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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The New York Times ran a front-page dispatch by Alissa J. Rubin on April 22 ("3 Suspects Talk After Iraqi Soldiers Do Dirty Work") reporting that Iraqi troops managed to break up a major terrorist ring in the violent Baghdad neighborhood of Ghazaliya by beating up a captured insurgent. Such conduct is not tolerated in the American ranks, but the Iraqis are fighting for their lives against the most vicious terrorists on earth in a society that has never heard of the Warren Court. It's hardly surprising that they might resort to "third degree" techniques that were in widespread use by American police until a generation ago, and remain commonplace throughout much of the rest of the world. American advisers need to have the leeway to exercise their best judgment--to be able to turn a blind eye to minor abuses without risking court martial, while at the same time remaining vigilant against major abuses. Just as no counterinsurgency has ever been won employing the norms of modern Western peacetime policing, so too it is very rare to defeat insurgents by terrorizing the population into acquiescence--and in any case that is not a strategy that either the United States or its allies could employ.

In walking the line between excessive lenience and excessive brutality, the Iraqi government needs to build more prisons. The U.S. armed forces have been expanding capacity at their two main holding facilities, Camp Cropper in Baghdad and Camp Bucca in southern Iraq (which replaced Abu Ghraib after it was closed last year). The total prison population, which stood at less than 15,000 last year, is now 19,000, and the plan is to expand to 25,000-30,000 by the end of the summer, when the Baghdad security plan will be in full swing. The number of detainees held in Iraqi custody is unknown but estimated at perhaps 20,000. It's not enough. As military analysts Bing West and Eliot Cohen wrote not long ago, "One in 75 American males is in jail, compared to one in 450 Iraqi males." Since, as they note, "Iraq is not six times safer than the United States," the disparity needs to be addressed if Iraq is to become substantially more peaceful.

Part of the answer is to help the Iraqis build more prisons and appoint more judges. The coalition's Rule of Law Project is doing just that by constructing a facility within the Green Zone that will house not only 6,000 prisoners but also the judges who will try their cases. This is necessary to prevent intimidation of judges, which is said to be widespread and which results in "not guilty" verdicts in many cases in which U.S. troops are convinced the evidence is overwhelming.

But it is doubtful that any civilian legal system, much less one as anemic as Iraq's, could cope with the demands of wartime. The obvious answer is selective use of martial law to quell violence, giving authority to sentence insurgents to the same people who are risking their lives to catch them--Iraqi and American army officers. This would, of course, be controversial within Iraq. And since the United States is no longer an occupying power, we cannot impose martial law ourselves, but we could make it one of the points on which we lobby the Maliki government for results.

Next, create a readily accessible national identity database. This is an essential prerequisite for a successful counterinsurgency, yet it has never been implemented in Iraq, because successive American commanders have never thought they would be in the country long enough to pull off a project that might require a minimum of six to twelve months to implement. U.S. and Iraqi troops trying to identify potential insurgents have to rely either on food rationing cards, many of which are out of date and all of which lack biometric data such as fingerprints, or on their own haphazard surveys. Unfortunately, most of the data that U.S. troops amass during their tours of duty is lost when they rotate home. There is no uniform database to share population information among all security forces, American and Iraqi, current and future. Thus it's hard to know if someone stopped at a checkpoint belongs in the neighborhood or whether he is a wanted terrorist from another province. This is the kind of information that any U.S. cop would have available within seconds of a traffic stop, because he would run a check via a wireless computer terminal on the motorist's license plate and driver's license. Security forces need to have this same capability in Iraq. There is talk now within the Iraqi government of implementing such a system, but given the Maliki administration's lack of capacity, nothing meaningful will happen unless the Americans do it themselves.