Monday, December 04, 2006

The One You Serve

I recently critiqued Mark Moyar's dubious suggestion that we should look to former Vietnamese strongman Ngo Dinh Diem as a model for Iraqi leaders and, relatedly, examine how the US might learn from the Diem affair in order to better assist and coordinate with Diem's modern Iraqi counterparts. Although Moyar's piece was rife with questionable analysis, there was one line that really stuck out:

In Vietnam as in Iraq, the only strong force not beholden to the sects was the army...

Reading Moyar's statement in a generous light, it could be argued, plausibly, that the local police forces and internal security forces throughout Iraq are more brazenly sectarian than the Iraqi army. The fact that the police/security forces are worse than the army on this front, however, does not justify the claim that the army is not "beholden" to ulterior interests. The track record for each, and current trends, are abysmal.

These ethnic/sectarian cleavages were as predictable as they were inevitable (in the latter case, at least after the hasty decision to disband the Iraqi army was made). There were frightening reports of hardened, and zealous, partisanship in the nascent Iraqi army circulating over a year ago - some of which I discussed during a guest stint at Belgravia Dispatch.

In addition, there were structural factors that made this type of ethnic/sectarian polarization almost inescapable unless accounted for. There was a dangerous mixture of urgency in Bush administration circles to field an army, and concomittant inattention to the manner in which such a task was accomplished. But the method of putting together an Iraqi army was ultimately as important, if not moreso, as the task of actually forming an army in the first place.

Stephen Biddle was quite informative on this latter point (more on American Footprints here and here). According to Biddle, the problem with the "Iraqization" approach of fielding a native army as undertaken by the Bush administration was that that it was too closely patterned after the "Vietnamization model" - yet the underlying conflicts are fundamentally different [emphasis mine throughout]:

Unfortunately, the parallel does not hold. A Maoist people's war is, at bottom, a struggle for good governance between a class-based insurgency claiming to represent the interests of the oppressed public and a ruling regime portrayed by the insurgents as defending entrenched privilege....

Communal civil wars, in contrast, feature opposing subnational groups divided along ethnic or sectarian lines; they are not about universal class interests or nationalist passions. In such situations, even the government is typically an instrument of one communal group, and its opponents champion the rights of their subgroup over those of others.... [...]

The biggest problem with treating Iraq like Vietnam is Iraqization -- the main component of the current U.S. military strategy. In a people's war, handing the fighting off to local forces makes sense because it undermines the nationalist component of insurgent resistance, improves the quality of local intelligence, and boosts troop strength. But in a communal civil war, it throws gasoline on the fire. Iraq's Sunnis perceive the "national" army and police force as a Shiite-Kurdish militia on steroids. And they have a point: in a communal conflict, the only effective units are the ones that do not intermingle communal enemies. (Because the U.S. military does not keep data on the ethnic makeup of the Iraqi forces, the number of Sunnis in these organizations is unknown and the effectiveness of mixed units cannot be established conclusively....) Sunni populations are unlikely to welcome protection provided by their ethnic or sectarian rivals; to them, the defense forces look like agents of a hostile occupation. And the more threatened the Sunnis feel, the more likely they are to fight back even harder. The bigger, stronger, better trained, and better equipped the Iraqi forces become, the worse the communal tensions that underlie the whole conflict will get.

And so, contra Mark Moyar, this skewed process is yielding the predicted results: homogenous units that serve communal interests other than those of an enlightened nationalism. From Hannah Allam reporting for McClatchey:

The overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim military force at the forefront of U.S. and Iraqi plans to secure one of the nation's most fractious provinces is accused of arresting hundreds of Sunni men on little or no evidence, threatening to rape a suspect's wife to coerce a confession, and intimidating its commander's critics, according to interviews with Iraqi and U.S. officials.

Backed by U.S. troops, the Iraqi Army's 5th Division on Saturday launched a new offensive to rout suspected al-Qaida-allied terrorists from Baquba, the capital of a province infested with Sunni insurgents, Shiite militias, warring tribes and criminal gangs.

While a U.S. military statement said the weekend operation shows the "commitment of Iraqi army officers and soldiers to protect and secure the people," local residents and Sunni leaders point to the Iraqi division's track record as one of the chief problems plaguing the restive Diyala province north of Baghdad.

Brig. Gen. Shakir Hulayl al-Kaabi, commander of the division, oversees a mostly Shiite force in an area where at least half the population is Sunni. The American officers who previously worked with him have been reported as saying they tried to have him removed for refusing orders and acting on a sectarian agenda. Sunni leaders say his men are waging a campaign of collective punishment because of vicious Sunni insurgent attacks against Shiites and U.S.-led forces.

Despite the laundry list of accusations against al-Kaabi, the Shiite-led government in Baghdad keeps promoting him. With U.S. forces planning to hand over full military control of Diyala and other provinces this spring, the experience of the 5th Division is viewed by many as a harbinger of deep troubles to come as American troops gradually move on.

As Biddle predicted, the presence of such a fighting force is actually worsening communal tensions:

"This will just lead to more provocations and confrontations between the 5th Division and the existing groups," said Salim al-Jubouri, a Sunni law professor who represents Diyala in the Iraqi parliament. [...]

Sunni residents and politicians say the case [of a Sunni man who was tortured and threatened with the rape of his wife] wasn't the first time their concerns have been brushed aside. For months, they've complained that elements of the 5th Division are more loyal to Shiite militias such as the Mahdi Army and Badr Brigade than to the Iraqi military. Among their grievances: the 5th Division's alleged use of death squads to eliminate political rivals; the mass arrests of Sunnis who were later released uncharged and the refusal to recruit Saddam Hussein-era officers into the 5th Division.

Elsewhere (via Kevin Drum), reports of predominately Shiite army divisions don't tell the same story of partisan heavy-handedness. On the contrary, these units were simply unable to perform in the heat of battle, despite attempts to portray progress on these fronts:

The offensive was initially billed by U.S. officials in Baghdad as an Iraqi-led success and a case study in support of the Pentagon's increasing reliance on using American troops as military advisors as a way to shift security responsibilities to Iraqi soldiers.

....But interviews at their joint Rustamiya base with U.S. advisors and Iraqi soldiers involved in Friday's battle revealed a different story. The operation was hastily prepared and badly executed, they said, and plans to let the Iraqis take the lead in the battle were quickly scrapped.

"It started out that way," [Staff Sgt. Michael] Baxter said. "But five minutes into it, we had to take over."

Presumably, though, training and other instruction could correct these lapses in performance. Like Kevin, though, what concerned me more was this statement:

Most soldiers in the 9th division, for example, are Shiites, and U.S. and Iraqi officers said they doubted the troops would obey if ordered to fight in Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad such as Sadr City.

If Shiite units will only fight Sunnis, and no Shiite units will fight Shiites (and vice versa - with Kurdish permutations considered as well), then by definition the Iraqi army will be "beholden to sect" and ethnicity. This will serve to splinter the country and intensify the civil war, rather than calm it down.

This will twist Bush's favorite slogan to read: As they stand up, Iraq goes down.

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