In Settling with The Enemy we discussed the turn of many of the former Sunni insurgents, including the 1920 Revolution Brigades, against al Qeada and in favor of cooperation with U.S. forces. This Anbar Province model has taken root to the Northeast in the Diyala Province.
BAQOUBA, Iraq — Two months ago, a dozen Sunni insurgents — haggard, hungry and in handcuffs — stepped tentatively into a U.S.-Iraqi combat outpost near Baqouba and asked to speak to the commander: “We’re out of ammunition, but we want to help you fight al-Qaida.”
Now hundreds of fighters from the 1920s Revolution Brigades, an erstwhile Sunni insurgent group, work as scouts and gather intelligence for the 10,000-strong American force in the fifth day of its mission to remove al-Qaida gunmen and bomb makers from the Diyala provincial capital.
Little so well illustrates the Middle Eastern dictum: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
And as it struggles in the raging heat and violence of central Iraq, the U.S. military appears to have bought into the tactic in its struggle to pull what victory it can from the increasingly troubled American mission in Iraq, under congressional pressure for a troop pullout and a presidential election campaign already in the minds of voters.
Each U.S. Army company in Baqouba, an hour’s drive northeast of Baghdad, has a scout from the Brigades, others have become a ragtag intelligence network and still others fight, said Capt. Ricardo Ortega, a 34-year-old Puerto Rico native of the 2nd Infantry Division.
The Army has given some of the one-time insurgents special clothing — football-style jerseys with numbers on the chest — to mark them as American allies.
U.S. commanders say help from the Brigades operatives was key to planning and executing the Baqouba operation, one of a quartet of U.S. offensives against al-Qaida on the flanks of the Iraqi capital.
The informants have given the American troops exact coordinates of suspected al-Qaida safe houses, with details down to the color of the gate out front, said Lt. Col. Avanulas Smiley, 40, commander of the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment and a Tacoma, Wash., native.
Most of the Brigades members, whom U.S. officials call “concerned local nationals,” hail from eastern Baqouba, while the bulk of the fighting has so far raged in western Baqouba.
But with contacts among fellow Sunni fighters on the city’s west side, they have fed American soldiers critical information about al-Qaida positions.
The use of militias will be necessary in the future in part because the Iraqi army is not ready for performance of duties upon turnover of control.
American military commanders now seriously doubt that Iraqi security forces will be able to hold the ground that U.S. troops are fighting to clear _ gloomy predictions that strike at the heart of Washington’s key strategy to turn the tide in Iraq.
Several senior American officers have warned in recent days that Iraqi soldiers and police are still incapable of maintaining security on their own in the most crucial areas, including Baghdad and the recently reclaimed districts around Baqouba to the north.
Iraqi units are supposed to be moving into position to take the baton from the Pentagon. This was the backbone of the plan President Bush announced in January when he ordered to five more U.S. brigades, or about 30,000 soldiers, to Iraq. The goal is to reduce the violence to a level where the Iraqis can cope so that Americans can begin to go home.
But that outcome is looking ever more elusive. The fear is that U.S. troops will pay for territory with their lives _ only to have Iraqi forces lose control once the Americans move on.
Unless Iraqis can step up, the United States will face tough choices in months ahead as pressure mounts in the Democratic-controlled Congress to draw down the nearly 160,000-strong U.S. force.
Iraqi forces may be able to handle security in the Kurdish north and parts of the Shiite south. But that would face huge challenges in Baghdad and surrounding provinces where Sunni insurgents are deeply entrenched. The Americans then would face the dilemma of maintaining substantial forces in Iraq for years _ perhaps a politically untenable option _ or risk the turmoil spreading to other parts of the Middle East.
“The challenge now is: How do you hold onto the terrain you’ve cleared?” said Brig. Gen. Mick Bednarek, the operations chief of the current offensive in Baqouba, where Sunni insurgents have taken root in recent months. He said this week that U.S. forces have control of much of Baqouba.
“You have to do that shoulder-to-shoulder with Iraqi security forces. And they’re not quite up to the job yet,” Bednarek said.
The Brigadier General is being gratuitous in saying that “they’re not quite up to the job yet.” They are nowhere near ready for turnover. This assessment doesn’t differ from that of David Danelo in his stunning piece in Parade Magazine in March of 2007, but one must study Danelo’s piece to understand how fully and remarkably different the Iraqi army is from a disciplined Western army.
This difference is cultural, and has to do with a number of things: officer elitism and bifurcation from their troops, mistreatment of enlisted men, lack of an effective non-commissioned officer corps, educational problems, and many other things. An important study was published entitled Why Arabs Lose Wars, by Norvell B. De Atkine. The introduction is a worthy tease for the reader.
ARABIC-SPEAKING ARMIES have been generally ineffective in the modern era. Egyptian regular forces did poorly against Yemeni irregulars in the 1960s. Syrians could only impose their will in Lebanon during the mid-1970s by the use of overwhelming weaponry and numbers. Iraqis showed ineptness against an Iranian military ripped apart by revolutionary turmoil in the 1980s and could not win a three-decades-long war against the Kurds. The Arab military performance on both sides of the 1990 Kuwait war was mediocre. And the Arabs have done poorly in nearly all the military confrontations with Israel. Why this unimpressive record? There are many factors — economic, ideological, technical — but perhaps the most important has to do with culture and certain societal attributes which inhibit Arabs from producing an effective military force.
This study should be required reading for all officers and NCOs, and serves to remind us of just why we are where we are in Iraq. It is significant that a major tenet upon which the U.S. strategy was built, i.e., capture the terrain and turn it over to Iraqi forces, has become unhinged. The reasons for this are deeply rooted and cause the problem to be intractable in the short term. The use of militias and erstwhile insurgents in not just an expediency. It is an adaptation and adjustment, and is necessary to hold ground that U.S. forces have captured.