Is Iraqi Security an Iraqi Responsibility?

Fred Kagan argues that the Bush administration is laying the groundwork to wash its hands of the Iraqi counterinsurgency effort and to shift the blame for failure onto the Iraqi government.

It’s been coming for a long time: the idea that fixing Iraq is the Iraqis’ problem, not ours — that we’ve done all we can and now it’s up to them.

Such arguments have been latent in the Bush administration’s Iraq strategy and explicit in Democratic critiques of that strategy for some time. Now Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has declared: “It’s their country. . . . They’re going to have to govern it, they’re going to have to provide security for it, and they’re going to have to do it sooner rather than later.”

The implication of these arguments is clear: The United States should prepare to leave Iraq, after which the Iraqis will work out their own troubles — or they won’t. In any event, we can no longer help them. This notion is wrong and morally contemptible, and it endangers American security around the world.

The current crisis in Iraq is no more just an Iraqi problem than it has ever been. The U.S. military destroyed Iraq’s government and all institutions able to keep civil order. It designated itself an “occupying force,” thereby accepting the responsibility to restore and maintain such order. And yet U.S. Central Command never actually made establishing order and security a priority. Its commander throughout the insurgency, Gen. John Abizaid, has instead repeatedly declared that America’s role is primarily to train Iraqi forces to put down their own rebellion and maintain order.

The ideas in Kagan’s lead sentence and the Rumsfeld quotes that follow are not synonymous. That “They’re going to have to govern it” and “they’re going to have to provide security for it” is not only axiomatic but the essence of counterinsurgency. It’s our job to ensure they have the training and logistical support to carry out the job but flooding the country with American troops is precisely the wrong answer to the problem. Government and security simply have to have a local face to have any chance of success.

The American military, in conjunction with others, toppled a repressive regime and the secret police which it employed to maintain the dominance of a minority kleptocracy. The end of that repression, coupled with a series of mistakes, has led to sectarian violence and a multi-headed insurgent/terrorist mess. Still, given that we have no interest in establishing a colony in Iraq, training up the Iraqi security forces is our primary military role.

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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. So now the long held strategy of “as they step up, we’ll step down” is revealed as a clever ploy to shift the blame as the invincible forces of doom come crashing down to destroy the US in 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006.

    My tin foil hat must be to tight because I never got the DNC change of plan message that the left should be supporting US troops in Iraq ad infinitum.

  2. civilbehavior says:

    219 members of the US military, 98 of them on active duty are calling for the withdrawl of troops from Iraq.

    I can only imagine the deluge of right wing smear that will be heaped upon these patriots.

    Does “support the troops” mean swiftboating the truth from those who know it and live it daily on the killing fields?

    Or will Baby Bush come round to the Democrats plan of withddrawl before more young men and women die for his mistakes?

    Foolish Americans……..

  3. Triumph says:

    The American military, in conjunction with others, toppled a repressive regime and the secret police which it employed to maintain the dominance of a minority kleptocracy. The end of that repression, coupled with a series of mistakes, has led to sectarian violence and a multi-headed insurgent/terrorist mess.

    What are the “series of mistakes”? Yes, you’re right: Iraq was better off under Saadam.

  4. Cernig says:

    How can we expect Iraqis to “stand up” against their own indigent civil feuds and insurgency if we will not give them the respect of being able to “stand up” in other matters except where it suits their occupying nursemaids?

    Where’s the plan to give Iraq true sovereignty rather than the kind where a foreign head of state can drop in without forewarning or where Iraq’s PM can announce a plan for national reconcilliation without one of its key provisions being over-ruled by a foreign ambassador? Where’s the plan to give Iraq the kind of military infrastructure it needs not just for internal security but also against external threats?

    It seems to me we can either 1) really treat Iraq as a sovereign nation, give it what a sovereign nation should have as our final act of contrition for the FUBAR we’ve made so far and leave it the hell alone without further meddling or we can 2) admit it is a Satrapy and administer it as such.

    However, to date we have tried to give the appearance of the former while actually doing the latter.

    given that we have no interest in establishing a colony in Iraq

    I think you’re wrong to assume that’s a given, James. Just based upon actions rather than rhetoric.

    As for the rhetoric, the Bush administration, the neocon “pushers” of regime change and the GOP, by continually putting off facing criticism of their Iraq policy through the use of multiple Friedmans – “don’t judge us on what is happening now, wait six/twelve/eighteen months and it will be better” – have created a truly tangled problem.

    How do you unravel a Gordian Knot if the sword will not work?

    No-one, from any side, has any idea. All the plans for unknotting have the potential to create new and just as troublesome knots of their own. That’s the Bush legacy.

    Regards, C

  5. legion says:

    The American military, in conjunction with others, toppled a repressive regime and the secret police which it employed to maintain the dominance of a minority kleptocracy.

    And it is looking increasingly like we’re replacing it with the exact same thing…

  6. Steven Plunk says:

    It seems some are jumping to conclusions regarding the servicemen who oppose the war in Iraq. As a right winger I do not see them as unpatriotic and really wouldn’t want to smear any of them. Their opinions are as good as mine.

    I would imagine that for every one of them (98 active duty was the claim) you could find at least 100 who would say the opposite. Regardless we don’t run the military through democracy in the ranks.

    As for our civilian democracy, we voted to invade Iraq, we fund the occupation, and we have yet to vote our way out. What would some have us do? Ignore our democratic principles?

    Foolish Americans, such as myself, believe in what we are doing and understand it is difficult. Those who call names and build straw men need to sharpen their arguments before embarrassing themselves.

  7. legion says:

    As for our civilian democracy, we voted to invade Iraq, we fund the occupation, and we have yet to vote our way out. What would some have us do? Ignore our democratic principles?

    Vote our way out? Do you not remember the Boy King declaring that he is The Decider? That he doesn’t pay attention to polls? What exactly do democratic principles have to do with getting our troops out of a situation the military can no longer hope to salvage?

  8. Steven Plunk says:


    Remember Bush was elected president which makes him the decider, not public opinion polls. Of course congress can choose not to fund the war effort.

    As for democratic principles in this debate you have to recall that this war started before the 2004 election and many called that election a referendum on the war. Bush won and Republicans maintained control of congress. That is a mandate to retain the policies articulated by Bush and the Republican party.

    Just because you disagree with current policy doesn’t mean everyone else disagrees. Calling for a policy change in line with the Democratic party’s preferred policy would be premature until a Democrat occupies the White House.

    I must ask, what’s with the name calling? It’s simply President Bush.

  9. civilbehavior says:

    We voted to invade Iraq based on cherry picked intelligence, of that, we can now be sure.

    Billions of quarts of blood and treasure have been spent continuing this travesty of justice and no one wants to appear to oppose the “troops” because of the swiftboating of those who care enough for our children in fatigues, Jack Murtha for example.

    So our children in fatigues must stand up since no one seems to be listening to the generals, or the former WH officials, CIA analysts and many others who have repeatedly spoken out about the intrasigence of teh current elected officials. This isn’t just one or two disgruntled employees. This is a world that has stood up to face down the imperialism and hubris of our president and his lackeys.

    For your children’s sake, you better wake up to alot more than trying to dismiss me for mere embarrassment. The seriousness of the deceit, hypocrisy and lies during the last six years has obviously gone right over your head.

  10. ken says:

    Men and women in uniform absolutely loathe Bush and have felt that way from the day he took office. Today they are just more emboldened to speak up about it. They hide their true feeling behind proper etiquette but believe me they loathe him with a burning hatred that is hard to imagine unless you’ve seen it for yourself.

    If you read the letter from Kevin Tillman you will get a faint understanding of how much these conservatives are truly hated by our servicemen.

  11. anjin-san says:

    Tillman’s letter was indeed, a harsh and moving indictment of the Bush admin. I am not sure that Ken use of “conservative” is correct, though. Bush is certainly no conservative.

  12. cian says:


    As usual you make your case forcefully, and you make it well. Unfortunately, all the facts are working against you and the administration you support.

    You, and American’s like you, may very well have understood the mission and just how difficult it would be, but a majority of Americans did not and were railroaded into supporting it through a concerted effort to smear and fear anyone who refused to agree that the war would be a ‘cake walk’.

    Those who questioned the existence of wmd were traitors; those who warned the administration that the task would be long and difficult were either sidelined or fired;those who argued that the aftermath would be more important than the initial attack were ridiculed and ignored. Perhaps invading Iraq was necessary, but rather than debating this with honesty the administration chose to confuse and demonise.

    The result was a win for Bush in 2004, but by the smallest majority of any American president. Only Bush and his shills claimed this as a mandate (by the time of his second inauguration, his approval ratings had already started to drop, from 55% to 50%), and in choosing to proceed as though the rest of the country agreed with them, they lost what little credibility they had.

    The war is over and America lost. All that is now left is the question of how best to manage the disaster. Honest leadership would be a good place to start.

  13. anselm says:

    A MUST-READ that (alarmingly) fell through the cracks in the blogosphere yesterday. It is from an Army sergeant in Iraq (writing to James Taranto at WSJ) who puts the proper scope on this thing, and shows that on the broader continuum of what this conflict requires of us, both “cut and run” and “stay the course” spell doom. No elected official can publicly admit the truth right now. But ulimately they will have to.

    Apologies for length but with all everyone’s inconclusive 2 cents taking up space, this is well worth it in comparison IMO.

    There’s been a lot of discussion back home about the course of the war, the righteousness of our involvement, the clarity of our execution, and what to do about the predicament in which we currently find ourselves. I just wanted to send you my firsthand account of what’s happening here.

    First, a little bit about me: I’m stationed slightly northwest of Baghdad in a mixed Sunni/Shia area. I’m a sergeant in the U.S. Army on a human intelligence collection team. I interact with Iraqis on a daily basis and I help put together the intel picture for our area of operations. I have contacts with friends, who are also in my job, in every area of operations in the Fourth Infantry Division footprint, and through our crosstalk I’d say I have a pretty damn good idea of what’s going on in and around Baghdad on a micro and intermediary level.

    I wrote heavily in favor of this war before I enlisted myself, and I still maintain that going into Iraq was not only the necessary thing to do, but the right thing to do as well.

    There have been distinct failures of policy in Iraq. The vast majority of them fall under the category “failure to adapt.” Basically U.S. policies have been several steps behind the changing conditions ever since we came into the country. I believe this is (in part) due to our plainly obvious desire to extricate ourselves from Iraq. I know President Bush is preaching “stay the course,” but we came over here with a goal of handing over our battlespace to the Iraqis by the end of our tour here.

    This breakneck pace with which we’re trying to push the responsibility for governing and securing Iraq is irresponsible and suicidal. It’s like throwing a brick on a house of cards and hoping it holds up. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF)–a joint term referring to Iraqi army and Iraqi police–are so rife with corruption, insurgent sympathies and Shia militia members that they have zero effectiveness. Two Iraqi police brigades in Baghdad have been disbanded recently, and the general sentiment in our field is “Why stop there?” I can’t tell you how many roadside bombs have been detonated against American forces within sight of ISF checkpoints. Faith in the Iraqi army is only slightly more justified than faith in the police–but even there, the problems of tribal loyalties, desertion, insufficient training, low morale and a failure to properly indoctrinate their soldiers results in a substandard, ineffective military. A lot of the problems are directly related to Arab culture, which traditionally doesn’t see nepotism and graft as serious sins. Changing that is going to require a lot more than “benchmarks.”

    In Shia areas, the militias hold the real control of the city. They have infiltrated, co-opted or intimidated into submission the local police. They are expanding their territories, restricting freedom of movement for Sunnis, forcing mass migrations, spiking ethnic tensions, not to mention the murderous checkpoints, all while U.S. forces do . . . nothing.

    For the first six months I was in country, sectarian violence was classified as an “Iraqi on Iraqi” crime. Division didn’t want to hear about it. And, in a sense I can understand why. Because division realized that which the Iraqi people have come to realize: The American forces cannot protect them. We are too few in number and our mission is “stability and support.” The problem is that there’s nothing to give stability and support to. We hollowed out the Baathist regime, and we hastily set up this provisional government, thrusting political responsibility on a host of unknowns, each with his own political agenda, most funded by Iran, and we’re seeing the results.

    In Germany after World War II, we controlled our sector with approximately 500,000 troops, directly administering the area for 10 years while we rebuilt the country and rebuilt the social and political infrastructure needed to run it. In Iraq, we’ve got one-third that number of troops dealing with three times the population on a much faster timetable, and we’re attempting to unify three distinct ethnic groups with no national interest and at least three outside influences (Saudi Arabian Wahhabists, Iranian mullahs and Syrian Baathists) each eagerly funding various groups in an attempt to see us fail. And we are.

    If we continue on as is in Iraq, we will leave here (sooner or later) with a fractured state, a Rwanda-waiting-to-happen. “Stay the course” and refusing to admit that we’re screwing things up is already killing a lot of people needlessly. Following through with such inane nonstrategy is going to be the death knell for hundreds of thousands of Sunnis.

    We need to backtrack. We need to publicly admit we’re backtracking. This is the opening battle of the ideological struggle of the 21st century. We cannot afford to lose it because of political inconveniences. Reassert direct administration, put 400,000 to 500,000 American troops on the ground, disband most of the current Iraqi police and retrain and reindoctrinate the Iraqi army until it becomes a military that’s fighting for a nation, not simply some sect or faction. Reassure the Iraqi people that we’re going to provide them security and then follow through. Disarm the nation: Sunnis, Shias, militia groups, everyone. Issue national ID cards to everyone and control the movement of the population.

    If these three things are done, you can actually start the Iraqi economy again. Once people have a sense of security, they’ll be able to leave their houses to go to work. Tell your American commanders that it’s OK to pass up bad news–because part of the problem is that these issues are not reaching above the battalion or brigade level due to the can-do, make-it-happen culture indoctrinated into our U.S. officers. While the attitude is admirable, it also creates barriers to recognizing and dealing with on-the-ground realities.

    James, there’s a lot more to this than I’ve written here. The short of it is, the situation is salvageable, but not with “stay the course” and certainly not with cut and run. However, the commitment required to save it is something I doubt the American public is willing to swallow. I just don’t see the current administration with the political capital remaining in order to properly motivate and convince the American public (or the West in general) of the necessity of these actions.

    At the same time, failure in Iraq would be worse than a dozen Somalias, and would render us as impotent and emasculated as we were in the days after Vietnam. There is a global cultural-ideological struggle being waged, and abdication from Iraq is tantamount to concession.

  14. cian says:


    Thanks for this. Hugely impressive, but highly unlikely that anyone in a position of power will listen. ‘Fiasco’ and ‘Cobra II’ showed just how difficult it was, and probably still is, for those charged with conducting the war to speak the truth.

    General Shinseki springs to mind. His testimony before the Senate Armed Service committee was not only ridiculed by Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, but he was forced to take early retirement.

    Hopefully the writer of this letter to James left it unsigned. This is not an honest administration and as such, does not appreciate honesty.