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The Atlantic Monthly | December 2005

Why Iraq Has No Army

An orderly exit from Iraq depends on the development of a viable Iraqi
security force, but the Iraqis aren't even close. The Bush administration
doesn't take the problem seriously—and it never has

by James Fallows

When Saddam Hussein fell, the Iraqi people gained freedom. What
they didn't get was public order. Looting began immediately, and by the time
it abated, signs of an insurgency had appeared. Four months after the
invasion the first bomb that killed more than one person went off; two years
later, through this past summer, multiple-fatality bombings occurred on
average once a day. The targets were not just U.S. troops but Iraqi
civilians and, more important, Iraqis who would bring order to the country.
The first major attack on Iraq's own policemen occurred in October of 2003,
when a car bomb killed ten people at a Baghdad police station. This summer
an average of ten Iraqi policemen or soldiers were killed each day. It is
true, as U.S. officials often point out, that the violence is confined
mainly to four of Iraq's eighteen provinces. But these four provinces
contain the nation's capital and just under half its people.

The crucial need to improve security and order in Iraq puts the United
States in an impossible position. It can't honorably leave Iraq—as opposed
to simply evacuating Saigon-style—so long as its military must provide most
of the manpower, weaponry, intelligence systems, and strategies being used
against the insurgency. But it can't sensibly stay when the very presence of
its troops is a worsening irritant to the Iraqi public and a rallying point
for nationalist opponents—to say nothing of the growing pressure in the
United States for withdrawal.

Therefore one question now trumps others in America's Iraq policy: whether
the United States can foster the development of viable Iraqi security
forces, both military and police units, to preserve order in a new Iraqi

The Bush administration's policy toward Iraq is based on the premise that
this job can be done—and done soon enough to relieve the pressures created
by the large-scale U.S. presence in Iraq. These include strains on the U.S.
military from its long overseas assignments, mounting political resistance
in America because of the cost and casualties of the war, and resentment in
Iraq about the open-ended presence of foreign occupation troops. This is why
President Bush and other officials say so often, "As Iraqis stand up, we
will stand down." American maximalists who want to transform Iraq into a
democracy, American minimalists who want chiefly to get U.S. troops out as
soon as possible, and everyone in between share an interest in the
successful creation of Iraq's own military.

If the United States can foster the development of a sufficiently stable
political system in Iraq, and if it can help train, equip, and support
military and police forces to defend that system, then American policy has a
chance of succeeding. The United States can pull its own troops out of Iraq,
knowing that it has left something sustainable behind. But if neither of
those goals is realistic—if Iraqi politics remains chaotic and the Iraqi
military remains overwhelmed by the insurgent threat—then the American
strategy as a whole is doomed.

As Iraqi politicians struggle over terms of a new constitution, Americans
need to understand the military half of the long-term U.S. strategy: when
and whether Iraqi forces can "stand up."

Early in the occupation American officials acted as if the emergence of an
Iraqi force would be a natural process. "In less than six months we have
gone from zero Iraqis providing security to their country to close to a
hundred thousand Iraqis," Donald Rumsfeld said in October of 2003. "Indeed,
the progress has been so swift that ... it will not be long before [Iraqi
security forces] will be the largest and outnumber the U.S. forces, and it
shouldn't be too long thereafter that they will outnumber all coalition
forces combined." By the end of this year the count of Iraqi security forces
should indeed surpass the total of American, British, and other coalition
troops in Iraq. Police officers, controlled by Iraq's Ministry of the
Interior, should number some 145,000. An additional 85,000 members of Iraq's
army, plus tiny contingents in its navy and air force, should be ready for
duty, under the control of Iraq's Ministry of Defense. Since early this year
Iraqi units have fought more and more frequently alongside U.S. troops.

But most assessments from outside the administration have been far more
downbeat than Rumsfeld's. Time and again since the training effort began,
inspection teams from Congress, the Government Accountability Office (GAO),
think tanks, and the military itself have visited Iraq and come to the same
conclusion: the readiness of many Iraqi units is low, their loyalty and
morale are questionable, regional and ethnic divisions are sharp, their
reported numbers overstate their real effectiveness.

The numbers are at best imperfect measures. Early this year the American-led
training command shifted its emphasis from simple head counts of Iraqi
troops to an assessment of unit readiness based on a four-part
classification scheme. Level 1, the highest, was for "fully capable"
units—those that could plan, execute, and maintain counterinsurgency
operations with no help whatsoever. Last summer Pentagon officials said that
three Iraqi units, out of a total of 115 police and army battalions, had
reached this level. In September the U.S. military commander in Iraq, Army
General George Casey, lowered that estimate to one.

Level 2 was for "capable" units, which can fight against insurgents as long
as the United States provides operational assistance (air support,
logistics, communications, and so on). Marine General Peter Pace, who is now
the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last summer that just under
one third of Iraqi army units had reached this level. A few more had by
fall. Level 3, for "partially capable" units, included those that could
provide extra manpower in efforts planned, led, supplied, and sustained by
Americans. The remaining two thirds of Iraqi army units, and half the
police, were in this category. Level 4, "incapable" units, were those that
were of no help whatsoever in fighting the insurgency. Half of all police
units were so classified.

In short, if American troops disappeared tomorrow, Iraq would have
essentially no independent security force. Half its policemen would be
considered worthless, and the other half would depend on external help for
organization, direction, support. Two thirds of the army would be in the
same dependent position, and even the better-prepared one third would suffer
significant limitations without foreign help.

The moment when Iraqis can lift much of the burden from American troops is
not yet in sight. Understanding whether this situation might improve
requires understanding what the problems have been so far.

Over the summer and fall I asked a large number of people why Iraq
in effect still had no army, and what, realistically, the United States
could expect in the future. Most were Americans, but I also spoke with
experts from Iraq, Britain, Israel, France, and other countries. Most had
served in the military; a large number had recently been posted in Iraq, and
a sizable contingent had fought in Vietnam. Almost all those still on active
duty insisted that I not use their names. The Army's press office did
arrange for me to speak with Lieutenant General Dave Petraeus, who was just
completing his year's assignment as commander of the training effort in
Iraq, before being replaced by Martin Dempsey, another three-star Army
general. But it declined requests for interviews with Petraeus's
predecessor, Major General Paul Eaton, or others who had been involved in
training programs during the first months of the occupation, or with
lower-ranking officers and enlisted men. Many of them wanted to talk or
correspond anyway.

What I heard amounted to this: The United States has recently figured out a
better approach to training Iraqi troops. Early this year it began putting
more money, and more of its best people, on the job. As a result, more Iraqi
units are operating effectively, and fewer are collapsing or deserting under
pressure. In 2004, during major battles in Fallujah, Mosul, and elsewhere,
large percentages of the Iraqi soldiers and policemen supposedly fighting
alongside U.S. forces simply fled when the shooting began. But since the
Iraqi elections last January "there has not been a single case of Iraqi
security forces melting away or going out the back door of the police
station," Petraeus told me. Iraqi recruits keep showing up at police and
military enlistment stations, even as service in police and military units
has become more dangerous.

But as the training and numbers are getting somewhat better, the problems
created by the insurgency are getting worse—and getting worse faster than
the Iraqi forces are improving. Measured against what it would take to leave
Iraqis fully in charge of their own security, the United States and the
Iraqi government are losing ground. Absent a dramatic change—in the
insurgency, in American efforts, in resolving political differences in
Iraq—America's options will grow worse, not better, as time goes on.

Here is a sampling of worried voices:

"The current situation will NEVER allow for an effective ISF [Iraqi Security
Force] to be created," a young Marine officer who will not let me use his
name wrote in an e-mail after he returned from Iraq this summer. "We simply
do not have enough people to train forces. If we shift personnel from
security duties to training, we release newly trained ISF into
ever-worsening environs."

"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," Elaine Grossman, of the well-connected newsletter *Inside the
Pentagon*, reported in September.

"U.S. trainers have made a heroic effort and have achieved some success with
some units," Ahmed Hashim, of the Naval War College, told me in an e-mail.
"But the Iraqi Security Forces are almost like a black hole. You put a lot
in and little comes back out."

"I have to tell you that corruption is eating the guts of this
counter-insurgency effort," a civilian wrote in an e-mail from Baghdad.
Money meant to train new troops was leaking out to terrorists, he said. He
empathized with "Iraqi officers here who see and yet are powerless to stop
it because of the corrupt ministers and their aides."

"On the current course we will have two options," I was told by a Marine
lieutenant colonel who had recently served in Iraq and who prefers to remain
anonymous. "We can lose in Iraq and destroy our army, or we can just lose."
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