Iraqi Army "years away" from independence

On two consecutive days, the New York Times has put forth arguments for the US to relax its expectations for a withdrawal of forces from Iraq.  Yesterday, Brookings Institute scholar Michael O’Hanlon joined Stephen Biddle and Kenneth Pollack in explaining the need for an extended American commitment after returning from their latest visit from Iraq.  Today, Campbell Robertson reports that the Iraqi Army has confidence in its ability to battle insurgents and militias, but is “years away” from being able to defend its borders against another army.

O’Hanlon et al say much the same thing:

The Iraqi security forces are simply not yet able to operate effectively without United States air support, combat advisers and help with logistics and intelligence. When Iraqi units with no American embeds tried to take the port city of Basra last spring, they were turned back in mass confusion, and it required United States combat help to save the day.

American combat troops are also critical for political progress in Iraq. There has been real political change in Iraq — but less from the grand bargains imagined by many Americans and more through thousands of informal, local decisions by war-weary groups and individuals opting to put the past behind them. The pressure from this “bottom up” process has also translated into top-down progress. Over the past year the Iraqis have passed critical amnesty, de-Baathification and provincial-powers laws, as well as a federal budget — all of which had been previously seen as hopelessly deadlocked.

But to capitalize on this progress the next two rounds of elections — provincial races this fall and a national contest next year — must go smoothly and be seen as legitimate. The elections will create losers as well as winners, breeding a grave risk of instability in an immature polity. American combat troops are needed to protect polling places from terrorism, and even more important, from voter intimidation, fraud and the perception that the results were rigged.

The American forces have begun a tough-love campaign, as Robertson puts it, to get the Iraqi Army to act independently on their own.  US forces have at times withheld logistical and tactical support to build self-confidence among their Iraqi partners.  That training helps, but there are cultural differences that keep flexibility low and therefore impacts that kind of training:

While Americans and Iraqi civilians alike are increasingly eager to see combat operations turned over to the Iraqi Army, interviews with more than a dozen Iraqi soldiers and officers in Diyala Province, at the outset of a large-scale operation against insurgents led by Iraqis but backed by Americans, reveal a military confident of its progress but unsure of its readiness.

The army has made huge leaps forward, most of the soldiers agreed, and can hold its own in battles with the insurgency with little or no American support. But almost all said the time when the Iraqi Army can stand alone as a national defense force is still years away. …

[A] major problem is lack of direction and coordination from higher levels [of the Iraqi Army].

That is to be expected in a young army being built from the ground up, particularly because the higher ranks are filled with veterans of Saddam Hussein’s rigid command structure.

“When you grow up in a very regimented system the lower you go, the easier it is to train,” said Lt. Col. Tony Aguto, an officer with the Second Stryker Cavalry Regiment, the main American force in the Diyala operation. “As you go up, it gets more difficult.”

Americans do not comprehend the difficulties in creating an army from scratch, which complicates not just our perception of Iraq but also Afghanistan, where we’re also building an army from nothing.  It takes years, and more likely decades, to instill a stable military culture — and when replacing a tyrant like Saddam Hussein, it takes years to unlearn the rigid, inflexible thinking that survival required.  The US has to do both at the same time, and it will take a long time to develop the kind of commanders who can effectively lead an army in battle independent of leadership from the US.

If we pull out too soon, we will not just leave an army leadership stuck in amber, either.  Poor leadership will beget bad morale and eventually rebellion.  That will leave Iraq vulnerable to its neighbors, and with neighbors like Syria and Iran, that’s a deadly outcome.  It will also create a center of instability within Iraq where the army might decide to play politics, or become factionalized all over again.

We have to remain as long as it takes to ensure the Iraqi Army develops into stable and proper independence — and we still have to help rebuild the Iraqi Air Force and Iraqi Navy as well.  With casualties dropping to almost nothing, the commitment should be easily shouldered, and the benefits should be apparent to anyone with their eyes open at this point.  Only obstinacy could cloud judgment now — and if the New York Times can get over that, so can Barack Obama and the Democrats.