Iraq, United States: The Military Status of Iraq

6 MINS READJun 24, 2008 | 21:19 GMT
It would have been difficult to imagine two years ago that Iraq would look the way it does right now. Very real and very impressive security gains have been made, but underlying issues still haunt the process.

Iraq has come a long way since 2006. The gains of the 2007 troop surge have thus far proven sustainable, and Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have taken a larger — and growing — role in operations. It is hard to find numbers that do not point to an improving security situation on the ground in Iraq. Yet all is not well, and very real challenges remain for sustainable security in Iraq. The most telling will be the official handover of the Anbar province to the Iraqis at the end of the month and the integration of the Awakening Councils into the security apparatus and the political process.

Iraqi Security Forces

ISF are the conglomerated military, paramilitary and law enforcement mechanisms of the government in Baghdad. The most prominent is the Iraqi Army, which falls under the Ministry of Defense and currently numbers some 180,000. The National Police are a more than 33,000 strong gendarmerie controlled at the national level by the Ministry of the Interior. The Iraqi Police number more than 170,000 trained personnel controlled at the provincial level. There are also border patrol and facilities security forces.

Though ISF performance continues to be mixed to poor, 2008 nevertheless has seen some marked improvements. Two years ago, Baghdad had trouble mustering its own forces in the capital to participate in joint security operations (known as Operation Together Forward). This year, Baghdad has surged brigade formations to flashpoints from Basra to Mosul. This operational control is perhaps the most marked break from the past.

The ISF deployment to Basra in March was impressive, mustering two additional brigades and surging them to Iraq's crucial southern city with little U.S. assistance and almost no coalition troops. The units were engaged in combat so quickly that U.S. leaders were taken by surprise (largely because they had anticipated a legitimate and concerted build-up of forces). Instead, the execution was rushed and hasty. Operational planning was poor, and one estimate put ISF forces only just above a quarter of the supplies they should have had for combat when fighting began. Performance under fire was little better. Fire discipline was atrocious, and some reports suggest that the 52nd brigade of the 14th Iraqi Army division effectively disintegrated, defecting en masse. Other estimates vary, but there were significant levels of desertion. Under such conditions, it is hardly surprising that the ISF made little headway against concerted Shiite militia opposition until a cease-fire was first signed (in which Tehran's hand was instrumental). Operations in Sadr City went much the same way, even with U.S. troops in the lead.

More promising operations are under way in both Mosul and Amara. Admittedly, efforts in Amara (also targeting Shiite militias) are backed by U.S. forces and Mosul operations (targeting al Qaeda and foreign jihadist elements) are being conducted by some of Iraq's best troops — the 2nd and 3rd Divisions. Nevertheless, ISF are now engaged in multiple operations around the country, and the capacity for improvement is not to be underestimated. New ISF units are formed, trained and deployed together. They have been rushed through training and rushed just as quickly into action. Mixed results are about the best that can be hoped for in such scenarios.

ISF still suffer from several crucial issues:

  • Lack of a competent officer — and especially non-commissioned officer (NCO) — corps. The challenges of creating such cadres out of thin air cannot be overstated. The process has only just begun (admittedly, it began considerably more slowly than it should have), and ultimately will take a generation.
  • Sectarian tension, which likely will plague the ISF for the foreseeable future. The Sunni-Shiite split especially dates back a millennium, and the strife of the last few years has done nothing to soften it (indeed, the Sunni-Shiite strife in the region is the worst it has been since the Ottoman-Safavid rivalries of the 16th-18th centuries). To suggest that it will soon all be wiped clean would be ludicrous.
  • Ulterior loyalties, as epitomized in the Basra desertions, sap the effectiveness of forces in just the kind of divisive conflicts that require the central government to bring force to bear. Police formations are especially problematic. The Badr Organization, affiliated with the Shiite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, has consolidated extensive infiltration of the National Police (previously the Badr Brigades), and local police forces are particularly susceptible to local sectarian and tribal influence. Meanwhile, regional powers from Riyadh to Tehran are pulling their own strings in Iraq, and Iran's influence with the Shia is especially strong. The effectiveness of the ISF, in a sense, continues to remain hostage to a negotiated political settlement.
  • Dependency on U.S. forces. The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates that only 10 percent of ISF units are capable of operating independently. This leaves a substantial burden on U.S. forces at the tactical level. The Pentagon knows that it will continue to advise and train, call in close air support and assist with operational planning. But because the majority of the ISF have yet to prove themselves capable of independent action in the face of resistance, front-line combat and security efforts remain a mission for U.S. troops.

Awakening Councils

The bilateral relationship between the U.S. military and the Sunni tribal leadership of Anbar province (where those tribal loyalties are particularly strong) has been decisive in establishing security in what was once Iraq's bloodiest province. The model has been exported with some success to other portions of Iraq (Babil, Ninawa, Salah ad Din, and Tamim) and has even created some functionality in mixed populations, such as those in Diyala. Elsewhere, like the Kurdish north, tribal loyalties just are not as strong. Nevertheless, it was clearly the right avenue to address issues in Anbar, and the province is now a model for success in the country.

But the bilateral relationship was also something of a proverbial deal with the devil. It solved the security crisis in Anbar but created a power base independent of the central government in Baghdad — and integration into the central government model was always going to be tricky. A telling moment for the Awakening Councils has begun, with the scheduled handover of security responsibility in Anbar from the U.S. military to the Iraqi government slated for the end of June.

There have long been tensions in Anbar between predominantly Sunni local Iraqi Police units and National Police and Army units that are predominantly Shiite. As late as 2006, these tensions would even occasionally break out into isolated gunbattles. Now the Awakening Councils have established control over their own streets and will be loath to surrender much of that control to a Shiite central government and to those Sunnis that are already part of that system. This is a delicate distinction, and the transition to Iraqi control tugs hard at both intra-Sunni and Sunni-Shiite sectarian tensions: it will be a litmus test for sectarian power sharing.

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