Five Ways to Prevent Iraq from Getting Even Worse

BY Herschel Smith
8 years ago

At the Small Wars Journal, there is a discussion thread that points to a Time article entitled “Five Ways to Prevent Iraq from Getting Even Worse.”  The article recommends a change in course under five headings:

  • Clean out the rogues.
  • Deal with al-Sadr.
  • Bring the Sunnis back.
  • Wake up the neighbors.
  • Get tough: then get out.

Each rubric deserves a long discussion and not all of them are right (talking with Iran or Syria), but two are of particular interest here.  On the first, the author says in part:

The Bush Administration’s strategy has hinged on standing up credible Iraqi security forces to take over responsibility for the country’s security. So far there are 311,000 U.S.-trained Iraqi soldiers and police, of varying capabilities. While that’s close to the goal of 325,000, the real problem is less about quantity than loyalty. To anybody paying attention, it’s clear that the security forces, broadly divided between the police under the Interior Ministry and the army under the Defense Ministry, are the main vectors of the widening civil war. The bureaucracies and the fighters have been infiltrated by militias, notably the Mahdi Army of Shi’ite radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the Iran-backed Badr Organization, affiliated with the dominant party in the Shi’ite coalition that controls parliament. Many policemen and soldiers are more loyal to their sect leaders and militia bosses than to the Iraqi government. In Baghdad, for instance, many police vehicles and Interior Ministry offices bear stickers and posters of al-Sadr. Sunni victims of sectarian violence routinely accuse the police and army of looking the other way when the militias unleash havoc–or worse, joining in the killing.

To continue the discussion, the Small Wars Journal Editor grabbed a post that John Robb made at Global Guerrillas concerning this same article:

TIME’s Aparisim Ghosh reports that General Peter Pace belatedly has convened a group of young officers to answer the question: Why are there almost as many U.S. troops in Iraq now as there were two years ago when, in the interim, more than 300,000 Iraqi security forces have been recruited and trained?

I provided one answer to this question two years ago, when I wrote about loyalist paramilitaries (October 2004). The answer involved two elements. The first was outsourcing security, particularly in the British controlled south and Baghdad to “loyalist” paramilitaries. The second was incorporating paramilitary members into the new Iraqi security forces, particularly since they were more willing to fight than the general population. In classic US fashion (a reflection of the paucity of strategic thinking in our general staff), training to the numbers (quantity) and the early effectiveness of the unit in a fire fight (expediency) was deemed more important than loyalty of the unit to the government. The long term implications were not considered.

The result is that over the last two years the US military has actually created an environment that is conducive to a bloody and chaotic civil war. By partnering with paramilitaries, we accelerated the development of those forces that would take the war to the Sunnis.

This is certainly thematically analogous with our counsel, and I have called leaving al-Sadr alive the biggest mistake of the war.  I have spoken clearly on the issue of force size and projection and the lack of troops necessary and adequate to effect security, and I have spoken out against the reliance on proxy fighters and pointed out that the Iraqi troops sometimes hinder rather than help the U.S. efforts.  But John Robb points to yet another unintended consequence of this reliance on proxy fighters.  We accelerated the development of the very forces who would undermine the government we were attempting to create.

At the time of writing of this post, Fox News is reporting from an embedded reporter with the Army in Baghdad while they are searching and arresting a senior Police officer who has been operating with the Militias he was supposed to be policing.  Police by day, arbiter of death by night.

As an answer to al-Qaeda in the al Anbar Province, the Iraqi government has a compact with some of the tribes to assist in patrolling and policing the cities.  While the Strategy Page (highly respected, and properly so) said of this arrangement that Iraq gained the equivalent of three divisions, I said that at best they had three divisions of recruits, and that some of these may not be worth having.

This is truly a land of many wars, with Shi’ite-on-Shi’ite violence, Shi’ite-on-Sunni violence, Sunni on al-Qaeda violence, al-Qaeda on Sunni, Shi’ite and U.S. violence, Shi’ite-on-Kurd violence, Shi’ite-on-U.S. violence, and Iran-on-U.S. violence.

John Robb cleverly adds to our list of reasons to reject the use of proxy fighters in a land so divided as this one, and therefore I see no reason to jettison my thematic rejection of the strategy to date: we have relied too heavily on proxy fighters, we bypassed urban areas and dropped conventional operations, thus too quickly adopting counterinsurgency operations, we have not been timely by dragging the war out four times as long as it should have taken, and our force projection has been woefully inadequate.

Despite the failure at the top of the military chain of command, U.S. troops are the best in the world and they prove their bravery daily.

Concerning incorporation of the Sunnis into the mainstream of Iraqi culture and government, I predicted that this was coming, and that it would involve much emotional anguish in the U.S. due to peace-making with those who had killed U.S. troops.  Michael Rubin gives us a more pragmatic set of reasons to be concerned about this direction:

While it’s fashionable to say de-Baathification caused the Sunni insurgency, in reality terrorist violence is proportional to that policy’s reversal. In order to maintain security after the April 2004 siege of Fallujah, the coalition restored former Baathists. Car bombings increased 300 percent within a month. In Mosul, once deemed a model city of reconciliation, Gen. David Petraeus appointed senior Baathist Gen. Mohammed Kheiri Barhawi to be police chief. Petraeus’ decision was a triumph not of pragmatism, but of naïveté. Barhawi provided intelligence, equipment and arms to terrorists, finally handing over every police station in the city to the insurgents in November 2004.

Far from winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis, re-Baathification antagonized them. Not all Iraqis had joined the party, and the refuseniks suffered for their morality. Non-Baathist Ph.D.s could not even work as schoolteachers and had to beg for food. After Saddam Hussein’s fall, they joined schools in droves, eager to rebuild their country. Re-Baathification meant firing competent new teachers to reinstall corrupted predecessors who, as the Baath Party archives show, had created blacklists of 14-year-old students under their charge.

Realists may say foreign policy should be centered on U.S. interests, not justice. Here, too, though, re-Baathification has failed. It has not assuaged insurgency. Not only does offering concessions to violence encourage violence, but also by extending an olive branch to unrepentant Baathists, diplomats may have furthered Iranian influence and worsened militia violence. Many Iraqi Shiites distrust Washington, not for occupying Iraq in 2003, but for failing to do so 12 years earlier when they rose up to oust Hussein, only to suffer retaliatory massacres. It should not surprise that Iraqi Shiites look at U.S. outreach to Baathists as a sign that the younger Bush will betray them just as his father once did.

While some arrangement must be made with the Sunnis in order to go forward with a unified Iraq – if there is to be one – the use of Sunni proxy fighters, arming the Sunnis, and in any way aiding a civil war between the Sunnis and Shia are certainly not among those helpful suggestions for a plan for the future.


You are currently reading "Five Ways to Prevent Iraq from Getting Even Worse", entry #360 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Iraq and was published October 28th, 2006 by Herschel Smith.

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