Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Stand Up, Sit Down

The Few, The Proud

Most discussions about Iraq, and our eventual ability to withdraw troops from the area, center around the achievement of certain milestones. The elections last January were one such benchmark, the constitutional referendum another, and in December there will be a second round of elections which hold the promise of actual Sunni involvement. While each of these steps forward are encouraging on their own, and hopefully each is contributing to an overall positive momentum, the most important indicia of our ability to withdraw substantial numbers of troops in good conscience remains the stability of the nation of Iraq and that country's ability to quell the various insurgencies and form a cohesive and inclusive state.

Despite increasing calls by politicians on both sides of the aisle, I do not believe we should withdraw our troops until it is clear (as close as possible) that a full blown civil war will not erupt in our absence, that the nation of Iraq will not fragment into sub-states (possibly failed states) and/or that the country will not be overrun by foreign elements. It is our ability to forestall such a large scale civil war and breaking up of the country that is the most compelling argument for the continued presence of our armed forces - en masse. This rationale does not necessarily subside because a constitution has been approved or an elected assembly is sworn in. In too many ways, they are not as dependent on each other as we would like.

One of the factors often referred to as helping to create the environment of stability needed is the formation of an Iraqi Army. As Bush is fond of saying, "As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down." But if our interest is truly staving off a larger civil war, and preventing the fragmentation of the nation, then we should reconsider what lies behind that simple edict. It is not enough to "stand up" an Iraqi army. We must pay attention to the kind of Iraqi army we are helping to form or we might in fact be engaging in a counterproductive exercise - in the process, we could be unwittingly helping to bring about the very scenarios we hope most to avoid. Allow me to explain.

First of all, we need to be careful of the quality and type of soldiers we recruit (an obvious statement, but easier said than done). Dr. Morton Halperin, writing at Democracy Arsenal, discusses some of the historic lessons from Vietnam and how they relate to our current efforts in Iraq. According to Halperin, the process of forming the South Vietnamese army was plagued by three slightly different phenomena (familiar to our current predicament). First:

In Vietnam we learned after it was over that about one third of those we armed and trained were actually in the Viet Cong Army. This meant surprise operations were impossible and a significant part of our force was actually on the other side. There is every reason to believe that this is true now in Iraq.

In Vietnam, another roughly one third of the trainees in the Republic of Vietnam's army (ARVN) would quickly take the weapons they were given and sell them on the black market. In Iraq we again see signs of the same thing with large desertion levels and US weapons showing up in insurgency hands.
And third:

The remaining ARVN troops, neither secretly the enemy or ready to desert and sell what they had been given, were in it for the pay and for the prestige and the opportunity to plunder. It was no wonder that despite years of training and the provision of equipment far superior to the enemy the ARVN was never capable of winning either the guerrilla war or the full scale battles that marked the final stages of the conflict. This was not for lack of training but for lack of commitment.
As Halperin points out, the Iraqis don't necessarily need training as much as motivation and loyalty. The various militias, for example, fight quite well without deserting even though they lack the advantage of superior equipment and advanced tactical instruction. What they do have is commitment and loyalty in spades. The task, and it's a daunting one, is to field an Iraqi army made up of soldiers that are highly motivated, committed to the larger purpose (not just looking for a paycheck), and that owe their allegiance first and foremost to the Iraqi nation - and not to one or more ethnic, sectarian or tribal groups. Given these lofty standards (made less accessible by the polarizing effect of sectarian/ethnic violence), it is easy to understand how the number of stand alone battalions has gone from three to one. This article on the state of the recruitment and training of Iraq's police forces, written by a captain in the US Army, highlights many of the same impediments flagged by Halperin vis a vis the army.

You and Whose Army?

The other big concern in administering this process is that the eventual army be composed of more than just Shiites and Kurds. As mentioned above, conflicting loyalties being what they are, if there is not enough of a Sunni presence in the new Iraqi army it becomes more likely that the institution will become a vehicle of certain factions to the exclusion and detriment of others. Garrisoning Shiites and Kurds in Sunni regions is likely to escalate, not defuse, tensions. Put simply, we could be funding, training and equipping one or two parts of a three way civil war and making that outcome more likely by putting sparks nearer the tinderbox. Tom Lasseter, writing for Knight Ridder, offers an invaluable look at just how problematic the issue of split loyalties in the new Iraqi army really is.
The Bush administration's exit strategy for Iraq rests on two pillars: an inclusive, democratic political process that includes all major ethnic groups and a well-trained Iraqi national army. But a week spent eating, sleeping and going on patrol with a crack unit of the Iraqi army - the 4,500-member 1st Brigade of the 6th Iraqi Division - suggests that the strategy is in serious trouble. Instead of rising above the ethnic tension that's tearing their nation apart, the mostly Shiite troops are preparing for, if not already fighting, a civil war against the minority Sunni population.
Lasseter moves from the general to the specific, discussing the case of Swadi Ghilan whose two sons and daughter were brutally gunned down in broad daylight by what were most likely Sunni insurgents.
Ghilan is a major in the Iraqi army and a Shiite Muslim, the sect that makes up some 60 percent of Iraq's population. Now, more than ever, the grieving father says he wants to hunt down and kill not only Sunni guerrilla fighters but also Sunnis who give those fighters shelter and support. By that, he means killing most Sunnis in Iraq.

"There are two Iraqs; it's something that we can no longer deny," Ghilan said. "The army should execute the Sunnis in their neighborhoods so that all of them can see what happens, so that all of them learn their lesson."

Ghilan's army unit is responsible for security in western Baghdad, where many Sunnis live. But the soldiers are overwhelmingly Shiite, and, like Ghilan, they're seeking revenge against the Sunnis who oppressed them during Saddam Hussein's rule.
In defense of Ghilan, and his comrades, the Shiites have undoubtedly suffered much in the past at the hands of Saddam's regime and continue to suffer to this day as the insurgencies rage. But if civil war is to be averted, we must find some means of controlling these all-too-human impulses. Creating mixed units would, hopefully, be one way to achieve this. If not, Shiite units could run roughshod over Sunni regions driving more and more into the ranks of the insurgencies (thus creating a downward spiral of violence). Unfortunately, recruiting Sunnis has been difficult, despite the laudable intentions of the American forces.
A senior U.S. military official in Baghdad familiar with Iraqi army operations said American officers are concerned about the lack of Sunnis in the Iraqi forces and have started a massive recruiting campaign. In the past three months, some 4,000 Sunnis have been recruited and are undergoing training, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

"We never intended to create a Shiite army," the official said. "Clearly, one of our number one concerns going forward ... is sectarianism ... that revenge mentality."
Nevertheless, as Lasseter points out, "American commanders often refer to the 1st Brigade as a template for the future of Iraq's military," further, "It's one of the rare Iraqi units with a command competent at the brigade level, instead of just smaller company or battalion-based units." This is troubling because, upon closer inspection, this is not exactly the type of unit that would embody the spirit of loyalty to a larger Iraq and ability to transcend the ethnic/sectarian divides needed to head off the potential disaster looming on the horizon. In fact, there is an unsettling relationship between non-governmental religious figures and military personnel - an unhinging of civilian, governmental control of the armed forces which is a linchpin of most successful democracies.
The Iraqi troops consult with American advisers daily. On big raids in dangerous areas, the Americans often take the lead with their superior firepower.

But day to day, the Iraqi officers mostly run their own show, carrying out most of the patrols and running checkpoints without help. Increasingly, however, they look and operate less like an Iraqi national army unit and more like a Shiite militia.

Shwail, the 1st brigade's top officer, regularly reviews important decisions, including troop distribution, with a prominent local Shiite cleric who's closely aligned with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top Shiite religious figure in Iraq.

The brigade and its sectarian leanings has alarmed not only Sunnis in the area but also other Iraqi military commanders.

They said they worry that a mostly Shiite military unit will follow religious clerics before national leaders, risking a breakdown in the army along sectarian lines.

"It is a mistake," said Col. Fadhil al-Barawary, the Kurdish commander of the Iraqi army's commando battalion, housed on the same base with the 1st Brigade. "The danger is that when there is strife between Sunnis and Shiites in the neighborhoods it creates problems" with loyalties.

Barawary continued: "It's a total mistake to have soldiers taking orders from the marja'iya. It puts us all in danger." Barawary was referring to the ruling council of Shiite clerics, whose word is law for most Shiites in Iraq.
Predictably, this brigade, comprised of Shiites taking cues from religious leaders, is prone to view the current struggle in sectarian terms (rightly or wrongly), which doesn't bode well for those that insist that as we fill in the ranks of an Iraqi army, we can withdraw from the region. An army like this might actually increase the chances of civil war, rather than provide stability and a sense of nationalism.
The brigade last week raided the home of Saleh al-Mutlak, one of the most prominent Sunni politicians in the country, a day after an Iraqi soldier was shot and killed in the neighborhood. Soldiers said some gunfire had come from the direction of Mutlak's house during the raid on his neighborhood.

Arab satellite news stations carried images of a car with its windows smashed in Mutlak's driveway, and Mutlak held a news conference, saying that the soldiers who came into his home were thugs.

Sgt. Maj. Asad al-Zubaidi said Mutlak was lucky he wasn't shot.

"When we are in charge of security the people will follow a law that says you will be sentenced to prison if you speak against the government, and for people like Saleh Mutlak there will be execution," Zubaidi said. "Thousands of people are being killed by Saleh Mutlak and these dogs."
Other soldiers from the brigade reacted to the shooting of one from their ranks in a Sunni neighborhood:
"Even if you people, you Sunnis, roll tanks on our heads we will not give this country back to you," Mousawi said. "It's ours now."

Two days after the shooting, Sgt. Ahmed Sabri stood outside the Umm al Qura mosque, home to the militant Sunni Muslim Scholars Association. The mosque is just down the road from where Jabar was shot.

"Every man we've had killed and wounded is because of that mosque. Thousands and thousands of Shiites are being killed, which is why they're joining the army," Sabri said. "Just let us have our constitution and elections in December and then we will do what Saddam did - start with five people from each neighborhood and kill them in the streets and then go from there."

Asked if he worried about possible fighting between his men and the Sunnis at Umm al Qura, the brigade's command sergeant major, Hassan Kadhum, smiled.

"Your country had to have a civil war," he said. "It will be the same here. Everything in this world has its price. In Iraq the price for peace will be blood."

Kadhum thought the matter over for a few more moments.

"There will be a day when we take that mosque and make it an army headquarters," Kadhum said.
Adding another layer to this conundrum, some of the troops in this brigade even indicated a willingness, if not latent desire, to turn on American forces if and when their religious leaders so instruct them:
Some Iraqi troops went a step further, saying they were only awaiting word from the marja'iya before turning on American forces. Although many Shiites are grateful for the overthrow of Saddam, they also are suspicious of U.S. motives. Those suspicions partly stem from the failure of the first Bush administration to support a U.S.-encouraged Shiite uprising against Saddam in 1991. Saddam suppressed it and slaughtered thousands.

"In Amariyah last week, a car bomb hit a U.S. Humvee and their soldiers began to shoot randomly. They killed a lot of innocent civilians. I was there; I saw it," said Sgt. Fadhal Yahan. "This happens all the time. If they keep doing this, the people will attack them. And we are part of the people."

Sgt. Jawad Majid chimed in: "We have our marja'iya and we are waiting for them to decide when the time to fight (the Americans) is, when it is no longer time to be silent." [emphasis added throughout]
It should go without saying that there are no easy solutions to this and so many of the other problems hampering our efforts in Iraq. Forging an army that represents all factions in Iraq (consisting of well-intentioned and motivated recruits) and one capable of rising above the continuous violence perpetrated primarily by certain sectarian factions (the Sunnis overwhelmingly initially, but that is changing) in order to maintain a sense of duty and loyalty to the larger nation will be enormously difficult. Frequent setbacks and recalibrations should be expected.

But much hangs in the balance, so getting this right is worth the political capital, wherewithal, time, resources and effort necessary to see it through. If the interest of creating an Iraqi army and police force as a fig leaf for our exit supersedes the interest of establishing a functional and representative version of each, we may be doing worse than wasting our time. We could be actively working against our stated goals. That is no way to avoid a wide ranging civil war that could easily morph into regional war.

(Cross-posted at Belgravia Dispatch)

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