Iraq’s Ambivalence About The American Military

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 3 months ago

The New York Times has an informative analysis about the multiple personalities within Iraq concerning the continued presence of the U.S. military.

Iraqi military officials often refer to their American counterparts as “the friends,” a circumlocution full of Eastern subtlety that is often lost on the friends themselves. Add some more quotation marks, and it comes closer to the sense intended, “the ‘friends.’ ” Not sarcastic, exactly, but rather colored with mixed emotions, as in the sentence, “The ‘friends’ came by yesterday to complain again about payroll skimming.”

Americans find this hard to understand about the Iraq war, that their trillion-dollar enterprise in Iraq has made Iraqis and particularly the Iraqi military not only deeply dependent on America, but also deeply conflicted, even resentful about that dependency. After all, we saved them from defeat at the hands of a ruthless insurgency that a few years ago indeed could have destroyed them, and we spent 4,000 lives doing it, left probably 10 times that many young Americans crippled for life, and they’re not grateful?

That is not, at bottom, how the Iraqis see it. They are grateful, many of them, but gratitude is a drink with a bitter aftertaste. They also chafe at the thousands of daily humiliations they endure from a mostly well-meaning but often clueless American military. An Iraqi politician who wishes to remain nameless (“I have to deal with the friends,” he explains) tells of traveling with the Iraqi Army’s chief of staff, a general in uniform, epaulets bristling with eagles, stars and swords. They were at the Baghdad airport, about to get on one of the few Iraqi military planes, when an American sergeant stopped him and refused to allow him to board. Despite the general’s remonstrations of rank and privilege, the sergeant made sure the plane took off without him.

“Once I had a meeting with the division commander in charge of Baghdad,” the politician went on. “A private meeting. In walks an American colonel and sits there with a translator, taking notes on our conversation. He apologized and said ‘I’m sorry, I can’t do anything about this.’ ”

This indirectly explains a lot about the current state of affairs, post June 30. Iraqis have enthusiastically embraced their newfound military sovereignty, even when, as is often the case, they’re not really ready for it. They can field troops who can fight, but they can’t fix their Humvees. They can mount their own operations against insurgents, but are reluctant to do so without air cover — which so far only the Americans can provide. They can marshal large numbers of soldiers — their army now is more numerous than America’s in Iraq — but they depend on the Americans to handle most of their logistics, since their own are plagued by corruption and mismanagement.

Under the new Status of Forces Agreement between the countries, not only did American troops leave all population centers after June 30, but they’ve also agreed not to get involved, in or out of the cities, unless invited to do so by the Iraqis. And the Iraqi inclination has been not to invite them, partly out of pride, partly out of concern for the political blowback from their own public when they do ask for help.

This was brought into sharp relief by the two ministry truck bombings on Aug. 19, which succeeded because fortifications had been prematurely removed from in front of those ministries. “It was Iraqi aspirations exceeding their ability to secure their country on their own,” says John Nagl, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and an author of influential works on counterinsurgency. “The Iraqi government and the Iraqi security forces are improving steadily but they’re not yet able to handle these threats responsibly,” Mr. Nagl says.

He argues that the Iraqi and American militaries need to set up standing pre-arrangements by which the United States can intervene in an emergency on the ground; such arrangements are entirely possible under the terms of the forces agreement, even if they may cause political difficulties, especially in an election year.

I agree with Nagl concerning the current Iraqi inability to ensure its own security.  I have argued that we should withdraw even logistical and air support in order to catalyze that understanding within the Iraqi military and administration.  But unlike Nagl, I am not so sure that the existing SOFA supplies the necessary provisions for even force protection, much less kinetic engagements inside Iraqi cities.

I believe that modifications are necessary to both the formal SOFA and the manner in which it is being locally implemented by the ISF.  I’m unimpressed by the complaint of “thousands of daily humiliations” on the part of the Iraqis.  This sounds like exaggeration but it makes for good drama.  Continuing with the article:

The tension between Iraq’s desire to embrace its sovereignty and its continuing military shortcomings is likely to last many years, Mr. Nagl says, because the United States has done little so far to give the Iraqi military the ability to defend its country against external threats once Americans leave by the end of 2011.

The most glaring shortcoming is the almost complete lack of an air force, aside from a few transport and reconnaissance aircraft; there is not a single jet. The first T-6 jet trainer, a propeller- driven aircraft that simulates a jet, is on order for next December. Training pilots will take many years more. In a modern world, Mr. Nagl says, “You can’t defend the sovereignty of your country if you can’t defend your air space.”

Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick, commander of the American military’s training command, says that was inevitable in the rush to build large army and police ground forces to counter the insurgency.

General Helmick says he is unconcerned about the lack of an international defensive capability. “What do they need to defend themselves against?”

Nothing, so long as American troops are there in such numbers, but once they’re gone, Iraq will remain surrounded by potential enemies. Turkey has been regularly bombing Iraqi territory in the north, in an effort to wipe out Kurdish guerrillas who use the area as a sanctuary for attacks in Turkey. Iran is a friend now, but in the 1980s it fought a decade-long war involving many divisions of tanks, airstrikes and even chemical warfare.

Here I break with Nagl.  The U.S. has done much in terms of blood, sweat, tears and wealth to secure Iraq.  The Iraqis must secure their future by weeding out crime, corruption and malfeasance.  Their oil fields alone, if functioning properly and profits shared and wisely used, would have gone a long way towards rebuilding their infrastructure, including a military apparatus.

In any case, with respect to air support, Iraq may be a protectorate of the U.S. for a decade.  Over the course of that decade unless the SOFA is modified to allow more latitude of operations – including robust force protection – the ground troops must come home and air power supplied from locations where force protection isn’t problematic.

Prior:

Should U.S. Troops Return to Iraqi Cities?

Iraq SOFA Category


You are currently reading "Iraq’s Ambivalence About The American Military", entry #3706 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Iraq,Iraq SOFA and was published August 30th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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