Getting Out of Iraq: Why Training Security Forces May Not Work


By: Greg C. Reeson

Now that the media hype over the Iraq Study Group’s report is finally starting to die down a bit, attention is quickly turning to the President’s upcoming national address in which he is expected to lay out his new strategy for dealing with the ongoing insurgent and sectarian violence.

Many analysts suspect the President’s new course of action will include the continued training of Iraqi Army and police forces, a strategy that has been in place since shortly after the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003 and one that has been recommended for increased emphasis and effort by the Baker-Hamilton commission.

Of course, it is easy to understand the appeal of this approach: as Iraqi forces increase in capability and begin to take over security operations, American forces can start to leave. Iraqis gradually assume responsibility for their country while the United States slowly decreases its military footprint in a war that is increasingly unpopular with the American public. The problem with this approach, though, is that it ignores a fundamental reality in Iraq: that the issue with the Iraqi security forces is not one of training, but one of loyalty to a unified nation.

The Iraqi Army has made some measurable progress, to be sure, and has even taken the lead in security operations in some areas of the country. Every day more and more Iraqis brave the threat of insurgent and terrorist attacks to join its ranks. The training and equipping of the Army continues throughout the country, but still the prospect of a military force supportive of a national government is a distant hope under even the best of circumstances.

The ISG covered the issue of national allegiance in its report: “Significant questions remain about the ethnic composition and loyalties of some Iraqi units—specifically whether they will carry out missions on behalf of national goals instead of a sectarian agenda.” The report goes on to say, “Of Iraq’s 10 planned divisions, those that are even-numbered are made up of Iraqis who signed up to serve in a specific area, and they have been reluctant to redeploy to other areas of the country. As a result, elements of the Army have refused to carry out missions.”

The Iraqi Police suffer from the same problem, with sectarian loyalties manifesting themselves in the bribery, theft, torture and murder of the civilian population. Family ties, religious beliefs and tribal associations take precedence over protecting and serving the public at large, and many policemen use their positions to enhance their respective militias or factions instead of to enforce the laws passed by the Iraqi government.

Unless there is some sort of national reconciliation in which all parties agree to support a unified Iraqi government, all the training in the world will not matter. And the reality is that such a political arrangement not likely to be reached anytime soon. Thus far, none of the multitude of Shiite groups has shown an interest in working with the Sunnis to guarantee them a place in Iraq’s future, and the Kurds have focused their efforts on maintaining the regional autonomy they have enjoyed for nearly two decades. As a result, the Sunnis have shown no inclination to stop their campaign of violence against Shiites and coalition forces and have worked to some degree with foreign jihadists to undermine the national political process.

So the cycle of violence continues and conditions in Iraq steadily deteriorate. Thousands of Iraqis die each month and American military casualties progressively rise. The citizens of both Iraq and the United States are growing increasingly impatient with the current state of affairs as President Bush analyzes multiple recommendations for a new strategy.

If that strategy includes the continued training of Iraqi Army and police forces, as it likely will, the larger issue of national reconciliation will have to be a top priority. Unless all groups accept a unified Iraq and commit their efforts to supporting a central government, the forces that make up the Iraqi Army and police will continue to give their primary loyalty to the many factions currently struggling for power. And as long as that is the case, we are wasting our time training and equipping them as part of a strategy designed to hand over security responsibility so that we can bring our troops home.

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