Out Of The Nest

James Kitfield, author of the classic Prodigal Soldiers, has an interesting piece in this week’s National Journal on the efforts to build a professional Iraqi security force. Given recent events, it’s no surprise that there are some major problems. What is surprising is that there does seem to be real progress as well.

Logistical problems like this are amazing, although they probably shouldn’t be:

Although the U.S. chain of command in Iraq had equipped front-line Iraqi corps members with AK-47 automatic rifles — many of them hand-me-downs seized in raids — Iraqi enlisted personnel are not allowed to take the rifles home, and some officers refuse to carry them off-duty for fear of being marked as U.S. collaborators. As the brutal murder and mutilation of four American contractors in Falluja on March 31 drove home yet again, the label of American collaborator, in Iraq in the spring of 2004, can carry a death sentence.

After talking with Mahmood, Tancrel once again beseeched the American supply chain to give him some pistols for the Iraqi corps members. But his efforts went for naught. The U.S. supply chain is already overburdened with the task of equipping its own forces with flak vests and armored Humvees for the counterinsurgency war in Iraq, let alone outfitting roughly 200,000 Iraqi security forces hired in just the past year. *** Critical equipment that the Iraqi corps needs to conduct even rudimentary missions is only starting to trickle in. Because of a contract dispute, the 302nd has been waiting for months to get tactical radios, and only in the coming weeks are its first trucks expected to arrive. Most [Iraqi Civil Defense Corps] soldiers get by with a single well-worn uniform.

“We’re telling the ICDC they are absolutely the main effort in terms of the coalition transferring security duties back to the Iraqis, but because no one anticipated all of these details and demands in advance, we can’t even arm or equip them properly yet,” Tancrel said. “Meanwhile, we’re all constantly looking at the sand clock running out, and rushing the ICDC to meet unrealistic goals. Sometimes, it makes me nuts.”

We occasionally have trouble outfitting our own troops and, certainly, snafus in the supply chain occur from time-to-time. But it’s not as if battle dress uniforms and pistols are exotic items; one would think they’d be easily procured even on the second hand market.

This is, of course, a problem noted here and elsewhere previously:

“If we stay here indefinitely, and continue to change all the lightbulbs in this country, the Iraqis will allow us to do so — and increasingly resent us for it at the same time,” said a senior U.S. military officer in Iraq. “That’s the nature of the schizophrenic relationship between the West and the Arabian Peninsula.”

***

The Iraqi security organizations left shouldering the burden of security as U.S. forces pull back are many and varied. They include a police force that numbers 74,000 and is focused on street crime; new border-control and facilities-protection forces that together number 92,000; a new Iraqi army, which now has 3,000 of its planned 40,000 troops and which is responsible for deterring external threats; and the ICDC, a paramilitary force of 34,000 on its way up to 40,000, which was originally envisioned as a sort of Iraqi National Guard, but which increasingly is seen as Iraq’s primary counter-terrorism, counterinsurgency force.

“Our schedule for building up and transferring security responsibilities to Iraqi forces is aggressive, but no one anticipates that on July 1, we’ll suddenly just turn it all over to the Iraqis,” Scaparrotti said. The 1st Armored Division continually assesses the progress of the new Iraqi corps in particular, he says, to ensure that it can meet certain standards before it fully assumes the counter-terrorism mission. “We’ll make sure they are ready before we send them out to meet the enemy. If we stay the course, I’m optimistic that this is the best way to build a capable Iraqi force in the shortest amount of time,” he said. “Frankly, I don’t know of another way to do it.”

Nor do I. But it’s a precarious balancing act.

[T]he coalition’s campaign to recruit so many Iraqi police officers so fast on the heels of the demise of Saddam’s brutal reign has inevitably led to the infiltration of police ranks by thugs and terrorists. That was made abundantly clear in early March, when four Iraqi police officers were Tarrested in connection with the ambush and murder of two U.S. officials and their interpreters. Meanwhile, in the town of Kufa on April 4, much of the U.S.-trained police force reportedly joined the side of Moktada al-Sadr’s militias in a firefight with coalition forces.

Although the coalition still plans to hire an additional 25,000 police in the coming year, Bremer recently signaled his frustrations with a police recruiting drive that is already operating well beyond its capacity to vet and adequately train new police.

“There is no way to speed [this process] up,” Bremer told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “It’s going to take another year, and we just have to be honest about that. The key is to have professional police, not just to add people who aren’t trained. Many of these people who are already in the police force are corrupt, they don’t understand human rights, and some of them are engaging in attacks on the coalition. We’re not going to bring in any more untrained police,” Bremer insisted. “It’s not going to happen.”

While much of the public ire and media heat has been directed at the Iraqi police, the focus of U.S. military commanders in Iraq remains on the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps. The Americans concede that the ICDC also confronts problems in terms of weeding out numerous bad seeds from Saddam’s regime. However, U.S. commanders view the Iraqi corps, more than any other Iraqi security force, as the best hope for countering the insurgency that stands as the single most potent threat to Iraq’s future.

In the words of one senior U.S. commander in Baghdad, “I’m going to keep briefing the importance of the ICDC to our plans because, ultimately, these guys are our ticket out of here.”

A sobering thought.

Finally, though, there are hopeful signs:

Sgt. Maj. Joseph Hall, a 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division senior noncommissioned officer, has spent months living, eating, and training with the 302nd Battalion of the Iraqi corps. He helps explain why U.S. commanders in Iraq have been most impressed by the rapid progress and growing esprit de corps of the ICDC, among all the Iraqi security forces.

Originally envisioned as a small facilities-protection force, the ICDC is the only Iraqi force that is vetted, trained, and mentored by staff and former drill sergeants of the U.S. and British militaries. Iraqi corps members are then stationed at coalition “forward operating bases,” where they get their operational feet wet alongside the U.S. and other coalition militaries.

The result, say U.S. commanders, is a force that is increasingly adopting the attributes of a professional army. “After seven months with us, the ICDC are beginning to take on the attitudes and mannerisms of the U.S. military,” said Hall, a wiry man with a manner reminiscent of a kindly but stern high school football coach. “You can see it in the way they snap to, whenever a U.S. sergeant walks by. These guys are like sponges, and they are very much modeling themselves after us.”

A tour of the 302nd Battalion supports this view. Following Hall as he walks among his Iraqi charges, you realize that this is what the U.S. Army does as well as any other organization in the world — take young men and women out of school and off the streets, and turn them into soldiers.

At one point Hall calls over “Abdul,” an utterly determined-looking ICDC soldier who says he joined the corps to fight “the bad men who come here to take advantage of our vulnerability,” adding that he is not afraid of the constant threats against the ICDC from shadowy insurgents. “It would be an honor to die fighting to protect my family and country. Someone has to be willing to protect our people.”

Hall also points out “Ali,” a young ICDC soldier who was very nearly thrown out of basic training for continually screwing up, before his comrades banded together and asked that he be allowed to stay if they would help and vouch for him.

“As a sergeant major, I got kind of misty-eyed at the cohesion that revealed,” admits Hall. “I got the same feeling when we first unfurled their company flags and colors, and you could see the realization on their faces that they belonged to something now. There was real happiness on their faces that day that you can’t fake, because for many of these people, this outfit represents the most important accomplishment of their lives.”

As long as this post is, there’s much more in the article. It’s worth a read.

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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 and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.