The course of the struggle for Iraq seems likely to be determined by a number of events in the months ahead. In December, Iraqis will elect a government that will rule the country for the next four years. In parallel to the political process, the Bush Administration hopes that 2006 will see new Iraqi security forces reach critical mass, perhaps allowing for a reduction in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. To analyze these developments and the prospects for the months ahead, the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings convened a policy luncheon with the Saban Center Director of Research, Kenneth Pollack. The author of a definitive work on Arab military performance, Pollack had recently returned from a trip to northern Iraq.
Pollack expressed a fundamental concern that developments in Iraq make an outbreak of civil war increasingly likely. The security vacuum created in the wake of the United States’ overthrow of Saddam’s regime in April 2003 has had two major consequences. First, it has allowed the insurgency to develop. Second, it set a stage for a failed state, which Pollack argues is the greater of the two problems. The combination of these two elements is severely hindering progress in Iraq and underlies every other problem in the country. This suggests that the situation in Iraq cannot be improved by military means alone. A comprehensive political, military, and economic strategy is required for Iraq. The problem, Pollack argued, is that security is a precondition for all the other processes to take place. The foremost concern of the Iraqi people is security and basic needs such as employment, electricity, and clean water.
There are several components to the security issue in Iraq and here, argued Pollack, the United States has its priorities wrong. One these components is battling the insurgency. However, Pollack feels that the U.S. military is investing too many resources in fighting the insurgency. He argued that such an approach is problematic because it diverts resources and personnel away from addressing the causes of a failed state. The current U.S. policy and media coverage have tended to focus on the insurgency and to describe the manifestation of the failed state in terms of the insurgency. However, Pollack feels that the second component, training up the new Iraqi forces, should be the first priority and not, as it is now, the second. He argued that while many high ranking U.S. military commanders recognize that fighting the insurgency should come second to training Iraqi forces the priorities are often reversed in practice.
Pollack characterized the war in Iraq as a “patchwork” war. Decentralization of command and control has gone to extremes. Every division and brigade commander fights his own war differently. While some commanders understand the insurgency very well and are implementing a traditional counterinsurgency strategy, others have failed to correctly identify the nature of the war and are therefore mistakenly pursuing a conventional military approach. For example, they conduct large-scale offensive sweep operations, which are counterproductive. There are not enough Special Operations Forces (SOF), which are designed for counterinsurgency and for training indigenous forces, deployed in Iraq. The SOF that are in Iraq are often misused, such as by being assigned to perform reconnaissance for the large sweep operations. Moreover, there is little institutionalized effort to disseminate lessons learned. Knowledge is lost during handovers as new units come in and lose the benefit of the experience and learning of the units that are being replaced.
Misleading metrics have also been adopted, Pollack argued. The practice of detainee counts in Iraq has come to replace the body count used in Vietnam, which he felt was another indication that the U.S. military leadership did not have a handle on how best to win this war. Overall, Pollack found a lack of serious determination to win the war at all costs. Unlike the Second World War, where all capabilities were geared towards winning the conflict, a similar sense of purpose is often lacking in Iraq. For example, incompetent US commanders are not punished for their failings. The failure of some commanders to advance security is overlooked because of the application of flawed metrics such as the detainee count. The underlying problem, according to Pollack, is that some many senior officers are not interested in counterinsurgency and consider such operations an aberration from what the U.S. military is “supposed” so do. The converse is that good commanders are not left in place. Once an outstanding commander has completed his tour, he leaves Iraq with the rest of his brigade or division. Instead, Pollack suggested, the U.S. military should keep competent commanders in place and reward them in their military careers.
There is some evidence that tactics are changing, as for example, in Tal Afar, where the U.S. military not only cleared the area of insurgents but also attempted to hold the area. Pollack argued, however, that Tal Afar is not the sort of place that the United States should be implementing these tactics as it will take years to bring Tal Afar’s population around. Such tactics should be pursued in friendlier areas of Iraq first, such as the Shi’a-dominated south. Moreover, the difficulty with “holding” operations is that the U.S. military does not commit enough troops to them for enough time. Nor do those charged with assisting with political and economic reconstruction provide enough economic assistance to restore life to some kind of normality in the areas that have been cleared. As a result, the feeling is that the Americans make promises but fulfill few of them. So, even if the United States implements right tactics in many cases, the overall strategy is wrong and the strategic emphasis is misplaced in terms of security priorities.
Pollack observed that training of Iraqi forces is very uneven, but probably better than most people in Washington recognize. Training problems range from basic technical issues to those at the strategic level. For instance, the metrics that the U.S. military uses to categorize readiness of Iraqi military units are inconsistent. Every echelon in the chain of command uses different metrics and different criteria. Also, Pollack argued, the US military often sets the bar too high by demanding that Iraqi units be at category one status, which means that they can fight independently and support themselves without US assistance. However, Pollack observed that category two or three level units can perform many key counterinsurgency functions such as local area security.
Pollack said that the US military has trained many outstanding Iraqi units. These units have high morale, excellent tactics, and outstanding leadership. The correct approach would be to replicate this model across Iraq. In practice that is problematic as many of the best units are composed overwhelmingly of Kurds, all of whom are former Peshmerga, with a few Sunni Arabs in the command structure, which severely restricts where these units can be used. Pollack observed that the most of the good units in Iraq are single ethnicity, either Kurdish or Shi’a Arab.
According to Pollack, some of the training of Iraqi forces is inadequate because either the wrong doctrine or wrong tactics are used. Some American units are training the Iraqis to fight as they were trained—for high-intensity mechanized combat. In other cases, training is poor because it is not done by the best personnel. A merit system is not emphasized and incompetent Iraqi leaders are not replaced. As a result, bad Iraqi leaders corrupt their units. A further problem is that organized crime gangs, insurgents, and militias have penetrated the security services.
Pollack believes that there is a profound challenge ahead in terms of unit cohesion. Good Iraqi units collapsed when they faced insurgent opposition in Mosul in November 2004 and up against Moqtada as-Sadr’s forces in southern Iraq in the summer of 2004. There is, he argued, no guarantee that such a pattern will not be repeated. What can help, he argued, is time. The more opportunities that Iraqis have to train with Americans, to improve their skills, to adapt to new equipment, personnel, and leaders, then the more likely it is that they will build unit cohesion and not collapse in the future.
In addition, Pollack identified structural and logistical problems facing the Iraqi army, which is composed now only of combat formations. There is a lack of command, communications, training systems and the other back up that an army requires. If the US were to leave tomorrow, then Iraqi army units would collapse because there are virtually no indigenous institutions or infrastructure, civilian or military, to support them. Although this problem has been recognized, solving it requires reforming entire Iraqi ministries, which are plagued with corruption and inefficiency. Moreover, for the moment, the United States faces a “Hobson’s choice” in terms of equipping Iraqi units: If the U.S. military does not provide equipment, then it cannot expect the Iraqis to fight well; but if the U.S. does supply equipment, then much of it could find its way onto the black market where it is bought by the insurgents.
Pollack argues that one of the most serious mistakes the U.S. has made in the past has been the rush to create Iraqi forces. The U.S. military wanted to train these forces slowly, but came under tremendous political pressure to speed up the process, which meant that they were trained poorly. In addition, units from various militias, such as the Badr Organization (affiliated to the Iranian-backed Shi’a Islamist party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq), have been integrated wholesale into the new Iraqi Army. These militias often pursue their own agendas. In an odd way, the growth of the militias has enhanced security for the moment as the militias enforce order in the areas under their control. Unfortunately, this is not the right kind of security, rather it is a form of security that is likely to provoke a civil war if history is any lesson. There are already examples of people being stopped at checkpoints and never seen again. There is evidence of ethnic cleansing in Iraq. As a consequence, people are joining militias, not because they want to but because the militias can protect them. These are the first steps towards a civil war. This illustrates the misplaced priorities of the U.S. in concentrating on chasing insurgents around Western Iraq, rather than securing the vast bulk of the populace against the elements of Iraq as a failed state–crime, sectarian militias, insurgent attack, and other forms of lawlessness–in central and southern Iraq.
The Iraqi police, who ought to be the first line of defense, are incompetent, corrupt, involved with organized crime, and penetrated by militias and the insurgents. The disastrous performance of the police is exacerbated by their lack of training and equipment. Iraqi police need be taught that their job is to protect and serve people, not, as they learned under Saddam, to oppress and steal from them. The Kurds have been able to improve their police through education and training. Although that process lasted for years, the Kurdish example is a good model to follow. A key lesson of the Kurdish experience is that vetting should not occur just at the beginning, at the recruitment stage, but throughout training and education.
Pollack briefly commented on the political situation. He pointed out that the United States has made a mistake of empowering what he called Shi’a chauvinists and exiles who had no political base in Iraq. To fill the security vacuum, the United States rushed to form an Iraqi government to put an Iraqi face on the political process. The United States did not wait for progressive and liberal Iraqi leaders to emerge. Instead the United States allowed Shi’a chauvinists to take over and has now decided to try to balance them by bringing in Sunni chauvinists. Pollack does not believe this is a stable solution to Iraq’s political problems. The exiles and the chauvinist parties are trying to control the ministries and reshape the Iraqi political and economic system to serve their narrow interests, which is not how nation building should work. The result of these mistakes is that there is a rampant corruption in the government. The irony, Pollack observed was that the Kurds, who have the least stake in the future of Iraq, have shown themselves to be Iraq’s greatest statesmen. Kurdish politicians such as Jalal Talabani, Barham Salih, and Hoshyar Zebari are in Baghdad doing the best for Iraq, putting the nation’s interests ahead of their own and, as a result, are alienating their own base.
Concluding, Pollack identified a fundamental problem in terms of the electoral process and legitimacy. The United States expects to bestow legitimacy on the Iraqi government through the political process, through free and fair elections. For most Iraqis, however, legitimacy will be conferred when the new government that is elected on December 15, 2005, starts delivering their basic needs, such as security, employment, electricity, and other essentials. The problem is that the new government will struggle to meet these expectations because it will lack the institutional capacity and resources to do so. Only the United States can deliver and meet these expectations. Unless the United States is willing to make fundamental changes in its Iraq strategy, six months from now Iraqis will likely be disappointed with this new government just as they have been disappointed in the four previous governments since the fall of Saddam. Iraqis will end up being governed by the same politicians as before, politicians who are more interested in squabbling over the spoils of government than delivering services to the population. In such a scenario, disappointed Iraqis will end up backing militia leaders like Moqtada as-Sadr and others like him who can deliver immediate security but at the price of long-term strife and possibly civil war.