The Magazine

An Iraq To-Do List

How we can help the surge succeed.

May 21, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 34 • By MAX BOOT
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Since February, General David Petraeus and his team in Baghdad have been implementing classic counterinsurgency precepts that have worked wherever they have been tried in adequate strength over a sustained period of time--from the Philippines and South Africa in the early 1900s to Malaya in the 1950s, El Salvador in the 1980s, and Northern Ireland in the 1990s. They are surging more troops into troubled areas and pushing them off the remote fortress-like Forward Operating Bases and into neighborhoods where they conduct foot patrols, erect concrete barriers, and establish a street-level sense of security. The situation in Anbar province has improved substantially, and, while the areas around Baghdad remain deeply troubled, there are signs of progress in the capital itself. (Sectarian murders are down two-thirds since January, though deaths from spectacular suicide bombings remain high.)

Where such strategies have worked, the results were achieved in years, not months. The same is likely true of Iraq, so patience remains the order of the day. But while Petraeus has the fundamentals right, there are still reforms that could be implemented to improve the odds of success. During a recent two-week visit with U.S. forces in Iraq, I saw a number of problems that need fixing, starting with the inadequate size of the Iraqi army.

The army is the most effective and nonsectarian institution in Iraq. Although it has its share of woes, its combat performance has been improving, and it is less corrupt than the police. But it's too small. Saddam Hussein kept more than 900,000 men under arms at the time of the 1991 Gulf war, a figure that had shrunk to fewer than 400,000 by the time of the U.S. invasion in 2003. Today the Iraqi army is only 136,000 strong. (There are another 194,000 police officers and 125,000 Facility Protection Service personnel, but many of them are useless or worse.) There is talk within the Iraqi Ministry of Defense and the American high command of expanding the Iraqi army by 35,000 to 40,000 soldiers a year for the next three years, but even this isn't enough. The army needs to be at least 300,000-400,000 strong. (The Afghan army likewise needs to be expanded, but that's another story.)

Recruiting hasn't been a problem, not when unemployment is 20 percent or more. But it still may make sense to introduce conscription--something that is alien to currently serving American soldiers, all of whom are volunteers, but that has a long history in Iraq and neighboring states. An army in a developing nation like Iraq isn't there merely to fight internal and external enemies. Its mission is also to inculcate a civic religion of nationalism and egalitarianism in its recruits. Germany, Japan, Turkey, and other newly created states in the 19th and early 20th centuries turned the army into a "schoolhouse of the nation." That requires exposing a large percentage of young men to army training and indoctrination, not just a handpicked few. Iraq could usefully emulate their example, even if it does run the risk that, as in those societies, the army could become the ultimate arbiter of political power.

Expanding the army will require more money, and the United States should probably increase its military-assistance spending, but the Iraqis are starting to help themselves as well. This year, for the first time, the Iraqi government is spending more on its security services (some $9 billion) than the amount of U.S. aid ($5 billion), and the Ministry of Defense has managed to spend 90 percent of its budget, which puts it well ahead of the curve in the semi-functional Maliki government. In any case, the cost of draftee soldiers would be less than that of volunteers, since they wouldn't have to be offered as much pay or benefits; they could also be employed with fewer restrictions on where and when they serve.

An expansion of the Iraqi army will also require an expansion of the number and quality of American advisers, which should not be that great a stretch, since even Democrats say they want to continue the advisory effort indefinitely. But while increasing support for the Iraqi security forces--and working hard to promote evenhanded, effective commanders--it is important to resist the temptation to impose our standards in all matters great and small. American advisers may unwittingly hold back the Iraqis in some instances by insisting they conform to the extraordinarily stringent standards of the U.S. armed forces--rules that, in terms of ethical conduct, are probably a good deal stricter than those previously employed by any army sent to quell any major insurgency in the long history of warfare.