Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Iraq, the unraveling (XIII): a faith-based war policy continues

Here is my summary of where we are now: Several times the Bush administration tried to transfer responsibility for security to Iraqi army and police forces, only to see them unable to handle the burden. Now, once again, the Americans are trying to get Iraqi security forces to take over, as most U.S. troops withdraw ...

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Here is my summary of where we are now:

Several times the Bush administration tried to transfer responsibility for security to Iraqi army and police forces, only to see them unable to handle the burden. Now, once again, the Americans are trying to get Iraqi security forces to take over, as most U.S. troops withdraw from Iraqi’s cities. Will the Iraqis be able to keep the population relatively secure? To be honest, I don’t know, and no one else does. It’s a matter of faith. And the leap comes tomorrow.

The key issue is whether Iraqi forces will perform any better than they have in the past. U.S. officials, at least in their public comments, say they will. “I do believe they’re ready,” Gen. Raymond Odierno, the top commander in Iraq, said on CNN on Sunday. “They’ve been working towards this for a long time. And security remains good. We’ve seen constant improvement in the security force, we’ve seen constant improvement in governance. And I believe this is the time for us to move out of the cities and for them to take ultimate responsibility.” But, as he says, it is a matter of belief.

Here’s a contrary view given to Reuters by Khalil Ibrahim, a leader of a unit in  the turned insurgents the Americans call the Sons of Iraq: “Iran has good relations with our political parties. They run militias. If the U.S. troops complete their withdrawal, Iran will do whatever it wants in Iraq. . . . Also, if the Americans pull out, al Qaeda will return.”

Meanwhile, Abu Noor, a college student in Baghdad, told my old colleague Ernesto Londono that, “We all know the militias are hiding because they know the Americans are inside the cities.” 

Who is right, Odierno, or Ibrahim and Abu Noor? No one knows. Yes, Iraqi units are better trained and equipped than in the past. But that was never the problem. Rather, the point of failure was political. Sunni death squads and Shiite militias knew what they were fighting for, while an Iraqi soldier didn’t necessarily. 

My worry is that I don’t see the political situation as being much different than it has in the past. Nothing much has changed from the previous rush to failures. As readers of this blog have seen me say before: the surge succeeded tactically but failed strategically. That is, as planned, it created a breathing space in which a political breakthrough might occur. But Iraqi leaders, for whatever reason, didn’t take advantage of that space, and no breakthrough occurred. All the basic issues that faced Iraq before the surge are still hanging out there: How to share oil revenue? What is the power relationship between Shia, Sunni and Kurd? Who holds power inside the Shiite community? What is the role of Iran, the biggest winner in this war so far? And will Iraq have a strong central government or be a loose confederation? And what happens when all the refugees outside the country and those displaced inside it, who I think are majority Sunni, try to go back to their old houses, now largely occupied by Shiites and protected by Shiite militias?

A secondary issue is how Iraqi forces will behave once they are operating without American forces watching them. There are a lot of “Little Saddams” in Iraq. That didn’t used to be our problem-but now these guys have been trained, equipped and empowered by us. 

I hope I am wrong, and that Iraq really is embarking on a new course this week. But I don’t think so. So I think the real question now is: How fast will the unraveling occur?

Click here to read the previous dozen posts on Iraq unraveling.

US Army Korea – IMCOM/Flickr

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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