patrol through a farming village, Zemp notes that less than six months ago, the area was prime insurgent territory and U.S. patrols routinely came under attack. On this April day, however, children poke their heads out of mud-brick doorways to wave, and two families even invite the troops to join in their modest midday meals. None of this would have been possible, Zemp says, without the efforts of the Iraqi army.
But where are the Iraqi troops that Zemp was hoping to bring along on this 7 a.m. sweep of the village? Stopping by the Iraqi base on the way to the patrol, Zemp finds that most of the Iraqi troops have not yet awakened. Zemp doesn't seem surprised or especially perturbed. "The [Iraqi] army is very good at what they do," he explains. "They just have a problem with sleeping in."
For months now, top U.S. military commanders have been trumpeting the growing strength of Iraq's 559,397-strong security forces, trained and armed by the U.S. military at a cost of $20.4 billion. Iraqi military competence is critical to U.S. plans to withdraw by July the last of five combat brigades sent to Iraq as part of General David Petraeus' "surge" strategy. But on the battlefield, the Iraqis are frequently found wanting and often have to be rescued by U.S. troops. A damning April 25 report by the Department of Defense's special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction says the Iraqi forces are still years away from being able to independently defend their country. Among other things, the report says, Iraqi security forces are still relying heavily on coalition forces for logistical support, and the shortage of officers "at all operational and tactical levels" is so severe that it could take a decade to address. Pentagon officials estimate that only two-thirds of Iraqi troops show up for duty at all.
This bodes ill for Iraq's security environment, which has deteriorated sharply since the start of the year. Many of the gains of the surge have already been lost; suicide attacks are up, and the rate of Iraqi and U.S. casualties has climbed. American troops, stretched to the limit, need the Iraqis to do more of the heavy lifting.
That's not happening yet. The inadequacy of Iraqi forces has come under a harsh spotlight since March, when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched an offensive in the southern city of Basra against Shi'ite militias loyal to the rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The operation, named Saulat al-Forsan (Charge of the Knights), was an opportunity for the Iraqi troops to show just how far they have come as an independent force. But barely a day into the offensive, al-Maliki had to call for backup as his troops ran into resistance from the militias. British and American warplanes bombed ground targets on behalf of the Iraqi troops and ferried in everything from medical supplies to bottles of water. In disarray, some Iraqi troops refused to fight or surrendered; some switched sides and joined the militias. According to the Iraqi government, 1,300 soldiers deserted. As the offensive widened to include operations in al-Sadr's strongholds in Baghdad, it became clear that Iraqi forces could not press the campaign on their own.
Top U.S. commanders continue to offer assurances that Iraqi forces are up to the challenge, emphasizing progress made over the recent setbacks. "As we look to [Basra] ... we see a much improved Iraqi security force," Lieut. General Lloyd Austin, the No. 2 military commander in Iraq, told journalists in Baghdad on April 23. But soldiers working with Iraqi units on the ground say the praise is exaggerated. In Hilla, a dusty town south of Baghdad where a bloody battle raged in the streets at the end of March, some soldiers of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, say their efforts were largely credited to an Iraqi force that did little. One soldier told Time the Army had publicly commended the Iraqi troops for taking the lead in the battle. "But we did all the work," he said.
Even where Iraqi troops are not in the thick of battle, their U.S. partners complain of incompetence and poor discipline. At a small desert outpost in the largely pacified Anbar province, an Iraqi police truck recently fired so close to a group of U.S. Marines that the round of bullets missed one Marine by only a few feet. After chasing down the truck, the lieutenant in charge of the Marines was shocked to learn the reason for the shooting. "Evidently, a car passing through the checkpoint in the other direction had honked its horn at the gun truck," he said. "The gunner felt the need to retaliate with a burst [of gunfire]."
Infiltrated by the Militias
Not all Iraqi forces are so inept; several army brigades in the north, especially those composed of Kurds, have performed well on the battlefield. For the rest, the most charitable explanation is that it's unreasonable to expect a brand-new army and police force to stand up in such a short time. Iraqi soldiers get just six weeks' basic training, cops only eight--hardly the best preparation to do battle with a bewildering array of enemies, ranging from al-Qaeda terrorists and Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias to well-armed criminal gangs. Motivation is another problem: soldiers get starting salaries of $375 a month, policemen $95 a month. Iraqi commanders also complain that they are poorly equipped: they lack airpower and heavy weapons.
But there are also other, more worrisome reasons for the poor quality of Iraqi forces. Although the U.S. military has been training and fighting alongside the Iraqis for five years, many American officers and soldiers say they don't trust their Iraqi counterparts. In the main, this is because Iraqi forces are rife with sectarian loyalties. Many soldiers and policemen were recruited from the very militias they are now being asked to kill or capture. "While in general they are prepared to fight, if you put them into a sectarian battle, you still have to wonder if their commitment to the country is greater than their commitment to their own sectarian group," says Michael O'Hanlon, a military scholar at the Brookings Institution.
Throughout southern Iraq, members of the police and army are drawn largely from the Badr Organization, the chief rival of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. That's why it was no surprise, said Lieutenant Ryan Lawson, who is based in Hilla, that the Shi'ite town's Badr-dominated forces were "chomping at the bit to go after [the Mahdi Army]" in recent fighting. In areas where al-Sadr's militia dominates, many soldiers simply deserted, either out of loyalty to the cleric or out of fear. "Most of the officers are scared that if they attack the militias and the Mahdi Army today, they'll pay for it tomorrow," says a senior Interior Ministry official. "Power could flip, and the Mahdi Army could be in control. Then anyone who is fighting them now will end up in jail, accused of war crimes."
American commanders would like to see more Sunnis in the Iraqi forces and are pressing al-Maliki to recruit more of the former insurgents to fight alongside U.S. troops; there are now some 90,000 such fighters, and their salaries, paid by the U.S., start at $300 a month. But the Iraqi government regards their loyalties as suspect and has dragged its feet in recruiting them.
Back in the village outside Mahmudiya, Zemp doesn't wait around for the Iraqi troops that are catching the extra z's. He continues with his patrol, bolstering his U.S. platoon with a handful of Iraqis in mismatched uniforms and a secondary commander. When the other members of the contingent arrive hours later, they march down the dirt path that has already been patrolled by U.S. troops, only to be called back and redirected. Their commander greets Zemp with a shrug. "I was sleeping," he says nonchalantly. For the U.S. military, however, the Iraqi battlefield performance in recent weeks should serve as a wake-up call.
--With reporting by Mark Kukis, Mazin Ezzat/Baghdad, Mark Thompson/Washington

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