Protecting Iraqi Security Forces

In his recent speech to the nation on Iraq, President Bush said “a major part of our mission is to train [Iraqi security forces] so they can do the fighting, and then our troops can come home.” This aspect of administration strategy makes eminent sense. But what does not make sense is the mediocre way we are now helping to keep those forces alive.

Thankfully, in an impressive display of patriotism (and economic need), Iraqis keep volunteering for the police and army even as their compatriots are killed. But if we want a high-quality and dedicated fighting force, we must do better.

About 2,600 Iraqi security personnel have now lost their lives since the overthrow of Saddam, substantially more than all coalition military and nonmilitary losses combined. It is appropriate that Iraqis bear the greatest risk for the safety and security of their own people, and encouraging they are gradually doing more of the fighting, current trends are highly troubling. Iraqi security forces losses have averaged about 280 monthly since May, by far the greatest ever.

Some of this is inevitable given the ferocity and brutality of the resistance. Some of it, however, is preventable — and we should do everything in our power to curtail it.

Improving protection for Iraqi police, army, and other security forces requires several initiatives:

Better equipment. Most fatalities among Iraqi security forces since April have been killed in action. They are most often targeted, not during direct combat but on routine missions such as patrolling streets and manning checkpoints.

While Iraqis are gradually obtaining better body armor and armored equipment, the United States is treating this as a lower priority than protecting its own soldiers and Marines.

To be sure, American forces must be provided state-of-the art equipment as soon as possible. But that is no reason to go slow in protecting Iraqis. Perhaps those allied nations unwilling to send more troops but wanting to help train and equip Iraqi security personnel can apply their efforts toward this objective.

In any event, the United States needs a bolder and much faster plan to provide all Iraqi security forces, not just the high-end special forces conducting counterinsurgency operations, the materiel they require.

Better protection for military bases and police stations. U.S. security facilities in Iraq are highly fortified, with protection not only against infiltrators but truck bombs and some mortar rounds. Iraqi facilities are often not as well protected, even though they are often targeted (35 percent of Iraqi security force fatalities result from suicide or car bombs).

Some of this is inevitable; effective police must live amongst the populations they protect and be seen doing so. But we must also avoid turning them into sitting ducks.

A major initiative is needed to fortify Iraqi security force facilities. And we should rigorously review procedures for limiting traffic near army and police stations and frisking those who seek entry.

Avoiding crowds of exposed recruits. Iraqi police and army would-be recruits are often killed in large numbers as they line up outside security perimeters to apply for jobs. To be fair, they are often discouraged from doing so, yet line up anyway, partly out of bravery and partly out of imprudence. But this makes no sense. Instead, Iraqis might be given appointment cards at a main desk, sent home and told when to return for scheduled interviews. Recruitment centers are by far the most vulnerable of all military facilities in Iraq, and little effort has gone into safe guarding them from insurgent attacks.

To be a member of the police or army in Iraq today is probably to have the most dangerous job possible in that country. While we all know security personnel risk their lives willingly around the world to protect their fellow citizens, and no less so in Iraq, we cannot build top-notch Iraqi security institutions if many of its best people keep getting killed.

It is time to treat this issue with an urgency comparable to how we have been protecting our own troops in harm’s way. If we do not, insurgents may well succeed in eroding morale, cohesion and retention rates among Iraqi security forces through continued attacks — thereby pushing the prospect of an eventual U.S. troop withdrawal even further into the future.