A Thin Blue Line in the Sand
Iraqization is a dead-end strategy. But there is still some hope of saving the country, and it lies in an unlikely place: local Sunni militia and police.
For more than two years, the heart of U.S. military strategy in Iraq has been “Iraqization,” the creation of an effective Iraqi security force that can take the place of U.S. Marines and soldiers. Thereby, the United States can eventually withdraw without leaving behind a terrorist safe haven and fractured Iraq. A wide range of military officers, policymakers, and scholars argue that through re-invigorated American efforts at training, equipping, and advising the Iraqi Army, any shortcomings in the Iraqi security forces can be overcome. Even Democrats who oppose the surge strategy support Iraqization, contending that Iraqi security forces are perfectly capable of suppressing violence now but that only when the United States “stands down” will they truly “stand up.”
Between February 2004 and February 2005, and later from February to August 2006, I served as an advisor to the I Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF) in Al Anbar province. During that time I interviewed members of the Iraqi Army and police, held discussions with American advisers, and directly observed Iraqi Army and police operations. Al Anbar is overwhelmingly Sunni and infamously is a center of insurgent activity. Therefore, it is critical to the success of the Iraqization strategy. Failure there means a U.S. withdrawal would leave hard-core insurgent groups, specifically Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), free to operate and possibly organize terrorist operations outside the province. Even if it is successful everywhere else in Iraq, Iraqization will have failed if it cannot work in Al Anbar.
My research in Al Anbar province suggests that Iraqization can never lead to a stable or unified Iraq. The Iraqi Army, the focal point of Iraqization, has been unable to win the support of the Sunni population, who view it as a Shia occupation force. Without the local population’s help, the Iraqi Army cannot suppress insurgent activity, no matter how much advising, training, or equipping is invested into it. As long as ethnically integrated (and therefore predominantly Shia), the army will not succeed. If the United States draws down and tasks the keeping of the peace to the army, Al Anbar could very well become a safe haven for AQI and a breeding ground for international terrorism. Neither the recent surge nor the current Iraqization policy will alter that fate. Thus, continuing to advise, train, and equip the Iraqi Army only delays such a fate and sacrifices more American lives.
Fortunately, this outcome is not inevitable. A strategy of “grassroots Iraqization”–one that places greater resources and authority in the hands of local Sunni police units–could, based on my experiences in Al Anbar, create islands of stability and significantly constrain AQI’s influence in a long Iraqi civil war. Because of close connections to the Sunni community, local Sunni police units, the other arm of the security forces in Al Anbar, enjoy stronger popular support and experience greater success against the insurgents than the Iraqi Army. The thing holding them back is their alignment with the United States and the Shia government, thus denying them the breadth of popular support necessary to secure more than two or three towns or neighborhoods. The police may never entirely overcome this constraint, but they can progress, and expand beyond Al Anbar, if the United States and the Iraqi government give Sunni sheiks, imams, former military, and other local leaders money, access to jobs, political positions, and control over military formations so that they have the authority to convince more of their followers to join the police and give the police information. Thereby, over time, local police can gain greater popular support, expand secure areas, and become a long-term constraint on AQI–America’s number-one enemy in Iraq.
This is hardly an ideal course. By giving non-elected Sunni groups economic, political, and military power, Sunni autonomy would be increased and the movement toward a unified democratic state would be weakened. The United States would be creating nothing less than Sunni militias and turning to them for security, rather than to the legitimate arm of the state, the Iraqi Army. The United States obviously would prefer to avoid this scenario and hope that political reconciliation efforts and military operations–such as the ongoing surge–would allow the Iraqi Army to succeed. Yet, experts argue, the surge and political reconciliation efforts are not likely to prevent civil war from being the long-term reality. At this point in the conflict, strategy must be about choosing the least-worst options so that we can salvage U.S. interests in what is likely to be a divided and war-torn Iraq.
The Origins and Early Development of Iraqization
The United States and its coalition in Iraq began building Iraqi security forces as early as 2003, but it did not become the focal point of U.S. military strategy until General George Casey, commander of Multi-National Forces Iraq (MNF-I), ordered a review of his military strategy at the end of 2004. The review concluded that the formation of the Iraqi Army was lagging and needed to be accelerated so that it could shoulder counterinsurgency operations and allow U.S. forces to eventually withdraw. Even if insurgent activity could not be entirely eliminated, Casey hoped the Iraqi Army could suppress it to a level that would not fracture the Iraqi state and would keep AQI from operating freely. Accordingly, Casey directed the Coalition forces to shift their focus from fighting insurgents to training Iraqis.
The Coalition designed the Iraqi Army to be a national force that integrated Kurds, Shia, and Sunni. Some degree of integration in fact occurred–I encountered a number of Sunni officers–but overall the Sunnis were always underrepresented throughout the country. In all, 10 divisions (recently raised to 13) were planned. In order to accelerate Iraqi Army development, MNF-I created the transition team concept–10 to 12 advisers embedded into every Iraqi Army unit, from battalion to brigade to division. Additionally, each Iraqi battalion was partnered with a Marine or U.S. Army battalion, which would assist in their operations and training. Usually, the partnership process began with an Iraqi company working with a U.S. company. Eventually, the company would operate independently, followed by the battalion, then the brigade, and ultimately the entire division. To be sure, the Coalition also developed local police forces, recruited from the areas where they would serve and organized into city and district stations. But they received fewer advisers and resources than the army.
The Iraqi Army in Al Anbar By March 2006, the Iraqi Army in Al Anbar numbered two divisions (about 10,000 personnel) and provided 40 to 50 percent of the infantry for counterinsurgency. Three brigades operated independently. Despite this growth in numbers and capability, the army faced incessant attacks and, as of early 2007, after two years of operations, it could not suppress the insurgency even with U.S. forces present, which made it highly unlikely it would be able to do so absent U.S. forces–the primary goal of Iraqization. Most disturbing for American interests, AQI continued to maintain a presence throughout the province. In a leaked intelligence report in September 2006, Colonel Peter Devlin, the I MEF intelligence officer, wrote, “AQI is the dominant organization of influence in Al Anbar, surpassing the nationalist insurgents, the Iraqi Government, and MNF [the Coalition] in its ability to control the day-to-day life of the average Sunni.” The inability of the Iraqi Army to suppress insurgent activity was mirrored throughout the Sunni areas.
Nevertheless, the difficulties experienced by the Iraqi Army in Al Anbar and elsewhere have not altered the consensus among top policymakers and U.S. military officers that Iraqization can eventually enable the United States to withdraw. In fact, there has been near-unanimity that the United States needs to invest more resources into training, advising, equipping, and manning the Iraqi Army. As General John Abizaid, commander of Central Command, told the Senate in November 2006, “In discussions with our commanders and Iraqi leaders, it is clear that they believe Iraqi forces can take more control faster, provided we invest more manpower and resources into the Coalition military transition teams, speed the delivery of logistics and mobility enablers, and embrace an aggressive Iraqi-led effort to disarm illegal militias.” Abizaid concluded that U.S. forces might thereby be able to hand over security to Iraqi forces within one year. Similarly, the Iraq Study Group emphasized, in its report, “the urgent near-term need for significant additional trained Army brigades, since this is the key to Iraqis taking over full responsibility for their own security.” The report implied that a shortcoming in “real combat capability” prevented the Iraqi Army from handling the insurgency. In his January 2007 speech on the surge strategy, President George W. Bush reaffirmed the importance of the Iraqi Army to the U.S. mission in Iraq and promised to increase its numbers, training, equipping, and advisory support. The surge may place greater emphasis on American military operations than previous efforts, but the expectation that Iraqi security forces will eventually be able to shoulder the burden of counterinsurgency remains the same. And though Democrats in the House and Senate disagreed with the surge and argued that the United States must stand down so that the Iraqis would be forced to stand up, they have never questioned that Iraqization itself could work.
True, myriad training, advising, equipping, and manning problems have afflicted the Iraqi Army. Formal training varies from zero to 16 weeks, with most battalions receiving just three weeks of instruction in basic soldiering before being sent to Al Anbar. In terms of equipment, the Coalition initially left the Iraqis more lightly armed than the insurgents; they are transported in unarmored pick-ups and lack essential items such as boots and cold-weather jackets. While equipment improved over time, the Marines found that 12 advisers were not enough to train, administer, and operate alongside a battalion. Between 20 and 33 percent of the 750 men in a battalion are on leave at any time, while desertions and combat losses–because of poor living conditions, irregular pay, distance from home, and constant exposure to combat–reduce on-hand strength to between 150 and 600 men per battalion. In the worst cases, personnel attrition has forced certain Iraqi units to drastically cut back on operations.
But while undoubtedly weakening its performance, shortcomings in training, advising, and equipping are not at the root of the Iraqi Army’s inability to suppress the insurgency. As noted by the Iraq Study Group, the purpose of training, advising, and equipping is to create “a real combat capability.” Yet the Iraqi Army actually performed adequately in combat. On no occasion in Al Anbar since April 2004 did insurgents rout or overwhelm an Iraqi Army unit. Several could perform advanced tasks such as combining movement with suppressive fire, maneuvering, and assaulting insurgent positions. For example, the 3rd Brigade, 1st Iraqi Division won battles against as many as 50 insurgents. In fact, because of its aggressiveness, many Coalition officers candidly rated the brigade as better than certain U.S. units. Similarly, Coalition officers considered the 1st Brigade, 1st Iraqi Division, fighting in eastern Ramadi (the largest city and scene of the worst violence in Al Anbar), to be highly competent, especially at urban warfare. Its commander was sometimes upheld as the equivalent of the average U.S. brigade commander. Major Lloyd Freeman, the operations officer with the 1st Iraqi Division military transition team, summed up the Iraqi Army’s combat performance well: “It might be ugly, but the job would get done.”
The Sunni-Shia Dilemma Unfortunately, just like the Coalition, the Iraqi Army could fight well and understand counterinsurgency tactics, yet have little effect on the vibrant insurgency. Clearly, better training, advising, equipping, and manning will accelerate the pace of operations and enable more units to conduct advanced tasks. Doing so may even allow certain units outside Al Anbar (sometimes described as losing battles to insurgents or Shia militia) to stand and fight. However, the fact that good units like the 1st and 3rd brigades still faced heavy attacks suggests that improving the performance of the Iraqi Army is not likely to make much of a difference in suppressing insurgent activity.
The real problem facing the Iraqi Army, and Iraqization itself, is that Sunnis too often sympathize with the insurgency. They generally do not provide intelligence on the identity and location of insurgents, and without good intelligence, counterinsurgent forces cannot identify and remove insurgents. In Al Anbar, insurgents could mass freely, because local residents would not inform the Iraqi Army. Worse, some locals have hidden insurgents or even joined the insurgency as fighters; one Iraqi officer estimated that 25 to 30 percent of locals were insurgents. Consequently, the Iraqi Army could win every firefight and patrol diligently without ever rooting out the insurgents.
Different people have different reasons for supporting the insurgents, but the majority opposes the Iraqi Army primarily because of its Shia identity. The Shia-dominated Iraqi government’s insistence on denying Sunnis political power and economic wealth upsets them and raises fears of oppression. Sectarian violence in Baghdad only magnifies this perception. Polling in 2006 found that 77 to 90 percent of people in Al Anbar viewed the government as illegitimate, while 80 percent considered civil war likely. Further polls confirmed that the majority of Iraqis in Al Anbar view the Iraqi Army as a threat, not as a stabilizing force.
Such numbers are reflected in the Iraqi Army’s experience in Al Anbar. For example, in Falluja, the second-largest city in Al Anbar, Iraqi Army officers believed that people perceived them as occupiers and allowed the insurgents to attack them. They heard imams call the people to attack the Iraqi Army. Indeed, at one city council meeting, city officials laughed derisively at an Iraqi officer when he noted his men received no cooperation from locals. City leaders regularly accused the Iraqi Army of being members of Shia extremist groups. Once, a prominent imam said that the people of Fallujah were fighting a Persian occupation.
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