Iraq Will Never Have An Army

The actual title of James Fallows’ article in this month’s issue of The Atlantic is 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.
A very important feature of many withdrawal plans that have been put forward recently include a feature that U.S. troops will stand down as soon as they can be replaced by Iraqi forces. That day is never going to come. James Fallows explains why.

[I]f 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.

“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. . . . In Vietnam we just lost,” the officer said. “This would be losing with consequences.”

Bush’s Iraq war was lost the day that Iraq’s Army was dismissed.

But here is the view generally accepted in the military: the war’s planners, military and civilian, took the postwar transition too much for granted; then they made a grievous error in suddenly dismissing all members of the Iraqi army; and then they were too busy with other emergencies and routines to think seriously about the new Iraqi army.

The training expertise exists, but it is spread too thin.

The Green Berets and other elite units of the Special Forces have long prided themselves on being able to turn ragtag foreign armies into effective fighting units. But there weren’t enough Special Forces units to go around, and the mainstream Army and Marine Corps were far less enthusiastic about training assignments. Especially at the start, training missions were filled mostly by people who couldn’t get combat postings, and by members of the Reserves and the National Guard.

Training an army from scratch is not as easy as just setting up boot camps:

Everyone I interviewed about military training stressed that it was only trivially about teaching specific skills. The real goal was to transform a civilian into a soldier. The process runs from the individual level, to the small groups that must trust one another with their lives, to the combined units that must work in coordination rather than confusedly firing at one another, to the concept of what makes an army or a police force different from a gang of thugs.

It involves introducing a whole new culture to the Middle East:

In countless ways the trainers on site faced an enormous challenge. The legacy of Saddam Hussein was a big problem. It had encouraged a military culture in which officers were privileged parasites, enlisted soldiers were cannon fodder, and noncommissioned officers—the sergeants who make the U.S. military function—were barely known. “We are trying to create a professional NCO corps,” Army Major Bob Bateman told me. “Such a thing has never existed anywhere in the region. Not in regular units, not in police forces, not in the military.”

Ethnic and tribal hatreds going back generations:

The ethnic and tribal fissures in Iraq were another big problem. Half a dozen times in my interviews I heard variants on this Arab saying: “Me and my brother against my cousin; me and my cousin against my village; me and my village against a stranger.” “The thing that holds a military unit together is trust,” T. X. Hammes says. “That’s a society not based on trust.” A young Marine officer wrote in an e-mail, “Due to the fact that Saddam murdered, tortured, raped, etc. at will, there is a limited pool of 18-35-year-old males for service that are physically or mentally qualified for service. Those that are fit for service, for the most part, have a DEEP hatred for those not of the same ethnic or religious affiliation.”

Language is of course a problem and it has not been addressed:

Language remained a profound and constant problem. One of the surprises in asking about training Iraqi troops was how often it led to comparisons with Vietnam. Probably because everything about the Vietnam War took longer to develop, “Vietnamization” was a more thought-through, developed strategy than “Iraqization” has had a chance to be. A notable difference is that Americans chosen for training assignments in Vietnam were often given four to six months of language instruction. That was too little to produce any real competence, but enough to provide useful rudiments that most Americans in Iraq don’t have.
. . .
Every manual on counterinsurgency emphasizes the need for long-term personal relations. “We should put out a call for however many officers and NCOs we need,” Daly says, “and give them six months of basic Arabic. In the course of this training we could find the ones suited to serve there for five years. Instead we treat them like widgets.”

Not only is it hard work, it is boring:

All indications from the home front were that training Iraqis had become a boring issue. Opponents of the war rarely talked about it. Supporters reeled off encouraging but hollow statistics as part of a checklist of successes the press failed to report. President Bush placed no emphasis on it in his speeches. Donald Rumsfeld, according to those around him, was bored by Iraq in general and this tedious process in particular, neither of which could match the challenge of transforming America’s military establishment.

This is the fundamental reason why America has already lost the Iraq war:

“No modern army using conventional tactics has ever defeated an insurgency,” Terence Daly told me. Conventional tactics boil down to killing the enemy. At this the U.S. military, with unmatchable firepower and precision, excels. “Classic counterinsurgency, however, is not primarily about killing insurgents; it is about controlling the population and creating a secure environment in which to gain popular support,” Daly says.
From the vast and growing literature of counterinsurgency come two central points. One, of course, is the intertwining of political and military objectives: in the long run this makes local forces like the Iraqi army more potent than any foreigners; they know the language, they pick up subtle signals, they have a long-term stake. The other is that defeating an insurgency is the very hardest kind of warfare. The United States cannot win this battle in Iraq. It hopes the Iraqis can.

At this point in his article Fallows drifts into fantasy with this Sub-title: IV. How to Leave With Honor
First, Fallows gives us a standard to judge success or “victory” in Iraq:

Let me suggest a standard for judging endgame strategies in Iraq, given the commitment the United States has already made. It begins with the recognition that even if it were possible to rebuild and fully democratize Iraq, as a matter of political reality the United States will not stay to see it through. (In Japan, Germany, and South Korea we did see it through. But while there were postwar difficulties in all those countries, none had an insurgency aimed at Americans.) But perhaps we could stay long enough to meet a more modest standard.
What is needed for an honorable departure is, at a minimum, a country that will not go to war with itself, and citizens who will not turn to large-scale murder. This requires Iraqi security forces that are working on a couple of levels: a national army strong enough to deter militias from any region and loyal enough to the new Iraq to resist becoming the tool of any faction; policemen who are sufficiently competent, brave, and honest to keep civilians safe. If the United States leaves Iraq knowing that non-American forces are sufficient to keep order, it can leave with a clear conscience—no matter what might happen a year or two later.

Fallows is realistic. America is not going to be able to train an Iraqi Army in a year or two. What Fallows refers to as “very long term commitments” is probably two decades at a minimum.

In the end the United States may not be able to leave honorably. The pressure to get out could become too great. But if we were serious about reconstituting an Iraqi military as quickly as possible, what would we do? Based on these interviews, I have come to this sobering conclusion: the United States can best train Iraqis, and therefore best help itself leave Iraq, only by making certain very long-term commitments to stay.

Here are the minimum requirements for producing that result. The numbering and titles in bold are my editorial additions to clarify just how big a task Fallows has described:
1. Make re-training the Iraqi Army a career path for officers.

Some of the changes that soldiers and analysts recommend involve greater urgency of effort, reflecting the greater importance of making the training succeed. Despite brave words from the Americans on the training detail, the larger military culture has not changed to validate what they do. “I would make advising an Iraqi battalion more career-enhancing than commanding an American battalion,” one retired Marine officer told me. “If we were serious, we’d be gutting every military headquarters in the world, instead of just telling units coming into the country they have to give up twenty percent of their officers as trainers.”

2. Launch a major effort to provide translators and teach American soldiers and officers Arabic.

The U.S. military does everything in Iraq worse and slower than it could if it solved its language problems. It is unbelievable that American fighting ranks have so little help. Soon after Pearl Harbor the U.S. military launched major Japanese-language training institutes at universities and was screening draftees to find the most promising students. America has made no comparable effort to teach Arabic. Nearly three years after the invasion of Iraq the typical company of 150 or so U.S. soldiers gets by with one or two Arabic-speakers. T. X. Hammes says that U.S. forces and trainers in Iraq should have about 22,000 interpreters, but they have nowhere near that many. Some 600,000 Americans can speak Arabic. Hammes has proposed offering huge cash bonuses to attract the needed numbers to Iraq.

3. Make training an Iraqi Army a priority in the Pentagon budget.

In many other ways the flow of dollars and effort shows that the military does not yet take Iraq—let alone the training effort there—seriously. The Pentagon’s main weapons-building programs are the same now that they were five years ago, before the United States had suffered one attack and begun two wars. From the Pentagon’s policy statements, and even more from its budgetary choices, one would never guess that insurgency was our military’s main challenge, and that its main strategic hope lay in the inglorious work of training foreign troops. Planners at the White House and the Pentagon barely imagined before the war that large numbers of U.S. troops would be in Iraq three years later. So most initiatives for Iraq have been stopgap—not part of a systematic effort to build the right equipment, the right skills, the right strategies, for a long-term campaign.

4. Address the “third tour” problem.

Some other recommended changes involve more-explicit long-range commitments. When officers talk about the risk of “using up” or “burning out” the military, they mean that too many arduous postings, renewed too frequently, will drive career soldiers out of the military. The recruitment problems of the National Guard are well known. Less familiar to the public but of great concern in the military is the “third tour” phenomenon: A young officer will go for his first year-long tour in Iraq or Afghanistan, and then his second. Facing the prospect of his third, he may bail out while he still has time to start another, less stressful career.

5. Long term commitments for soldiers and officers with special expertise required for re-building Iraq.

For the military’s sake soldiers need to go to Iraq less often, and for shorter periods. But success in training Iraqis will require some Americans to stay there much longer. Every book or article about counterinsurgency stresses that it is an intimate, subjective, human business. Establishing trust across different cultures takes time. After 9/11 everyone huffed about the shocking loss of “human intelligence” at America’s spy agencies. But modern American culture—technological, fluid, transient—discourages the creation of the slow-growing, subtle bonds necessary for both good spy work and good military liaison. The British had their India and East Asia hands, who were effective because they spent years in the field cultivating contacts. The American military has done something similar with its Green Berets. For the training effort to have a chance, many, many more regular soldiers will need to commit to long service in Iraq.

6. Rebuild Iraq’s military infrastructure.

The United States will have to agree to stay in Iraq in another significant way. When U.S. policy changed from counting every Iraqi in uniform to judging how many whole units were ready to function, a triage decision was made. The Iraqis would not be trained anytime soon for the whole range of military functions; they would start with the most basic combat and security duties. The idea, as a former high-ranking administration official put it, was “We’re building a spearhead, not the whole spear.”
The rest of the spear consists of the specialized, often technically advanced functions that multiply the combat units’ strength. These are as simple as logistics—getting food, fuel, ammunition, spare parts, where they are needed—and as complex as battlefield surgical units, satellite-based spy services, and air support from helicopters and fighter planes.
The United States is not helping Iraq develop many of these other functions. Sharp as the Iraqi spearhead may become, on its own it will be relatively weak. The Iraqis know their own territory and culture, and they will be fighting an insurgency, not a heavily equipped land army. But if they can’t count on the Americans to keep providing air support, intelligence and communications networks, and other advanced systems, they will never emerge as an effective force. So the United States will have to continue to provide all this. The situation is ironic. Before the war insiders argued that sooner or later it would be necessary to attack, because the U.S. Air Force was being “strained” by its daily sorties over Iraq’s no-fly zones. Now that the war is over, the United States has taken on a much greater open-ended obligation.

Fallows sums up:

In sum, if the United States is serious about getting out of Iraq, it will need to re-consider its defense spending and operations rather than leaving them to a combination of inertia, Rumsfeld-led plans for “transformation,” and emergency stopgaps. It will need to spend money for interpreters. It will need to create large new training facilities for American troops, as happened within a few months of Pearl Harbor, and enroll talented people as trainees. It will need to make majors and colonels sit through language classes. It will need to broaden the Special Forces ethic to much more of the military, and make clear that longer tours will be the norm in Iraq. It will need to commit air, logistics, medical, and intelligence services to Iraq—and understand that this is a commitment for years, not a temporary measure. It will need to decide that there are weapons systems it does not require and commitments it cannot afford if it is to support the ones that are crucial. And it will need to make these decisions in a matter of months, not years—before it is too late.
America’s hopes today for an orderly exit from Iraq depend completely on the emergence of a viable Iraqi security force. There is no indication that such a force is about to emerge. As a matter of unavoidable logic, the United States must therefore choose one of two difficult alternatives: It can make the serious changes—including certain commitments to remain in Iraq for many years—that would be necessary to bring an Iraqi army to maturity. Or it can face the stark fact that it has no orderly way out of Iraq, and prepare accordingly.

Well that’s it. A six point plan for putting Iraq back on its feet. A six point plan that is never going to happen. This is Fallows’ conclusion:

In sum, if the United States is serious about getting out of Iraq, it will need to re-consider its defense spending and operations rather than leaving them to a combination of inertia, Rumsfeld-led plans for “transformation,” and emergency stopgaps. It will need to spend money for interpreters. It will need to create large new training facilities for American troops, as happened within a few months of Pearl Harbor, and enroll talented people as trainees. It will need to make majors and colonels sit through language classes. It will need to broaden the Special Forces ethic to much more of the military, and make clear that longer tours will be the norm in Iraq. It will need to commit air, logistics, medical, and intelligence services to Iraq—and understand that this is a commitment for years, not a temporary measure. It will need to decide that there are weapons systems it does not require and commitments it cannot afford if it is to support the ones that are crucial. And it will need to make these decisions in a matter of months, not years—before it is too late.
America’s hopes today for an orderly exit from Iraq depend completely on the emergence of a viable Iraqi security force. There is no indication that such a force is about to emerge. As a matter of unavoidable logic, the United States must therefore choose one of two difficult alternatives: It can make the serious changes—including certain commitments to remain in Iraq for many years—that would be necessary to bring an Iraqi army to maturity. Or it can face the stark fact that it has no orderly way out of Iraq, and prepare accordingly.

I’ve made offhand replies to any number of comments about the differing plans of the Democratic warmongers for “stabilizing” Iraq that they all sounded like terrific fifty years plans. After seeing the nuts and bolts of “stabilizing” Iraq, I think fifty years may be on the low end. I also believe that Bush and the neo-cons knew exactly what they were doing when they dissolved Iraq’s Army. They didn’t want America to leave Iraq for fifty years and they took the one step that guaranteed the United States could not withdraw from Iraq with honor.
I think it is just common sense and simple arithmetic that neither political party is willing to make the type of military and budgetary commitment that Fallows is talking about. Iraq is never going to have an Army. It’s time to face that stark fact and prepare accordingly. Iraq is screwed. Bush’s war and America’s withdrawal will be a stain on the honor of the United States for centuries. We can partially atone by putting Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld on trial for crimes against humanity.
Editor’s note: I just skimmed the surface of Fallows’ analysis. If you want to read the whole article, go to the bookstore and buy the magazine or go to TheAtlantic.com and subscribe.

m4s0n501

3 thoughts on “Iraq Will Never Have An Army

  1. This strikes me as pure crap. We’re not trying to create an Iraqi army. We’re trying to create a puppet army in Iraq populated by Iraqis which will be willing to enforce what we want to do there. Why would Iraqis be willing to do that? Iraq had a strong army and a strong police force. Wouldn’t they be likely to quickly reconstitute themselves if we were to pull out? The problem for the administration would be, of course, that they wouldn’t be likely to do our bidding.

  2. Why Iraq Has No Army

    Though I continue to believe we are obligated to work to improve the situation in Iraq, at this point without regard to our national interest. Bush and the Neo-cons made a mess, now we must take responsibility for our mistakes. The conventional approac…

  3. You have hit the nail on the head MJ. There was a lot of commentary at the time about whether disbanding Iraq’s army was a mistake. That conclusion has been pretty widely acknowledged.
    I do not believe it was a mistake. I believe Bush and the neo-cons knew exactly what they were doing. They had no intention of leaving Iraq any time in the next fifty years. Disbanding Iraq’s army was the one action that could almost guarantee that America would be stuck in Iraq for at least ten or fifteen years. There is nothing else they could have done that would have made withdrawing from Iraq any more difficult.

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