The Pitfalls of Relying on Iraqi Troops

December 7th, 2006 - by admin

Anna Badkhen / SF Chronicle & Matthew Stannard / SF Chronicle – 2006-12-07 23:20:56

Training Iraq in Security Won’t Be Easy:
Sectarian Alliances, Plain Fear, Biggest Barriers to Handover

Anna Badkhen / San Francisco Chronicle

(December 7, 2006) — Accelerate the training of Iraqi security forces and let Iraqis handle most security responsibilities; move American troops into a supporting role and pull them out of daily fighting: These are critical conditions for withdrawing most US combat forces from Iraq by early 2008, according the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations to the Bush Administraton.

But in a country torn by sectarian and insurgent violence, such training may not succeed and any increased reliance on Iraqi troops may even be dangerous, experts on Iraq warn.

“It’s not so much that Iraqis are not capable of being trained,” said Christopher Preble, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. “It’s a question about loyalties: To what extent can the Iraqis be loyal to the central government? It’s a very open-ended question.”

Handing over responsibility for security to Iraqi forces has long been the cornerstone of US policy in Iraq. But the required training, which began soon after the 2003 invasion, has provided patchy results at best.

Today, Iraq has more than 322,000 security forces. About one third of them is capable of controlling their own areas of responsibility, according to the Iraq Index, a monthly report put together by the Brookings Institution in Washington DC. But they have been plagued by reports of fleeing from battles, of being infiltrated by sectarian militias, and, in some cases, of actively cooperating with death squads — or even running their own.

The Iraq Study Group recommended a five-fold increase of US forces embedded with Iraqi units, to as many as 20,000 troops. The additional numbers could be drawn from combat brigades already in Iraq, said William Perry, a panel member and former defense secretary under President Clinton.

The study group also recommended that the United States “seek to complete the training and equipping mission by the end of the first quarter of 2008.” By shifting most security responsibilities to Iraqis, nearly all US combat brigades in Iraq should be withdrawn by that time, the report said – potentially cutting the current troop level of more than 140,000 in half.

That goal is not dramatically different from the deadline already floated by US military commanders. In October, Gen. George Casey, the senior US commander in Iraq, said Iraqi forces should be capable of taking over responsibility for “their own security” by the end of next year.

But US commanders in Iraq have a history of setting such deadlines, only to see them being pushed back. Some experts questioned whether the study group’s proposed five-fold increase of US advisers would be enough to tackle the problems afflicting Iraqi forces.

“The effectiveness issues are a little more fundamental then how many Americans you’ve got riding shotgun with them,” said John Pike, director of, a military think-tank in Alexandria, VA.

One of the most critical problems has been the proliferation of sectarian militias within the Iraqi security forces, Pike said. As they train and equip Iraqis American advisers “would reasonably believe” that they are actually training and equipping members of sectarian militias,”he said.

Even those Iraqi forces who do not actively support militias may abide by their sectarian loyalties when under fire, warned David Newton, former US ambassador to Iraq in the 1980s.

“Once you train them how they will perform, how they will behave?” Newton said. “Will they behave as Iraqi soldiers or will they behave, once the pressure starts, as Sunnis or Shias?”
Another major obstacle has been motivation, said Michael Sterner, former deputy assistant secretary of state for the Near East.

“Are these trainees as motivated as the al-Qaeda fighters they’re fighting, or even militia members? The answer is no, probably not,” said Sterner. “They aren’t ready to fight on their own.”

Last week, US advisers had to take over command of a mission in a crowded Baghdad neighborhood from soldiers of Iraq’s 9th Mechanized Division, who were supposed to be leading the fight, the Los Angeles Times reported. The 2,000-man division is considered Iraq’s best.

“Fear took over” the Iraqi soldiers, said one of the advisers. “They refused to move.”

The study group appears not to have taken such problems into consideration, said Anthony Cordesman, a former national security adviser to Sen. John McCain, R-Az., who is now an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The main report ignores the problems in today’s training and force development program,” Cordesman wrote in an e-mailed commentary. He criticized the report for failing to provide a “meaningful detailed assessment of the capabilities of the existing force and training effort.”

No matter how many US advisers and trainers are embedded with Iraqi forces, success “depends almost totally on the political environment in which it has to operate,” said Sterner.
“The problem of creating these Iraqi units with a desire to fight is having a sense that they have a stake in the outcome. This so far has been lacking,” he said. “If the Iraqi government… can’t make progress toward that end, it doesn’t matter how well you train these Iraqi forces: they will disappear into the night when a real fight comes along.”

E-mail Anna Badkhen at

Arab-Israeli Peace Would Help Iraq.
Study Group Says Many Problems in Mideast Are Linked

Matthew B. Stannard / SF Chronicle

(December 7, 2006) — While the Iraq Study Group’s calls for diplomatic outreach to Iran and Syria would require an about-face in Bush administration policy, another of the recommendations contained in the report has the potential to generate as much controversy: a call for the United States to renew its efforts to reach a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.

The report urges the United States to begin a renewed, sustained commitment to a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians, as well as for a negotiated peace between Israel and Syria, culminating in Israel’s return of the Golan Heights to Syrian control.

“The United States cannot achieve its goals in the Middle East unless it deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict and regional instability,” the report states. “Iraq cannot be addressed effectively in isolation from other major regional issues, interests, and unresolved conflicts. To put it simply, all key issues in the Middle East — the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iraq, Iran, the need for political and economic reforms, and extremism and terrorism — are inextricably linked.”
The conclusion was welcomed by many on the Israeli left, who noted that former Secretary of State James Baker is well versed in Middle East politics.

“We hope that this Baker committee will lead to some pressure on the Israeli government on the issue of going back to negotiation — not because we are against Israel, but because we think the only one that really can push Israel into negotiation outside of Israel is the American administration,” said Yariv Oppenheim, secretary general of the Israeli group Peace Now, during a visit to The Chronicle on Wednesday. “We know James Baker very well … so there is a lot of reason for us in the peace camp to be encouraged that he is back in business.”

Yossi Beilin, leader of Israel’s left-wing Meretz Party, welcomed the report. He said the Israeli government had used the US boycott of Syria as an excuse for delaying negotiations and called on Israel to open talks with Syria over the status of the Golan Heights “without preconditions.”

To analysts who have criticized the Bush administration as failing to work on Middle East peace, the idea that the road to peace in Baghdad might begin — or at least pass through — Jerusalem was old news.

The United States is “perceived as exacerbating and making (the Middle East crisis) worse by our extreme one-sided support of Israel,” said Rashid Khalidi, director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. “In Iraq and in the Middle East generally, these things are very much held against us.” The report, he noted, advocates enhancing “the standing of the United States in the Middle East … as one element in changing the dynamic in Iraq.”

Khalidi said the idea has merit — American backing for peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians could help raise its reputation in the region, he said. Since Syria shares a long border with Iraq and is widely believed to have connections to former Iraqi Baathists and Sunni insurgents in Iraq, successful talks between Syria and Israel could help improve the climate for Syrian cooperation on other issues, he added. Since Syria has already expressed interest in talking to Israel, those talks could be “directly, immediately” fruitful, he said.

“I think this is step one toward ending the conflict in Iraq,” said Nabil Abuznaid, deputy chief of the Palestinian mission to the United States. “You cannot deny the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and solve the questions in Iraq.”

But such a linkage struck others as a hazardous blend of apples and oranges — critics included some leading American officials such as Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Rep. Tom Lantos, D-San Mateo, who will take over as chairman of the House International Relations Committee in January.

“There is no basis to conclude that a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian problem is central to resolving Iraq. These two issues, both difficult to resolve, must not be artificially conflated,” Lantos said. “The status of the Palestinians does not prompt Shiites and Sunnis to engage in reciprocal mass assassinations in Iraq. There are many sound reasons to encourage serious efforts to resolve the Israel-Palestinian problem. Iraq is not one of them.”

Some Israeli pundits, too, expressed concern about the linkage, cautioning against moves that could lead to strengthening Syrian influence in restive Lebanon or strengthening Iran, a country that Israel — like the United States — believes is developing nuclear weapons. Iran’s current leaders do not recognize Israel’s right to exist.

“Though common sense would show that the Palestinian problem or the Golan Heights have nothing to do with Iraq … in the absence of real solutions for Iraq, attention will be shifted to matters directly affecting us,” wrote Zalman Shoval, Israel’s past ambassador to the United States, in an essay posted Wednesday on the Web site of the Jerusalem Post. “Israeli diplomacy … must now make a major effort to resist the attempts to ‘Palestinianize’ the situation in Iraq — with Israel being asked to pay for it.”

To some US experts, the debate over the Iraq Study Group’s Middle East recommendation was not all that different from the White House’s current policies on the Israel-Palestinian situation. Others suggested the recommendation was essentially political rhetoric for domestic consumption.
“It’s a standard insert for US policymakers when they talk about regional instability,” said James Prince, president of the California-based Democracy Council, a nonprofit organization that has done work in the Palestinian territories.

“It’s an easy way to deflect from the criticism of what’s happening in Iraq,” Prince said. “But in reality, it’s a nonissue and does not affect the internal stability of Iraq one way or another.”

Nathan Brown, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has conducted extensive research on Palestinian society, concurred that the idea is more or less an empty suggestion — at least at this point.

“This is a wonderful strategy for 2004,” Brown said. “If we had tried this broad regional and multilateral approach two years ago, we would be in a very different place today. Right now, everybody in the world can see the writing on the wall … it is not at all clear to me that at this late date that this sort of strategy is going to change anybody’s minds. Everybody can see the Americans heading for the door.”

Chronicle Foreign Service correspondent Matthew Kalman contributed to this report. E-mail Matthew B. Stannard at

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