In Iraq, Less Can Be More

Peter Khalil
Peter Khalil Visiting Fellow, Saban Center at Brookings

December 20, 2004

Even with the world’s most advanced
military machine at its disposal, the United States is
having remarkable difficulty defeating or even containing
the relatively small number of Saddam Hussein loyalists,
religious extremists and foreign terrorists in Iraq. Thus
the plan to gradually turn security matters over to the
Iraqis would seem to be doomed from the start. But a closer
look at the insurgents’ goals and methods may give clues to
a better approach.

The 15,000 or so insurgents are spoilers whose disparate
long-term aims range from pipe dreams of restoring the
Baathist regime to installing a fundamentalist Islamist
autocracy. But the futility of their long-term goals does
nothing to impede their short-term effectiveness. The
150,000 Iraqis who have so far joined the state security
services can do little to stand in their way; in fact, even
if their ranks increased to 500,000 through rushed
training, they would still be largely ineffective.

However, a force of 25,000 or so highly trained Iraqi
internal security troops, operating at the pointy end of
the spear, with the remaining bulk of Iraqi forces in a
supporting role, might be able to do the job. That’s
because counterinsurgency is not about numbers; the quality
of the security forces, not their quantity, is the key.

Traditional military forces are not geared toward the
mainly urban operations needed to defeat small cells of
guerrillas. In particular, Iraq needs security forces that
are trained specifically in counterterrorism and
counterinsurgency operations. Yet because of the scale of
the insurgency, we have been forced to use the fledgling
Iraqi Army and National Guard. Most guardsmen have had only
cursory training, and the army troops have largely been
prepared for conventional military defense against external
threats. Not only is pressing them into counterinsurgency
duties a misuse of their training, it’s bad politics: the
army was a tool for internal repression under Saddam
Hussein, and it should not play a prominent internal
security role in a democratic Iraq.

The answer lies with specially trained Iraqi internal
security forces, separate from the standard military,
including mobile counterterrorism units, light-infantry
police battalions and SWAT teams. There are now only a
handful of battalions with such training. Yet, with the
help of intelligence coordination and American logistical
support, they have been effective. They performed well
alongside coalition troops in Falluja and Samarra, and
pulled off a hostage rescue in Kirkuk in which the
Americans provided only logistical support.

Unfortunately, the coalition was late off the mark in
building up these units, and the training is long—a
minimum of 16 weeks for each man, as compared to the two
weeks of boot camp given a typical guardsman.

Recruits from the different Iraqi forces are being trained
at bases and police academies across Iraq by coalition
personnel and Iraqi officers who have undergone “train the
trainer” courses. In addition, some military officers are
receiving leadership instruction in military colleges in
America, Britain, Italy and Australia. Police recruits are
also being given intensive counterinsurgency training in
neighboring states, including Jordan.

The coalition has a goal of 33 battalions of these troops,
some 25,000 men, which seems about right (any more, and
there exists the long-term risk of a force that could rival
the civilian government). Achieving this goal would be best
done through the additional deployment of an American
training brigade (ideally including members of one of the
Army’s elite ranger training battalions) as well as several
hundred more police trainers from local departments and the
Federal Bureau of Investigation.

As vital as this assistance will be, however, the coalition
must be careful not to sacrifice principles essential to a
democracy, like the rights of the detained and civilian
control over the armed forces. The latter is a particular
danger if the army becomes immersed in internal security

Training these specialized troops will take time; the
United States should be prepared to shoulder the main
burden of Iraqi security for the next 6 to 12 months. The
Bush administration, which is so fond of publicizing the
large numbers of Iraqi soldiers and police officers in
uniform, should forget about the raw numbers. Instead, we
must focus on training more of the right type of Iraqi
security forces to do the job.