Tuesday, August 07, 2007

I'm the Only One to Get Back Your Stolen Guns

So while I was away conducting my on the scene investigation of the phenomenon known as "pub life" in London (from a strictly academic vantage point I assure you), an interesting news item surfaced concerning the fact that the Pentagon has lost track of roughly 190,000 guns intended to arm and equip the Iraqi security forces. Some details for those who, like me, haven't been paying close attention to the news in recent days.
The Pentagon has lost track of about 190,000 AK-47 assault rifles and pistols given to Iraqi security forces in 2004 and 2005, according to a new government report, raising fears that some of those weapons have fallen into the hands of insurgents fighting U.S. forces in Iraq.

The author of the report from the Government Accountability Office says U.S. military officials do not know what happened to 30 percent of the weapons the United States distributed to Iraqi forces from 2004 through early this year as part of an effort to train and equip the troops. The highest previous estimate of unaccounted-for weapons was 14,000, in a report issued last year by the inspector general for Iraq reconstruction.
While it is tempting to view this episode as yet another example of the persistent incompetence that has become the hallmark of the Bush administration's tenure, it is important to recognize that such setbacks flow almost inevitably from the nature of the conflict from which they originate. The simple explanation is that when you are occupying a country whose population is by and large indifferent to, hostile to and/or violently resisting your presence, while simultaneously fragmented along bloody internal fault lines, it is nearly impossible to forge a large military/police force that doesn't exhibit the the same characteristics of the population from which it was drawn.

To paraphrase Rumsfeld, you build an army with the population you have, not the population you wished you had. The constituent factions of Iraq's population have their own interests, objectives, strategies and concerns - most of which do not coincide with the occupying powers (this should not come as a surprise, and yet...). The recruits filling out the ranks of the Iraqi armed forces reflect this mosaic, and preclude the formation of what we would view as a nationalistic, unified, efficient and motivated force. We've been in this position before, and many of these events should be sounding familiar to those that have been paying attention.

For example, almost a full two years ago (around the time of the insurgency's "Last Throes" - though two years after "Mission Accomplished"), Morton Halperin recounted the key shortcomings associated with our army-building attempts in Vietnam, and what those experiences should tell us about the feasibility of our current project (cited in a guest post I wrote on Belgravia Dispatch).
First we need to ask who we are recruiting. Those involved in the screening process admit that is is very hard to do. The question is not whether the person has a criminal background but rather to whom he (or she) gives loyalty. 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. There is no foolproof way to screen for insurgents [ed note: actually, I think a mere 30% infiltration rate would delight many of our commanders as the actual number is likely much worse - at least when using G'Kar's definition of "insurgents"].

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. 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....others lacked the incentive to fight since they lacked an allegiance which is the bedrock of campaign effectiveness.

So in Iraq we put much of our faith and our hope in the process of training the Iraqi Army. The unstated assumption is that Iraqi men do not know how to fight and if only exposed to western methods will be able to deal with the insurgency. Even sharp critics of the war call for better and more training as if it would provide a way out. The unexamined but false assumptions behind this policy are monumental.

Start with the question of who needs training. The insurgents clearly do not. Nor do the various militias who have challenged the government from time to time and are clearly better fighting units than the Iraqi army units we have trained. The militias guarding the various Iraqi leaders, including the President and Prime Minister, are effective fighting forces. None of them requires US air power or embedded allied forces to fight effectively. The insight is simple: Many Iraqis know how to fight and will do so when they are led by leaders to whom they have a clear allegiance. The United States and the vague notion of a unified Iraqi government is not sufficient. [emphasis added throughout]
To reiterate: Halperin's gloomy analysis - which has proven to be extremely accurate, if overly optimistic in some instances - was offered nearly two years ago. It is well past time to make concessions to reality, the limits of human nature and an intractable dynamic that is impervious to our attempts to affect it (assuming our motives are pure or at least benevolent). Making such a sober, objective and informed assessment is what "serious" foreign policy thinkers should be doing. After that, actual policy should be adjusted accordingly without the never-ending abdication of responsibility embodied by the plea for "six more months" of a doomed endeavor (this would likely occur in the next administration, if we are lucky, I realize).

Leaving behind a contingent of troops to continue training an army - and an even larger troop presence to protect and re-supply such trainers - under the current circumstances is little more than a stubborn continuance of folly. Tragically, the operative aspects of those "circumstances" aren't going to change the longer we stick around bleeding lives, treasure and prestige.

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