It has become crystal clear that fielding a competent Iraqi Army is a tenet of the U.S. exit strategy. What is far less apparent is what exactly constitutes a competent Iraqi fighting force, and how long it will be before it can relieve American troops.
The "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," which the administration unveiled last month, lists a series of metrics by which the success of Iraqi units will be gauged: the number of "actionable intelligence" tips received from Iraqis, the percentage of operations conducted by Iraqis alone or with minor coalition assistance, the number of car bombs intercepted and defused, and offensive operations conducted by Iraqi and coalition forces.
The strategy, however, makes no mention of how long it will take for Iraqi forces to take control of their country. The document makes vague references to "near term" goals of standing up "robust security forces" to gather intelligence, destroy terrorist networks, and maintain security. In the "medium term," the strategy calls for Iraqi forces to take the lead in defeating terrorists and insurgents and providing their own security.
The officer in charge of training Iraqi troops, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, said he could not offer specific timelines for reaching those goals. Notably, Dempsey told Pentagon reporters via telephone, he was not privy to the "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" until the White House released it to the public, on Nov. 30. "I'm not really exactly familiar with how we translate calendar years into short and midterm," Dempsey said.
Given the mind-numbingly complicated effort of building an Iraqi security force, any attempt to set rigid timeframes would not make sense, nor would it take into account the lessons from history, says retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, a historian and military analyst.
Political pressures to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq cannot make up for the fact that it takes many years to groom a large army, which in the case of Iraq, is expected to exceed 300,000 troops, organized into 10 divisions.
"Creating an army is very complex," says Scales. "There are so many moving parts."
Making matters worse is that the U.S. Army must create and mentor this force at the same time that it is fighting a guerilla war against insurgents, rogue militias and Al-Qaeda operatives.
"The hardest thing is to groom an indigenous army during a war," Scales says. In Vietnam in the 1960s, U.S. commanders in charge of training the local army found that their biggest problem was finding enough soldiers willing to fight and die for the cause. In Korea, American military advisors encountered plenty of able and willing soldiers, but their equipment and infrastructure was too dilapidated, and needed to be rebuilt from scratch.
Iraq's scenario has much in common with the Korean experience, says Scales. "We see a situation where the Iraqis-like the Koreans -had a burning desire to fight but didn't have the infrastructure."
That is both good and bad news for the United States, he adds. When building an army, having soldiers willing to fight is more essential than the infrastructure, but the lack of proper equipment and facilities poses some real hurdles, too.
Given the high rate of casualties seen amongst the ranks of the Iraqi security forces -which includes the army as well as the police-there is no question that many Iraqis are prepared to risk their lives for their country. But there also are troubling signs that sectarian politics, rather than national security, is the reason many Iraqis join the service.
Iraqi Vice President Ghazi al-Yawer recently decried a major "setback" in the U.S. effort to train Iraqi security forces as many of those troops have organized into death squads with the sole purpose of settling old scores among ethnic rivals, rather than focusing on capturing foreign terrorists or protecting citizens from criminals.
In media interviews, al-Yawer cited instances of Shiite security forces torturing Sunni detainees. He also charged that the clout of many Iraqi military commanders is based on political connections, rather than leadership and combat skills.
Scales, who recently spent time in Iraq and met with Dempsey, says there are reasons to be optimistic. He predicts that by late 2006, an Iraqi security force 300,000-strong will be able to participate in combat and perform "essential support functions." As it stands today, logistics is one of the major reasons why Iraqis can't engage in combat independently. Other reasons are poor communications systems and shortages of junior officers, according to Dempsey.
Junior-officer shortfalls are not unique to the Iraqi Army, Scales noted. "It's always your hardest problem, in all armies."
A more immediate concern is that Iraqi units don't have their own transportation assets, nor do they have administrative systems for managing spare parts. "Things we consider mundane and routine, in the Iraqi army, are a real problem," said Scales.
After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Saddam Hussein allowed the army to fall apart logistically and structurally, he says. "When I drove through one of his mega-installations, you could see a bone-yard filled literally with thousands of old trucks and fighting vehicles."
Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says logistics only gained high-priority status in the summer of 2005, when it became clear that U.S. commanders needed to expedite the training of the Iraqi force so they could fight independently. Before that, logistics had not been taken all that seriously, he says. "It took us about two years to both realize how serious the Iraq force development issue was, and then actually get the advisors, the money and resources in the field."
Despite the ongoing push to accelerate the training and equipping, he predicts, Iraqis will depend on U.S. military help for a long time, especially in areas such as artillery, logistics and air transportation.
"It's going to take an extremely long time to make it good," Scales says. But given how unpopular the war has become, "what's important is how long it will take to make it good enough."