News Analysis: Iraqi Army numbers don't add up

Posted in United States , Iraq | 25-Oct-06 | Author: Michael Gordon| Source: International Herald Tribune

Gen. George W. Casey Jr., with Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, offered a time frame yesterday for turning Iraqi security over to the Iraqis.
BAGHDAD In trying to build support for the American strategy in Iraq, General George Casey Jr. said Tuesday that the Iraqi military could be expected to take over the primary responsibility for securing the country within 12 to 18 months.

But that laudable goal seems far removed from the violence-plagued streets of Iraq's capital, where American forces have taken the lead in trying to protect the city and American soldiers substantially outnumber Iraqi ones.

Given the rise in sectarian killings, a Sunni-based insurgency that appears to be as potent as ever and an Iraqi security establishment that continues to have difficulties deploying sufficient numbers of motivated and proficient forces in Baghdad, Casey's target seems to be an increasingly heroic assumption.

On paper, Iraq has substantial security forces. The Pentagon noted in an August report to Congress that Iraq had more than 277,000 troops and police officers, including some 115,000 army combat soldiers.

But those figures, which have often been cited at Pentagon news conferences as an indicator of progress and a potential exit strategy for American troops, paint a distorted picture. When the deep-seated reluctance of many soldiers to serve outside their home regions, leaves of absence and AWOL rates are taken into account, only a portion of the Iraqi Army is readily available for duty in Baghdad and other hot spots.

The fact that the Ministry of Defense has sent only two of the six additional battalions that American commanders have requested for Baghdad speaks volumes about the difficulty the Iraqi government has encountered in fielding a professional military. The four battalions that American commanders are still waiting for is equivalent to 2,800 soldiers, hardly a large commitment in the abstract but one that the Iraqis are still struggling to meet.

From the start, Casey's broader strategy for Iraq has been premised on the optimistic assumption that Iraqi forces could soon substitute for American ones. In February 2005, Casey noted that in the year ahead the United States would begin to "transfer the counterinsurgency mission to the increasingly capable Iraqi security forces across Iraq."

In June 2006, Casey submitted a confidential plan to the White House projecting American troop withdrawals that would begin in September 2006 and which, conditions permitting, would lead to a more than 50 percent reduction in American combat brigades by December 2007. Iraq's security forces were to fill the gap. In keeping with that strategy, American forces cut back their patrols in Baghdad during the first half of 2006.

It did not take long before the plan had to be shelved and American forces increased to try to tamp down the sectarian killings there. Still, Casey continued to portray the current surge in fighting as a difficult interlude before the Iraqi security forces could begin to assume the main combat role and some variant of his withdrawal plan for American forces could be put back on track.

As he said Tuesday, "It's going to take another 12 to 18 months or so till, I believe, the Iraqi security forces are completely capable of taking over responsibility for their own security, still probably with some level of support from us, but that will be directly asked for by the Iraqis."

Certainly, the Iraqi security forces have made some gains. The Iraqi military is larger and better trained, and has taken control of more territory in the past year. Some Iraqi soldiers have fought well. But in Baghdad, which American commanders have defined as the central front in the war, it is still a junior partner.

To improve the Iraqi forces, the American military is inserting teams of military advisers with Iraqi units. American officials also say their Iraqi counterparts are trying to use the lure of extra pay to persuade reluctant troops to come to the aid of their capital.

But longstanding problems remain. A quarter or so of a typical Iraqi unit is on leave at any one time. Since Iraq lacks an effective banking system for paying its troops, soldiers are generally given a week's leave each month to bring their pay home.

Desertions and absenteeism are another concern. According to the August Pentagon report, 15 percent of new recruits drop out during initial training. Beyond that, deployment to combat zones, the report adds, sometimes results in additional "absentee spikes of 5 to 8 percent."

As a result, the actual number of Iraqi boots on the ground on a given day is routinely less than the official number. In areas where the risks and hardship are particularly great, the shortfall is sometimes significant. In fiercely contested Anbar Province in western Iraq, the day-to-day strength of the Seventh Iraqi Army Division in August was only about 35 percent of the soldiers on its rolls, while the day-to-day strength of the First Division was 50 percent of its authorized strength.

Another complication is that the even-numbered divisions in the 10-division army have largely been recruited locally and thus generally reflect the ethnic makeup of the regions where they are based. So, much of the Iraqi Army consists of soldiers who are reluctant to serve outside the areas in which they reside. Several battalions have gone AWOL rather then deploy to Baghdad, an American military officer said.

The Iraqi government is well aware of such problems. Its plan is to increase the overall size of the military by 50,000, calculating that if it assigns extra troops to each unit they can be maintained near full strength when soldiers go on leave or are otherwise absent.

The difficulties with the Iraqi police, who are supposed to play a major role in protecting cleared areas under the Baghdad security plan, are considerable and include corruption and divided loyalties to militias. According to the Pentagon report, the Interior Ministry also lacks an effective management system. The Americans know how many Iraqis have been trained to work as police officers but not how many are still on the job.

The National Police have been a particular worry. One National Police unit has been withdrawn from duty in Baghdad because it was linked to sectarian killings. National Police brigades are now being removed from duty one by one for retraining with an eye to changing, as Casey put it, the "ethos of these forces."

In the final analysis, the problem is more one of institution building than numbers. Until Iraq has a genuine unity government that its own forces respect and are willing to fight for, it seems likely that the American military will continue to shoulder most of the burden.