Friday, August 22, 2008

Iraqi Army Stands Up

Last summer, the antiwar debate focused on Iraq's presumed failure to meet congressionally-mandated benchmarks on political and military progress. In spring 2008, prominent leftists claimed Iraq's army was disastrously weak, going so far to announce that "the Iraqi Army is forever too weak to be an effective force without massive American presence."

Well, it turns out
this morning's Wall Street Journal has some news for the "reality-based community": The developments of the Iraqi army have been so substantial that they are facilitating the drawdown of U.S. troops under the new bilateral security pact:

The Bush administration's preliminary security pact with Iraq calls for withdrawing most American combat troops by 2011, a development that seemed almost unthinkable even a few months ago.

One reason they're thinking about it now: the new assertiveness of Iraqi soldiers such as Brig. Gen. Sabah Fadhil Motar al-Azawi. His brigade helped chase militants from Ramadi and wrest control of Basra from the once-feared Mahdi Army. Now, it's helping to push the U.S. out of Iraq.

Several factors have helped bring a withdrawal deal closer. Tribal leaders from the Sunni Muslim sect turned against the terrorist group al Qaeda in Iraq; the Mahdi Army called a cease-fire; and the U.S. began a new counterinsurgency strategy, deploying units to small outposts in Iraqi towns and neighborhoods.

But above all, the Iraqi army has needed to reverse a track record of high-profile failures. In earlier years, Iraqi forces often fled and left heavy fighting to the U.S. Now the Iraqis are mounting large-scale operations in restive areas like Diyala Province, a longtime stronghold of Sunni insurgents, and holding large swaths of territory -- 10 of Iraq's 18 provinces -- largely on their own.

"History is replete with armed forces having to get bloodied a little bit before they get better," says Maj. Gen. Michael Oates, who commands U.S. forces in central and southern Iraq. He says the Iraqi forces have improved from five years of fighting and from mentoring by U.S. military advisers. The recent surge in U.S. troop levels allowed senior commanders to deploy larger numbers of American trainers, accelerating the Iraqis' improvements, U.S. officials believe.

The U.S. gives Iraqi troops access to American air power and helps them resupply their forces, but many of the Iraqi units plan and conduct their operations independently. In many of the Iraq army's 10 provinces there are no U.S. troops at all, and where there are, U.S. troops coordinate their operations with the Iraqis. When the former Soviet country of Georgia unexpectedly recalled its 2,000-soldier contingent to fight the Russians, Iraqis, not Americans, were sent to replace them.

The Iraqi army's growing capabilities bolstered Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's insistence on setting at least a rough timetable for U.S. withdrawal. The preliminary security pact calls for the Iraqi army to take responsibility for all major cities next summer, with most U.S. combat forces withdrawing to the outskirts and then leaving the country altogether by 2011.

The pact still has to be formally approved by the Bush administration and several layers of Iraqi government. Some of its provisions -- including the target dates -- could still change before it's final, and the draft also allows for U.S. and Iraqi officials to jointly change the withdrawal goals later based on security conditions.

Senior American military officers in Baghdad say, however, that the final agreement is virtually certain to retain the U.S. commitment to gradually withdraw its combat forces and turn missions over to the Iraqis. "Everyone understands that the clock is ticking," one senior officer said. "We're not leaving tomorrow, but it's the beginning of the end."

The prospect of major U.S. withdrawals comes at a pivotal moment in the five-year-old war here. The recent numbers of U.S. and Iraqi casualties are down; the 13 American military personnel killed in July were the lowest monthly death toll since the 2003 invasion. Iraqi troop and civilian casualties also have been falling steadily for months, to a fraction of their peak about 18 months ago. The Iraqi economy is growing sharply because of soaring oil revenues, and Mr. Maliki's political standing is at an all-time high.

Many potential pitfalls, both military and political, remain. The Iraqi government has spent little of its oil windfall to improve basic services for its citizens. Most Iraqis only get roughly 12 hours of electricity per day, despite billions of dollars in U.S.-funded reconstruction projects. A long-sought law setting up provincial elections remains bottled up in Iraq's fractious Parliament. Corruption remains endemic.

There is no guarantee that Iraqi forces will continue to improve -- or even maintain their current levels of performance. Iraqi units in many parts of the country complain that they are chronically short of fuel, ammunition and spare parts for their vehicles. The army's performance can vary widely across the country, says Colin Kahl, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University who studies the Iraq war and visited Basra this summer.

"You have new units fresh from basic training that sometimes desert and then you have older units that have had years of American advising and fight quite well," he says. "There's no doubt they're a lot better than they used to be, but there's still tremendous variation from unit to unit."
There's more at the link.

See also, Long War Journal, "
Iraqi Army Beefs Up Armored Forces."