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.

It bears repeating: Any action by the Coalition Provisional Authority that fundamentally compromises its relationship with the Shiite clergy is unwise. Whatever trouble the Bush administration thinks it is currently having in Iraq, it will look back wistfully to this time if the Shiites go into opposition. The bombings in Najaf have already partially reactivated the Badr Brigade, the Iranian-created paramilitary force behind the slain Shiite leader, Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim. If there are any more major bombings in the Shiite south, especially in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, the Badr Brigade will unquestionably become a permanent, active component of the Shiite landscape. So far, the Badr, along with the rest of the Shiite community, have reacted to al-Hakim's death and the attempted assassination of his nephew, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Said al-Hakim, with equanimity. However, if the Coalition Provisional Authority missteps in the eyes of the Shiites in its rebuilding of Iraq's internal security forces, a collision with the Badr corps is by no means unthinkable. Indeed, the Authority should be prepared to preempt such possible hostility by trying to incorporate units of the Badr into any new Iraqi army.

Obviously, enormous care must be taken in building Iraq's future armed forces: This is easily the most critical task confronting the Bush administration. The finest decision of Ambassador Bremer in Iraq was to retire the remnants of the old, Sunni-dominated military. The retention of that force could have put us hopelessly at odds with the Shiites and Kurds, who are at least 80 percent of Iraq's population. However badly the U.S. military wants to share the burden in Iraq, it would be an egregious mistake to have a functioning Iraqi army before the Iraqi people have a constitution, to which Iraqi soldiers must swear their allegiance. Indeed, this is the yardstick by which we can best gauge whether Defense, panicked by the bombs of August, has become its own worst enemy.

Until recently, the bright minds in the Coalition Provisional Authority knew that the United States would be welcome in Iraq for no more than two or three years. After that, the Shiites, led by their very nationalist clergy, would likely declare the Americans defunct, no longer helpful to their political aspirations, which appear to be democratic. The authority's old birthing schedule--a constitutional convention within a year, a constitution within 18 months, national elections within 24--was a rough but sensible outline, which was to be shortened or lengthened depending on how much initiative the Iraqis displayed and how much encouragement the Americans gave them. Considering the tone and commentary now coming from the Pentagon, one has to wonder whether this outline has been jettisoned and replaced by a very loose slide rule that measures the maturity of Iraqi constitutionalism primarily by the American body count.

The sociology and politics of constructing a new Iraqi army aside, it also isn't clear that bigger internal Iraqi security forces are key to thwarting the terror-cum-guerrilla attacks of the former Baathists, Wahhabi fundamentalists, and foreign Sunni holy warriors coming over the Syrian, Iranian, and Saudi borders. It is certainly true that better Iraqi-generated intelligence about the whereabouts of these forces would greatly aid the coalition's efforts to destroy them. But it's not immediately evident why increasing the number of Iraqis under arms from approximately 50,000--the current level according to the Pentagon--to, say, 75,000 or 100,000 in the next year is going to make a decisive difference, unless the additional numbers come from the regions where the Baathists, fundamentalists, and jihadists are thriving.

It would be interesting to know, of the 50,000-plus Iraqis under arms (an impressive number given that the war ended in April), how many come from the Sunni/Baathist strongholds of Ramadi and Tikrit. In all probability, the numbers there aren't large. The advantage of "all-Iraqi" security forces in these towns, where popular sentiment definitely seems to be nostalgic for the rule of Sunnis, the Sunni-dominated Baath, or both, would be in such forces' ability to sleuth out the whereabouts of the guerrillas and terrorists and their most operationally critical sympathizers. Sending more non-Ramadi and non-Tikriti Iraqi security officials into these towns might conceivably spur the patriotism of the hard-core denizens who have become guerrillas-cum-terrorists and their key supporters, but it doesn't seem likely. These pro-Saddam and militant Sunni fighters are playing for keeps. An Iraqi face on security doesn't appear likely to make them less inclined to kill Iraqis, Americans, or other foreigners. These men know their world is over unless they down both the Americans and the Iraqis--overwhelmingly Arab Shiites and Kurds--who will inherit power in Uncle Sam's wake. With either the Americans or the Iraqis on the cutting edge of internal security or in control of the national government, the hard-core insurrectionists have to be arrested or killed. One day they might, just possibly, be reeducated (converted Communists and Nazis have existed), but increasing the number of armed Iraqis whom they consider traitors can't accomplish this over the next several months.

And does the Bush administration really want newly constituted Iraqi security forces in the thick of things in the hostile Sunni belt? Any successful national internal security force will have to reflect more or less the composition of the Iraqi population. Do we want to send so soon a force overwhelmingly composed of Shiites and Kurds into Tikrit or Ramadi? If local police in the Sunni regions have so far proved ineffective in penetrating and thwarting homegrown or imported guerrilla and terrorist forces in their regions, it may well be because they lack the will to do so.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld suggested this when he chided Iraqis on his recent visit to their country. "This country belongs to the Iraqi people, and in the last analysis it's the Iraqi people who will provide the security in this country," he said. "Instead of pointing fingers . . . at the security forces of the coalition because there are acts of violence taking place against the Iraqi people, . . . it's important for the Iraqi people to step up and take responsibility for the security by providing information to . . . [the Americans] to a greater extent than they're doing."

Of course, Iraqi Sunnis might not want "to step up" because the Americans did a lackadaisical job of arresting former Baathists after the fall of Baghdad. These Iraqi Sunnis may think that America's "footprint" in their neighborhoods is too light, not too heavy. They might disagree with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz when he recently echoed the sentiments of former New York City police chief Bernie Kerik, who was overseeing the creation of a new national Iraqi police force: ". . . if you triple the number of coalition forces, [per Kerik], 'You'll probably triple the attacks on the troops.'" (According to this logic, the Pentagon ought to have a pint-size force patrolling the heartland of Saddam's power.)

In a post-totalitarian society, it is, of course, quite understandable for even the bravest individuals to fear coming forward. In Iraq, where Saddam's killers may in many areas control the streets, it's sensible to stay ignorant and keep your head down. It is also possible that a great many Iraqi Sunnis are still spiritually allied with the old Sunni Baath order. If this is true--and this is the worst-case scenario--then the Pentagon is going to have to be much more intrusive than it has so far been. Counterinsurgency wars are ugly and labor intensive.

Yet the Pentagon's contention is undoubtedly true that more Iraqis are needed to aid the coalition forces. "Iraqification" ought to be a question of degree and speed, not kind. Having more anti-Saddam Iraqis directly reaching out to their countrymen would certainly work vastly better than having Kevlar-clad Americans in armored vehicles waiting for tips. The Iraqi National Congress's Ahmad Chalabi was right when he argued long before the war began that America would need Iraqi eyes and ears both attached to and independent of U.S. military forces.

The State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency strenuously and successfully fought this plan. Truth be told, the Pentagon, including its civilian leadership, failed to go to the mat to ensure that a large Iraqi expeditionary force was ready by March. It is worth noting, too, that the Sunni-dominated oppositionist groups that the CIA and the State Department liked--most famously the coup-plotting Iraqi National Accord--have, according to Pentagon and CIA officials, so far accomplished little to nothing on the ground in Iraq. Whatever influence the Iraqi National Accord had among the Sunni military elite and the Baath party, it's not translated into any intelligence punch on behalf of U.S. soldiers fighting in the Sunni belt. By comparison, the Iraqi National Congress, whatever its faults, has been more successful in its tactical understanding of the post-Saddam battleground.

In any case, the Pentagon's all-purpose refrain that it could succeed if only it had good intelligence is a truism that suggests its offensive tactics may be lacking. On the ground, intelligence, particularly the human kind, is always less than it should be. The CIA has been for decades between mediocre and awful in supplying human intelligence on Iraq. With hard targets like ex-Baathists, Wahhabi fundamentalists, and foreign jihadists of various stripes, there is no reason to believe that the clandestine service will be any more effective now than in the past.

If the Pentagon really doesn't think the coalition is winning on the ground--and any honest observer who's been to Iraq can certainly make a case that the coalition is doing passably well--then it should switch tactics and stop scolding the Iraqis for their sub-par performance. In the short-term--and given the likely two or three-year maximum mandate the United States will have from the Iraqi people, the short-term is what matters--the battle for hearts and minds in Iraq is for the United States to lose, not for all-Iraqi security forces to win. The latter have an important role to play in securing their country for a freer, democratic future. But we need to be careful not to put the cart before the horse.

The mandate and daily practice of the Iraqi Governing Council, the coming, tempestuous constitutional convention, and the new constitution itself are what ought to preoccupy the Bush administration after the bombs of August. The forging of decent new political institutions should be the means by which we transfer power to the Iraqi people and neutralize the forces that want to destroy a democratic Iraq before it is born. Would that the Pentagon, the Coalition Provisional Authority, and the State Department spent more time talking in detail about that exit strategy.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.