Trained and Ready?
In testimony before Congress yesterday, Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik became the latest general to stake his reputation and integrity on the readiness of the Iraqi security forces. He expressed an optimistic view that the Iraqis would be ready to lead the fight for Iraq in as little as 12 to 18 months. From today's Post:
Asked when Iraqi ground forces could handle security so U.S. troops would not have to, Lt. Gen. James Dubik told lawmakers on Capitol Hill that the strength of Iraq's ground forces had grown significantly. "The ground forces will mostly be done by middle of next year; their divisions, brigades and battalions are on a good timeline," Dubik said in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee. "Could be as early as April. Could be as late as August," said Dubik, who until last week led the effort to train Iraqi forces.
While U.S. commanders' predictions on Iraqi security forces have proven excessively optimistic in the past, the general's assessment is central to the debates in Washington and Baghdad over a timeline for when Iraqi forces can take charge of security, allowing the bulk of the approximately 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq to withdraw.
According to the Post, Dubik added more detail to fill in the picture:
Gauging the progress of Iraq's security forces, Dubik said they have increased in size and proficiency, growing from 444,000 in June 2007 to 566,000 in May, and leading operations since April in urban centers such as the southern city of Basra and Baghdad's Sadr City. Readiness of Iraqi units has improved as they fill key leadership gaps, with units having on average near 70 percent of their leaders compared to "well below" 50 percent a year ago, he said.
Iraqis are "handling much of their security today," Dubik said, noting that nine of 18 Iraqi provinces are under Iraqi government control, with little involvement of U.S. troops. "That movement toward their responsibility will continue," he said. Of the more than 140 Iraqi battalions, he said 12 are capable of independent operations and rated at the highest level of readiness, while 90 others are rated at the second highest level and are "fighting well."
As a result, the U.S. military effort is shifting from combat to providing intelligence, air power, command and control, artillery and other support that will likely be needed long after its combat role diminishes. Dubik estimated it may take until 2012 to develop the Iraqi air force and navy and establish border security.
Still, Dubik said challenges remain with Iraqi forces, pointing to a "basic" level of training, shortages in leaders and professionalism, and "pockets of sectarian behavior in both the police and military."
"It will take more time to flush that out of the system because of the horrific sectarian violence" of late 2006 and early 2007, he said.
Sounds great. Unfortunately, it's terribly incomplete.
First, it's important to note the forces he's not talking about -- namely, the local Iraqi police, the Iraqi national police, and all of the Iraqi government institutions responsible for supporting the security forces. Those are still in dreadful condition, notwithstanding the steady improvement helped by the infusion of American advisers and support. Ideally, it is these forces, and not the Iraqi Army, who will patrol the streets of Iraq and keep its people secure. That Dubik devoted so much of his attention to the Iraqi Army is telling -- and a sign that we have a long way to go.
Second, Dubik's testimony suffers from the same defect as the earlier estimates provided by generals in his position. So much of his evaluation is based on the hard measures of readiness -- manning, number of trucks and weapons on hand, number of troops who have been through training, and so on. Those numbers are important, but they don't tell the whole story.
It's equally important to consider subjective measures of readiness, like the evaluations submitted by each Iraqi unit's adviser team. Those reports indicate that only 12 of 140 Iraqi Army battalions are operating at their top level of readiness. (Again, only the Army seems to be counted.) Many of those units are operating in uncontested areas, like Kurdistan. Dubik reports that units with sub-par readiness suffer from gaps in their support capabilities, like an absence of logistics capability. But there's also more to it than that, which is why 128 of 140 Iraqi battalions are still not operating at peak readiness.
So how long will it take to stand up the Iraqi security forces?
When I came home from Iraq, I thought it would take at least five to ten more years of sustained advisory assistance to build the Iraqi police force. I still think that's right. The Iraqi Army is further ahead, largely because that's been the main effort for the American military. But if our only legacy in Iraq is the Iraqi Army, we will not leave a stable and secure Iraq in our wake -- let alone a democracy dedicated to the rule of law.
I understand Dubik's optimism, but he's leaning a bit too far forward in his foxhole on this one. Our experience with the Iraqi security forces dictates a bit more caution.
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