The Need For An Accurate Assessment Of Iraq genre: Just Jihad & Polispeak & Six Degrees of Speculation

Bad math

More than three years into the Iraq war and fast approaching the November midterm election, numerous politicians and countless pundits have sought to explain the U.S. plan for achieving our objectives in the war torn country and the region. Despite those efforts, one is left to wonder how many Americans believe we do, in fact, have a plan that can succeed. Thomas Ricks of The Washington Post takes a look at that possibility in an analysis of the oft heard assertion that we are in the process of "standing up Iraqi troops so that U.S. soldiers can stand down".

By strict numbers, the Iraqi side of that equation is almost complete. Training programs have developed more than 300,000 members of the Iraqi army and national police, close to the desired number of homegrown forces. Yet as that number has grown, so, too, has violence in Iraq. The summer was worse than ever, with July the deadliest month in three years, according to U.S. military data.

With the insurgency undiminished and Iraqi forces seemingly unable to counter it, U.S. commanders say they expect to stay at the current level of U.S. troops -- about 140,000 -- until at least next spring. That requirement is placing new strains on service members who leave Iraq and then must prepare to return a few months later. Tours of duty have been extended for two brigades in Iraq to boost troop levels.

In my opinion, the numbers simply don't add up which leads me to either question the strategy or doubt the results. Thought Theater has previously questioned the training and the commitment of the approximately 300,000 Iraqi troops. While the recent speculation that portions of the Iraqi military were planning a coup attempt proved to be inaccurate, given the level of sectarian conflict, it isn't difficult to conclude that there are different sectarian allegiances within the Iraqi force that disrupt cohesion. Additionally, reports of troop defections approaching the twenty percent level may well indicate that sectarian militias are utilizing the Iraqi military system to train and equip troops. Ricks provides some further clarification based upon a number of inside sources.

So is the "stand down as they stand up" policy defunct? Not according to the Bush administration. But the meaning of the phrase appears to have changed, as leaders have begun shifting the blame for Iraq's problems away from the U.S. military and onto the country's own social and governmental institutions.

Military officers and other experts interviewed in recent days said that the Iraqi training program has worked but that its success is undercut by the lack of strong Iraqi political leadership. "You fix the government, you fix the problem," said an Army battalion commander who has seen hard fighting near Baghdad this summer.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld landed squarely in this camp recently. Referring to numbers of trained Iraqi forces, he told a reporter: "If we look at it one-dimensionally like that, there's no answer to the question, because the problem is not a military problem. In fact, the reality is that it's a political governance problem, and it's a governmental problem, and it's a problem of reconciliation."

In this view, it doesn't matter how many Iraqi troops are trained if there is no government to lead them. "I believe that you could have a million Iraqis within the Iraqi security forces and still be ineffective against the insurgents," said an Army colonel who recently returned from a year in Iraq.

Note the remarkable statement by Donald Rumsfeld whereby he offers a tacit acknowledgment of the argument that has frequently been made by critics of the administration's original Iraqi invasion strategy. That argument essentially states that Rumsfeld and the Bush administration failed to plan for the sectarian conflict that would likely ensue after the toppling of Sadaam Hussein. There are only two possibilities that can explain how this oversight could have occurred.

One, the President and his neocon associates failed to understand the underlying realities of the Iraqi political and social climate and they proceeded with a fully incompetent strategy...or two, they knew full well what the dynamics were but they chose to disregard or deliberately delete those facts from their rhetoric in order to make it easier to sell the war to the American public.

The fact that the administration argued that we would be greeted as liberators and be embraced by the Iraqi population seems to favor the second explanation. Supporting this conclusion is the fact that the United States, for many years, attempted to facilitate the overthrow of Hussein by his sectarian adversaries. Clearly, there was ample data to suggest that upon the overthrow of Hussein from power, whether from within or by virtue of our invasion, the various groups would scramble to assume power regardless of any U.S. imposed democratic elections.

One could actually argue that in toppling Hussein, we in fact leveled the playing field such that it has enabled what many now believe is a civil war. The vacuum created by the dismantling of the Hussein regime allowed lesser groups to amass power in their attempts to direct the reconstruction of a new government. In that regard, we are simply witnessing what should have been reasonably expected. That makes Rumsfeld current remarks that a political solution is necessary...some three years into the conflict...all the more incredible. It also begs the question of what adjustments are actually being made to address what should have been or clearly was apparent from the outset.

Frankly, the populism required for democracy to take hold simply didn't exist in Iraq before our invasion and it may well be years before their longstanding differences can be set aside in order to foster and sustain a unified government that has the legitimacy and support of a sufficient majority of the inhabitants. Ricks offers some inside observations on that potentiality.

Besides weapons and training, an army needs a reason to fight -- and so far, the Iraqi government has not been as persuasive as the insurgency or the militias in providing that key element. "There isn't yet an Iraq to defend," explained Thomas Donnelly, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "A nation, as well as an army, needs to be stood up."

"I believe that our U.S. forces need to be here at these numbers for three to five more years, to be honest," concluded Army Maj. Daniel Morgan, a 101st Airborne officer who just completed his second tour in Iraq.

When asked about training of Iraqis, Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top U.S. commander for Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, spoke of an even longer term. "It's a generational level of work, not something that's going to be done overnight," he told PBS's Jim Lehrer last week. "And we're making good progress."

Abizaid's observations may well be the most honest and the most accurate. The momentum necessary for a successful democracy may rest with the next generation of Iraqis...and that may be dependent upon creating and sustaining a favorable incubator within which they can acquire the necessary tolerance and the foresight required to envision our intended outcome and their potential benefits. True as that may be, the question remains how much time and money, as well as how many all too precious American lives are the American public willing to invest while still having to confront numerous threats from other regions of the world as well as the growing extremism that cannot be defined by or contained within conventional boundaries?

Ricks goes on to provide some dismal information that will undoubtedly enhance American skepticism that the investment is one we can reasonably support.

Some experts believe that the U.S. training program itself is flawed, lacking both funding and enough U.S. advisers and trainers. The training effort is "grossly insufficient, concentrated at battalion and brigade headquarters only," said retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who oversaw the program in 2003 and 2004. He and others believe that the effort will not really succeed until it expands to attach more advisers to smaller units, such as companies and platoons -- which Eaton said would take thousands of additional personnel.

The United States failed to send out enough really good advisers with language skills to work in the training program, added retired Marine Col. T.X. Hammes, another Iraq veteran. "Thus we train Iraqis, push them out the door and fail to support them," he said. This makes them unable to reach the real goal of providing security to Iraq, he added -- "or worse yet, due to lack of U.S. supervision, [they] become part of the problem."

Other experts say the "stand up, stand down" formula has not worked because the target number is insufficient, or because the number is the wrong measurement. The target of 325,000 trained security forces "is arguably inadequate to start with," said Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown University defense specialist. Given the total population in unstable parts of Iraq and a standard ratio of population to security forces of 20 to 1, he said, "Iraq really needs 500,000 troops and police."

"To the degree that 'standing up' a Shia-dominated force is perceived as a security threat to Sunnis, you get a stronger and stronger reaction the more you stand up," said Frank Hoffman, a strategic expert and retired Marine officer. "This may account for what you are seeing -- the sense that national institutions that do not reflect political concerns will produce more violent reactions and a greater reliance on local militias."

A Marine officer who has fought in Anbar province and an Army captain who just returned from Baghdad agreed, both saying they fear that all the U.S. military is doing is training and arming Iraqis to fight a looming civil war.

As I see it, here's the equation. Best case our current plan begins to work...even though the facts on the ground fail to support that conclusion. Worst case, after over three years of effort, we not only need to nearly double the Iraqi troops trained (and it has taken over three years to train the ones we have)...we may not be able to predict their allegiances or their effectiveness and we may find that we are actually training and arming the combatants that will soon carry out the civil war that many feel is inevitable.

The disparity between these two scenarios leaves the American public with one of the most poorly defined choices that we have encountered in recent history. Unless we begin to demand that those in positions of authority begin the hard work of providing us with clear, concise, and accurate assessments, we will continue to flounder in the rhetoric of partisan platitudes that are fully divorced from the essential realities that we can no longer afford to ignore. Regardless, those in charge do not seem inclined to comply.

Daniel DiRito | October 1, 2006 | 9:50 AM
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1 On October 3, 2006 at 8:15 AM, Antiquated Tory wrote —

In all fairness, and it physically pains me to make any sort of excuse for the blinkered fantasists who got us into this mess, no clear, concise and accurate assessments may be possible given the situation you describe.

Thought Theater at Blogged

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