The Magazine

Premature Iraqification

From the September 22, 2003 issue: Why creating Iraqi government and security can't be done overnight.

Sep 22, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 02 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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THOUGH FAR FROM FINE-TUNED, the Bush administration has finally developed an exit strategy for Iraq. The strategy has two prongs. Through the State Department, the administration will seek to "internationalize" the forces of occupation by obtaining a new U.N. Security Council resolution that would "authorize" Turks, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Moroccans, Indians, and even the French to send their troops. Concurrently through the Defense Department, it will strive to create larger all-Iraqi police and military forces that can work together with--and ideally replace--American soldiers who battle former Baathists, militant Sunni fundamentalists, and foreign jihadists.

The approaches are complementary and separable: No matter what happens in the Security Council, the Pentagon will increasingly hand off internal security to the natives, sooner rather than later. Where only two or three months ago Ambassador Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad foresaw a distinctly gradual transfer of political and military authority to Iraqis, the time frame and the order of that transition are now blurred. The political process was to have preceded and determined the creation of police, paramilitary, and military forces. Now, with a sense of urgency provoked by the August bombings at the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad and at a mosque in Najaf, the administration is stressing the "Iraqification" of internal security as a means of diminishing the American casualty rate and the terrorist-guerrilla activity in the central Sunni Arab lands of Iraq. As the chief of the U.S. Central Command, General John Abizaid, pithily put it, we've got to "do a lot more to bring an Iraqi face to the security establishments throughout Iraq very quickly."

Unlike the U.N.-internationalist argument, the all-Iraq approach is morally compelling. There is something unsettling about wanting to have foreign soldiers come die in Iraq in lieu of Americans, which is, if we are to be brutally honest, what many U.S. officials and, it appears, all the Democratic presidential candidates are asking for. The bombing of the U.N. headquarters drove home what should have been obvious: The forces that are killing American soldiers and their Iraqi allies will also gladly kill foreigners, be they European, Arab, or Latin American. As Senator John McCain remarked in a recent hearing, "So . . . we're going to ask for international troops to come in . . . and we'll tell them they'll take casualties, [but] Americans won't take the casualties. I don't get the logic there." To his credit, McCain has been the only voice in the U.S. government to have demurred at this kind of "burden sharing." This is, of course, the post-Vietnam mentality that Osama bin Laden so trenchantly mocked. By contrast, for Iraqis to die in lieu of Americans to ensure their country's freedom from Baathists and Islamic holy warriors does make moral sense. Ultimately, only the Iraqis can create a functioning democracy in their homeland.

Yet "Iraqification," as it may soon be advanced by the Bush administration, isn't likely to solve Iraq's most pressing problems. Indeed, if the Pentagon and the Coalition Provisional Authority move too expeditiously, they may well repeat the great sin of modern Iraqi history by creating security forces before the political system can absorb, socialize, and politically neutralize them. If the United States moves too quickly to rebuild an Iraqi army designed primarily to root out former Baathists, Sunni militants, and jihadists, it could unintentionally reinstall the structure and ethos of the pre-Baath Iraqi army, whose primary mission from its inception was to confront internal, not external, threats. The pre-Baath army--contrary to the public reminiscences of the former military officers in the opposition groups paid for by the Central Intelligence Agency--was a predatory institution that consistently defined its interests as the nation's.

In moving hastily, the administration could be tempted to draw significantly from the former Sunni Arab military officer corps, the Sunni Arab rank and file, and the few Shiite Arab officers who had risen to senior positions in Saddam Hussein's completely politicized army. Unintentionally, the administration could transgress a red line with Iraq's Shiite clergy, who are closely watching how America handles the reconstitution of Iraq's security forces. It was the army, in Sunni Arab hands, and the British that denied the Shiites their rightful predominance in the country's first parliament after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Without the army, Iraq's succession of dictators could never have destroyed its once vibrant culture.