How Ready are Iraqi Troops?

Testifying before the Senate yesterday, America’s top commanders in the Middle East said that, while substantial progress is being made, only one Iraqi battalion is fully ready.

Decline in Iraqi Troops’ Readiness Cited (WaPo, A16)

The number of Iraqi army battalions that can fight insurgents without U.S. and coalition help has dropped from three to one, top U.S. generals told Congress yesterday, adding that the security situation in Iraq is too uncertain to predict large-scale American troop withdrawals anytime soon.

Gen. George W. Casey Jr., who oversees U.S. forces in Iraq, said there are fewer Iraqi battalions at “Level 1” readiness than there were a few months ago. Although Casey said the number of troops and overall readiness of Iraqi security forces have steadily increased in recent months, and that there has not been a “step backwards,” both Republican and Democratic senators expressed deep concern that the United States is not making enough progress against a resilient insurgency.


“Over the past 18 months, we have built enough Iraqi capacity where we can begin talking seriously about transitioning this counterinsurgency mission to them,” Casey said. Military figures show that there are about three dozen army and special police battalions rated at Level 2 or above, meaning they are taking the lead in combat as long as they have support from coalition forces.

Officials did not say specifically why two battalions are no longer rated at Level 1 and thus unable to operate on their own. They said generally readiness ratings can change for numerous reasons, such as if a commander resigns, or if more training is needed. Casey also said that the “Iraqi armed forces will not have an independent capability for some time.”

Bombs Kill 105; U.S. Toll Grows (LAT, p. 1)

A series of coordinated bombings killed 95 people in the Iraqi city of Balad on Thursday as U.S. military leaders in Washington downgraded their estimate of the number of Iraqi troops at the highest state of readiness.

Commanders who visited Capitol Hill told lawmakers that U.S. troop reductions were needed in part to break an Iraqi “dependency” on American forces. But, underscoring the difficulty of disengaging, Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said the number of Iraqi units at the highest level of readiness had fallen from three battalions in June to one.


Casey said that no ground had been lost in the Iraqi training and that it would be wrong to gauge the readiness of Iraqi troops merely by counting the number of Level 1 battalions. Units assessed at Level 2 and Level 3, the general said, were participating in joint missions with U.S. troops. “We don’t need to have that whole force at Level 1, or even that whole force at Level 2, before we can begin considering coalition reductions,” he said.

Iraqi troops actually could benefit from a reduction in U.S. and coalition forces, Casey said. The continued U.S. troop presence “contributes to the dependency of Iraqi security forces on the coalition,” he said. “It extends the amount of time that it will take for Iraqi security forces to become self-reliant, and it exposes more coalition forces to attacks at a time when Iraqi security forces are increasingly available and increasingly capable.” Casey also said the U.S. presence in Iraq was fueling the insurgency because of the perception of an American occupation, making a troop reduction critical to the U.S. mission in Iraq.

Nonetheless, Republican as well as Democratic senators expressed skepticism over the plans for troop withdrawals, which Casey said could take place next year. “We’re planning on troop withdrawals without any criteria being met that I can see,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “You’re taking a very big gamble here.”

Military Gives Mixed Iraq View, Says Withdrawal May Hit Snag (WSJ, p. 1 $)

[…] In a joint appearance on Capitol Hill, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and three senior generals acknowledged significant political and military obstacles and emphasized that it might take as long as nine years before Iraq’s insurgency is defeated. The commanders said the number of Iraqi army battalions capable of operating without U.S. help had decreased to one from three over the past year. They declined to specifically explain the decrease but said many Iraqi units had suffered from a lack of stability and managerial expertise within Iraq’s Ministry of Defense as successive Iraqi governments shuffled the ranks of both the ministry and the armed forces.

But the commanders said Iraq’s forces were beginning to improve both qualitatively and quantitatively overall, with 75% of the U.S.-trained Iraqi army capable of engaging in minimal combat with U.S. support, while more than 30 battalions were seen as capable of taking the lead in a U.S.-backed operation. At the same time, they said, the country’s police and army units have become riddled with insurgent sympathizers.

These numbers are rather depressing but I wonder about the context. Even in the United States Army, the world’s best by leaps and bounds, not every battalion is at Level 1. Given that the Iraqi forces are not being asked to conduct combined arms operations and project force globally, it is not at all clear why they need to be at that level of readiness. Certainly, the insurgents are not at “Level 1” in their training.

The questions, then, are 1) How many Iraqi units are capable of operating on their own? and 2) How many are needed in order to have confidence that they can do the job without direct U.S. assistance? Those have not been answered.

Much more problematic in my view, though, is the fact that the Iraqi security forces have been deeply penetrated by insurgents and their sympathizers. Unless that problem is solved, “readiness” is a chimera. Indeed, we’re essentially training the enemy.

Update: Austin Bay points to a StrategyPage commentary that is quite optimistic about several recent trends. It ends, however, on a major downer:

On the downside, there’s no let up in the extent of corruption and lack of civic spirit among so many Iraqis. The tribal mentality, and “everything is for sale” attitudes are not only alien (at least in terms of degree) to Americans, but a serious obstacle to getting anything done in Iraq. These bad habits are not unique to Iraq, but pervade the entire Arab world. Expats who have spent decades working in Arab countries can entertain you for hours with bitter-sweet stories of the self-destructive habits they have encountered among Arabs. Americans are getting their faces rubbed in these unsavory customs and it’s not a pretty sight. Working with an ally whose favorite target is his own foot can be an unsettling experience. There are exceptions. Many Iraqis understand that honest dealings, and making an effort for Iraq, not just their immediate family or clan, is the key to future peace and prosperity. But these civic minded Iraqis are considered aberrations in their own country, and are often marked for death. Iraqi can be pacified by force, that has been done many times in the past. But the battle for Iraq’s soul will determine of the future will be better, or just more of the past.

Bay adds,

What StrategyPage describes are operations with Iraqi forces “in the lead” but the Iraqi units are “overwatched” by US forces. If they get into something they cannot handle the US forces enter the fray. I suspect the Iraqi forces are conducting police-type search operations (given the weapons and equipment discovered) as well as “presence patrols.” The presence patrols have a political function similar to that of the local cop on the beat—a statement of “we’re here.”


My bet: Search ops and presence patrols would not rate as “fully independent offensive ops.”

I suspect he’s right.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. spencer says:

    wonder why no one questions the readiness of the insurgents.

    Those guys seem ready to fight even if ours aren’t.

    I wonder why?

  2. James Joyner says:

    Spencer: Apples and oranges. Insurgents merely have to blow up a bomb and kill unprepared innocents; government forces have to locate and kill insurgents. The latter is infinitely more difficult.

  3. mike says:

    Reading Col.Hackworth’s books about Vietnam many of the same things are happening, the S. Viet army thought they could loot what they wanted when they wanted and when it didn’t go their way call in the US Army (stole from them too!) to save them. In the end the locals get pissed after they took their props. It’s hard after living in a place that has been ruled by “It’s MY LAW AS I SEE IT”. It’s time to get them out of “rewards/spoils” to love of country. Can it happen? Don’t know but since the Iraq’s have so much “energy” I’d place 4, yes i said 4 batt’s on the Syrian border with US air & ground till after the election, what the hell? That’s where the fight is. Battle Proven! Battle Tested!