In the field with the Iraqi Army

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This Sunday’s New York Times Magazine had an excellent piece on the progress of the Iraqi army, from a reporter who traveled to Anbar province to see them in action.

Some excerpts:

Anbar has long been what the military calls an “economy of force� operation, which is a polite way of saying that troop requirements elsewhere in Iraq have led American commanders to employ fewer forces in the province than the situation warrants. As a consequence, counterinsurgency operations have taken on the quality of a whack-a-mole arcade game. Every time the Americans have massed force to put out one fire, they have created a vacuum elsewhere that the insurgents have rushed to fill. When the Marines gathered forces to clear Falluja in 2004, they drew troops from the Haditha area, where the insurgents promptly moved in and executed the defenseless local police near the town’s soccer field. The Marines returned in strength to Haditha and established several forward bases, including the one at Barwana, but then many of the troops were sent to the far west when commanders decided to clear Al Qaim, near the Syrian border. And the insurgents filtered back to Haditha.

Gosh. How surprising. Been saying that for years.

Some of the Marine officers I talked with were frank about the need for more American troops. Lt. Col. Ronald Gridley, executive officer with Regimental Combat Team 7, which has responsibility for a major swath of the province, told me during a visit to the unit’s headquarters at Al Asad that the regiment has recommended that additional troops be allocated to its section of Anbar. A battalion or two, he said, would help a great deal. “What we recommend and what we get is going to be two different things,� Colonel Gridley said. “In our perfect world, we could use some more infantrymen to be able to patrol the streets and partner with the Iraqi Army.�

But wait. I thought the commanders were getting all the troops they needed?

Officially, the Bush administration’s strategy is: Clear, hold and build. But with limited American forces to do any clearing, the war in western Iraq looks much more like hang on and hand over. Hang on against an insurgency that seems to be laying roadside bombs as quickly as they are discovered, and hand over to an Iraqi military that is still a work in progress.

Yep. We have refused to commit the resources necessary to execute our stated strategy. Not sure what you would call that, but it sure isn’t success.

The Iraqi Army itself, while all-volunteer and reasonably well motivated, is hobbled by corruption, bureaucracy and a society lacking in some basic infrastructure.

Greenwood explained that the pay issues in Haditha were quite common. In the Anbar region, about 550 Iraqi soldiers received no pay for June, while another 2,200 were receiving less pay than they were entitled to by rank. During one of his many trips to Baghdad to wrestle with the Iraqi bureaucracy, Greenwood was told that 19 men who were owed back pay had mysteriously vanished from the rolls of trained soldiers � and the only way they could get back on the payroll was to go through boot camp all over again.

Logistics was another of Greenwood’s worries. American commanders in Baghdad had pushed the Iraqis to take over responsibility for their own logistics, but that led to cases in which Iraqi soldiers had received spoiled meat and rotten vegetables. …

Each month, Iraqi soldiers are granted about a week’s leave to deliver their pay to their families, who may live hundreds of miles away, a tradition that reflects the lack of an effective banking system in Iraq. With all the dangers, hardships and problems in receiving pay, the soldiers do not always come back.

The article notes that the people on the ground are professional, capable and motivated. But the problems appear to be endemic and pervasive — and getting worse rather than better.

This is not winning. This is hanging on — while the insurgency gets stronger.

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