Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Iraq War: How many Iraqi forces are "standing up" so the Americans can "stand down"?

"I think we are winning.  Okay?  I think we're definitely winning.  I think we've been winning for some time." - Gen. Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the Iraq War 04/26/05

"I just wonder if they will ever tell us the truth." - Harold Casey, Louisville, KY, October 2004.

Yesterday I quoted a Time article of 06/19/06 that mentioned that the Iraqi police and military together were "up to 263,000-strong".

So I thought I would check for the latest version of Anthony Cordesman's periodically-updated report on tha state of Iraq's armed forces.  And it turns out they have a very current version at the Web site of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS):  Iraqi Force Development in 2006 by Anthony Cordesman and William Sullivan 06/19/06.

They report (p. 77), "Overall, there are over 227,000 Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior forces trained and equipped for counterinsurgency operations".    They agree with Time's numbers, give or take 36,000.  But what's 36,000 or so, when you're faking it anyway?

Reporting for the most recent time period covered (May 2006 or later), Cordesman and Sullivan note the following issues outstanding (pp. 94-5):

Iraqi progress was still erratic and left gaps that made any effort to predict when real transfers could take place difficult. Administration officials noted that although turning over territory and day-to-day responsibilities to Iraqis was an important indicator of progress in Iraq, even those Iraqi units that had control of areas did not operate wholly independent of US support and assistance.311 US forces were still needed for back up. They also provided the backbone for Iraqi logistics and supply chain.312 In other words, just because the Iraqis were increasingly taking the lead, it did not mean that US troops could immediately come home, as they still served to facilitate important functions pertinent the operations of Iraqi forces.

Lt. Gen. John Vines, who had served as commander of MNC-I, reaffirmed this when he said that although progress had been made in fielding effective Iraqi units, much more needed to be done “to bring up to speed the civilian defense bureaucracy needed to support the Iraqi military - that is, civilian structures to do things like procurement, payroll, medical support, and housing.”

Maj. Gen. Thomas Turner added a similar caveat when praising the progress in training Iraq units in the north. “The major inhibitor to independent operations is a lack of equipment, manpower, their inability to sustain themselves [with food, fuel, ammunition, etc.] and a lack of systems or policies in place to manage the organization.”

In an April 2006 report, retired four-star Army General Barry McCaffrey stated that the embedding program [of Iraqi units with US units] had been a “brilliant success story.” He also went on to state that the Iraqi military would need at least two to five more years of US partnership and combat backup before it would be able to stand on its own.

The lack of an Iraqi logistic system meant that the US provided everything from food, to uniforms to weapons to Iraqi forces.  Paychecks, which sometimes arrived as late as six months, were distributed by hand as cash after being transported in large sacs across the desert.  A combination of a lack of pay and better opportunities elsewhere fueled desertion rates that were as high as 40% in some towns located in al-Anbar province. Of the 8,000 Iraqi soldiers in the province, 1,500 had deserted since the year prior.

Although rare, there were reports of drug use among some Iraqi troops as well. For example, in Rawah, US soldiers discovered that some were taking hashish pills. “I’d hate to guess how many of them take that stuff. Now, whenever we step out on patrol, we give them a good look in the eye to make sure they’re all there,” said Major Anthony Marro.  (my emphasis)

A big reason Cordesman has retained a high level of credibility despite his continued support of the Iraq War and of "staying the course" is that he has come across as realistic and pragmatic about the problems being faced and also about the fact that "staying the course" would mean American troops being active in Iraq for years to come.

One of the things that is obvious is that the US has limited any development of an Iraqi air force to a minimum.  Currently with a whopping total of 600 people in it, the Iraqi air force can only be a bit player for some time to come.  The idea seems to be that US forces in Iraq or in nearby bases would be required indefinitely to provide any required combat air support.

Cordesman and Sullivan also report on the air force (p. 105):

The one Iraqi air base, Muthana, was located within the US military compound that encircled Baghdad International Airport. It was a minimal location that included one runway, a large hangar, and aircraft. The planes available for flight by the Iraqi 23 Squadron were three C-130 planes and 30 helicopters for transport or operations missions. The Air Force had no fighting ability. The 23 Squadron was one of five units, but the other four had not yet been assigned bases.

The members of the Muthana division would not allow their names to be printed or photos taken for fear of their lives. “We are afraid for our families,” one colonel said. “There is no one to protect them.” Another added, “They kidnap our children, they are trying to kill us.” Despite this and the relatively few aircraft at the base, these pilots, many of whom had served under Saddam, were anxious to fly.  (my emphasis)

A lot of the mainstream press analysis - such as there is - of the buildup of Iraqi forces don't explore the implications of Iraq having such a minimal air force.

This is also a useful caution to keep in mind when we hear about numbers of Iraqi police and security forces (p. 107):

Estimating the actual strength of MOI [Ministry of Interior] forces was, however, a major problem. US and Iraqi commanders had long criticized the policy whereby Iraqi soldiers could leave their units whenever they want to. The Iraqi army does not require its soldiers to sign contracts, so soldiers treat enlistments as temporary jobs. As Col. Alaa Kata al-Kafage said, “All the soldiers now, they don’t care about the country. They care about the money...Under the military agreement, they can leave anytime. After (soldiers) get paid and save a little bit of money, they leave.” This policy is at least partially responsible for draining Iraqi ranks to confront the insurgency byas much as 30% to 50%.

This situation was far worse for the forces under MOI command than those under the MOD [Ministry of Defense], and both MNF-I ["Coalition" forces, mostly US] and Iraqi sources had to admit that in most cases there was no reliable reporting on the manpower actually present. In May 2006, the Iraqi police force was estimating that it lost several hundred recruits every month. One such recruit, a 23 year old named Alah, simply made a “career move” and left the Iraqi police shortly after graduation and joined the Mahdi Army. The reasons he noted were fairly simple: The pay was better and there was a smaller chance of getting killed.

Active recruiting by the militias presented a growing problem, and many who chose the militias over the national army and police scarcely did so out of religious conviction.  In violence prone areas where few jobs were available, young males often had reasons and incentives such as security, money and general wellbeing to join the militias over the state-run forces.  As one such case summed up, the offer by the Mahdi Militia was “an attractive package.”  Not only did it offer a greater salary, but the organization also promised to take care of his family if something were to happen to him.

Yet, there were still fewer defections and personnel abandoning their positions than during the early efforts to train such Iraqi forces, and in fact when leaves were canceled after the bombing of the Golden Shrine, the vast majority of soldiers reported for duty.  Still, soldiers are still contractually permitted to leave their units whenever they would like without punishment and the MOI dealt with many of its problems by turning a blind eye.  (my emphasis)

In their Conclusion (p. 122), Cordesman and Sullivan observe:

The broader issue affecting Iraqi progress, however, is that Iraqi force development can only succeed if Iraqi political leaders can create effective and lasting political compromises that bring Arab Shi’ite, Arab Sunni, Kurd, and other Iraqi minorities together in a coalition government and create the political forces necessary to engender political unity.

Equally important, Iraq must make progress in two other critical areas that are not directly related to Iraqi force development, but are critical to giving it meaning. O ne is to show that the Iraqi government can establish a lasting presence throughout Iraq, provide government services, and support its security efforts to deal with the insurgency with equal efforts to deal with militias, private and local security forces, and crime. One  key to such success is to deploy both effective police forces and a working criminal justice system.

The second factor is that the government must be able to create a climate where economic progress can and does take place, where real jobs are created, where investment is made and new businesses actually start to operate, and where the government maintains effective services and infrastructure.

Without these steps, the new government will lose momentum and credibility, the country will drift back into increasing sectarian and ethnic violence, Iraqi forces will increasingly divide along sectarian and ethnic lines, and the nation may well devolve into civil conflict or sectarian and ethnic “federalism.”

"Wars are easy to get into, but hard as hell to get out of." - George McGovern and Jim McGovern 06/06/05

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