According to a new paper produced by Jeff Michaels, associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), an influential Whitehall think-tank, the fledgling all-volunteer Iraqi armed forces are “not fit for purpose” and will need massive military support from the West for some time to come. Michaels bases his argument on the fact that the new Iraqi forces are essentially a “light infantry army” which lacks any heavy armour and support units. Without conscription, he claims, “many of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who should be employed in military service are currently unemployed, and provide a steady source of recruits for the insurgency”.
Sunday Herald, 22 October
While George Bush and Tony Blair pursue a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, the reality on the ground means it is not likely to happen any time soon
By Trevor Royle, Diplomatic Editor
IN Baghdad, not a morning passes without scores of pitiable dead bodies being cleared from the street, victims of the death squads which thrive in the sprawling Iraqi capital. In southern Iraq, British troops are on standby to intervene in an outburst of sectarian fighting between rival militias in the town of al-Amarah, close to the Iranian border. Only two months ago, British forces turned over the town to the Iraqis. Now it is the focus for bitter feuding between the Badr Brigades loyal to Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and the Mahdi army loyal to Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr.
For thousands of Iraqis and 77 dead US soldiers, October has been the cruellest month of the year, so it’s not surprising that some commentators are making comparisons with the war in Vietnam and, in particular, the shock caused by the Tet offensive of 1968. What is more surprising is that president Bush appears to concur. In a damage-limitation exercise, White House officials attempted to soften the president’s words to argue that the US was “determined to win” and that US troops would remain in the country for at least the duration of his presidency. Yesterday, he repeated that uncompromising message during a video conference with senior US commanders in the region.
Paradoxically, on that point Bush could be right. According to a new paper produced by Jeff Michaels, associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), an influential Whitehall think-tank, the fledgling all-volunteer Iraqi armed forces are “not fit for purpose” and will need massive military support from the West for some time to come. Michaels bases his argument on the fact that the new Iraqi forces are essentially a “light infantry army” which lacks any heavy armour and support units. Without conscription, he claims, “many of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who should be employed in military service are currently unemployed, and provide a steady source of recruits for the insurgency”.
For some time, senior coalition commanders have admitted privately that they are facing an uphill battle in training the Iraqi forces to take over internal security duties from them. In the British-controlled areas in the south around Basra it has long been conceded that the new Iraqi forces have been infiltrated by Shia militants who have either turned a blind eye to the insurgents or have actively encouraged them. The dismantling of the existing Iraqi forces was also a blunder. Although they were dominated by Ba’ath Party members loyal to Saddam Hussein, they formed a nucleus which could have been used to recreate a post-war force capable of providing internal security and national defence.
“Scrapping Saddam’s forces was one of the biggest mistakes the coalition made,” argues a senior US military source. “Unlike 1945, when the allies made good use of the Japanese army to maintain order in the occupied territories of south Asia and the Pacific , we shooed off the Iraqis and, worse, encouraged some of them to join the insurgency, taking with them all their military skills. Far from imposing peace and law and order we simply oversaw the complete collapse of state authority.”
That failure means that there can be no workable timetable for the withdrawal of coalition forces, even though prime minister Tony Blair has announced a fallback period of 16 months, and former secretary of state James Baker’s Iraq Study Group seems likely to recommend a number of withdrawal options when it produces its findings next month. A recently retired US army officer, Major-General Paul Eaton, directed the Coalition Military Assistance and Training Team and two years ago he made it clear that Iraq could not stand on its own two feet until it possessed up to 12 divisions backed up by heavy armour, but such a force would take at least five years to create. According to RUSI’s Michaels, “the failure to carry through with the development of an Iraqi military force intended for territorial force will force the Coalition to remain in Iraq indefinitely, until this shortcoming is addressed.”
The steady increase in violence in Iraq during October is an obvious indication that the country is still hovering on the brink of a wider civil conflict. While it has been convenient to blame the escalation on the advent of the holy period of Ramadan, the carnage has also coincided with a determined US effort to bring order to Baghdad by deploying additional troops in Operation Together Forward. Patrols have been increased, there have been more house-to-house searches and Shia death squads have been hunted down, but so far 77 US soldiers have been killed in October, a figure that is second only to January 2005 when 127 soldiers were killed during the attack on Fallujah.
For US commanders, the statistics have not only been worrying at a time when the war is becoming increasingly unpopular at home, but provide a vivid illustration of the problems they face in their attempts to restore law and order. Not only are they having to deal with an insurgency aimed at an unwelcome army of occupation but they are having to play pig-in-the-middle in a low-intensity conflict between rival communities.
Most of the internal violence has come from the actions of Sunni groups, once the ruling faction but now in the minority, who resent the fact that the new Iraqi security forces are dominated by Shias and Kurds. Problems of this kind were meant to be addressed by the new Iraqi constitution which came into being a year ago this week but is already showing signs of leading to the fragmentation of Iraq. Instead of resolving communal and sectarian issues, the possibility now exists that Iraq could be sub-divided into an autonomous Kurdish region in the north and a southern region dominated by nine existing Shia governorates. The Sunnis concern has been increased by the manner in which the Shias have been able to take control of many of the main strategic departments, including the Ministry of the Interior which controls the police forces.
There is compelling evidence that Shia militias have infiltrated the security forces and have used their positions to form death squads to abduct and murder Sunnis, almost at will. The killings prompt revenge attacks by Sunni insurgents with the result that there has been a cantonisation of Iraqi society, with mixed neighbourhoods becoming a thing of the past as Sunnis seek safety in Sunni areas while Shias congregate amongst their own people. Another RUSI analyst, Mark Thomas of the International Security Studies Department, points out that the only “restraining factor” is provided by coalition troops, even though they are also part of the problem.
“The paradox is that it is also their presence that is driving the anti-occupation insurgency, resulting in pressure to withdraw,” he argues. “If a reduction occurs in the already insufficient numbers of US and coalition troops from problematic areas without a concomitant correction of the political and security institutions, it will lift the lid that has so far contained all-out conflict.”
As senior coalition officers have long contended, there will come a point when the presence of their forces outweighs the good that they can accomplish in putting down the insurgency and restoring regular day-to-day life. Stay too long and they become part of the problem; pull out too quickly and they leave the people of Iraq to an uncertain fate. Until last week, both Bush and Blair hoped to be able to judge the point when it was safe to leave and before it became too dangerous to stay. But with the steady increase in violent activity and with no real progress being made in making the Iraqi security forces fit for the task, it may be impossible to decide when the tipping point has been reached.
On a superficial level, it is easy to say that Iraq could become another Vietnam. Here is a war created by the invasion of another country and a conflict which is producing a huge number of casualties, many of them civilians. Here is the sight of a superpower being humbled by smaller and more lightly armed militia forces who resent their country being occupied. There the comparisons end. The North Vietnamese People’s Army was a well trained and organised army with a reliable command structure backed by a committed Marxist philosophy. Against them, the US forces had suffered horrifying casualties which make the numbers suffered in Iraq pale in comparison. By the time of the Tet offensive, US casualties (killed, wounded and missing) had reached 80,000 .
Even so, Tet was not decisive. Although the North Vietnamese caught the US on the hop by launching a simultaneous attack on 40 cities and key points, the offensive was eventually brought under control . During the operations, the North Vietnamese forces suffered huge casualties and the haemorrhage had a lasting effect on the north’s ability to continue the war. That was the reality and the fighting dragged on for another seven years, but the perception at the time was quite different.
President Lyndon Johnston became convinced that not only had his forces been on the receiving end of a humiliating defeat, but he came to believe that he had lost the backing of the American people.
In the aftermath of Tet, the war in Vietnam started attracting hostile media coverage. Tet became a useful shorthand for all that was wrong with the war in Vietnam and, in time, became a symbol of US inability to bring the conflict to a successful conclusion.
As the US secretary of state Henry Kissinger said at the time: “Henceforth, no matter how effective our action, the prevalent strategy could no longer achieve its objectives within a period or within force levels politically acceptable to the American people.”
No-one would say that the US has reached that point in Iraq but, by the same token, after this month’s high casualties no-one would want to forecast when coalition forces will be withdrawn. The conundrum remains the same: stay too long and you court disaster, pull out too quickly and you meet the same fate. And that’s true not just for the US. So deeply enmeshed are the British forces in Iraq that they, too, have to play to the same set of rules.
22 October 2006