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October 14, 2005

Training Whom For What
Posted by Morton H. Halperin

Most participants in the policy process in Washington know what they believe and what they want to see happen. Thus the lesson they learn is that the solution they had in mind is now needed more than ever. Think of a town full of solutions looking for problems.

Katrina is a prefect example. Liberals brought out their plans to deal with the problems of the poor. Against the backdrop of vivid images that sear the national conscience, they argued that the needs of America's poor were urgent. Conservatives said Katrina proved the limits of government and that we needed solutions that involve less government, such as stripping away environmental laws and labor standards.

The debate over Iraq is at one level a debate about what the true lessons of Vietnam were. Former Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird has weighed in with the Kissinger version of Vietnam -- by a combination of a carefully phased withdrawal, matched by training of the Vietnamese and threats of further escalation, we had won the war, only to see victory taken away by the American people who removed the threat of escalation and cut aid to our allies.

The fatal flaw in that argument is what I want to discuss, because it goes to the heart of the question of how well we are doing in training the Iraqi army and when that will enable us to leave. We tried to do the same in Vietnam and there is much that we should learn from that effort.

First we need to ask who we are recruiting. Those involved in the screening process admit that is is very hard to do. The question is not whether the person has a criminal background but rather to whom he (or she) gives loyalty. In Vietnam we learned after it was over that about one third of those we armed and trained were actually in the Viet Cong Army. This meant surprise operations were impossible and a significant part of our force was actually on the other side. There is every reason to believe that this is true now in Iraq. There is no foolproof way to screen for insurgents.

In Vietnam, another roughly one third of the trainees in the Republic of Vietnam's army (ARVN) would quickly take the weapons they were given and sell them on the black market. In Iraq we again see signs of the same thing with large desertion levels and US weapons showing up in insurgency hands. The remaining ARVN troops, neither secretly the enemy or ready to desert and sell what they had been given, were in it for the pay and for the prestige and the opportunity to plunder. It was no wonder that despite years of training and the provision of equipment far superior to the enemy the ARVN was never capable of winning either the guerrilla war or the full scale battles that marked the final stages of the conflict. This was not for lack of training but for lack of commitment. The military leaders were riddled with those who had fought on the side of the French and the Japanese and had their evacuation plans in better shape than those of the US military. The others lacked the incentive to fight since they lacked an allegiance which is the bedrock of campaign effectiveness.

So in Iraq we put much of our faith and our hope in the process of training the Iraqi Army. The unstated assumption is that Iraqi men do not know how to fight and if only exposed to western methods will be able to deal with the insurgency. Even sharp critics of the war call for better and more training as if it would provide a way out. The unexamined but false assumptions behind this policy are monumental.

Start with the question of who needs training. The insurgents clearly do not. Nor do the various militias who have challenged the government from time to time and are clearly better fighting units than the Iraqi army units we have trained. The militias guarding the various Iraqi leaders, including the President and Prime Minister, are effective fighting forces. None of them requires US air power or embedded allied forces to fight effectively. The insight is simple: Many Iraqis know how to fight and will do so when they are led by leaders to whom they have a clear allegiance. The United States and the vague notion of a unified Iraqi government is not sufficient.

We need to consider who we are actually training and what we can hope to accomplish. While we will not know the precise number until later, there is every reason to believe that many of those we recruit in the army and the police are actually part of the insurgency and at the very least provide tactical intelligence. Many others come for the pay and to get a rifle and other equipment that they sell before deserting. We know that desertion rates are very high. Finally there are the ones who stay perhaps for the paycheck or the opportunity for graft. Certainly there are some who stay because they feel allegiance to a new united Iraq, but these are no where near enough. It should not be a surprise that we are left with the forces that -- unlike all the others in Iraq -- cannot fight alone and show no sign of being able to any time in the future.

US military officials have said unequivocally that they cannot win this war by military means alone; certainly the Iraqi Army we believe we are training cannot either. This means we can stay and fight until the American people tire of the effort, the sacrifice of Americans and of the cost, and insist that we come home quickly. That would be failing to learn the fundamental lesson of Vietnam -- that without domestic support the war cannot be sustained. Nor can we hope to prevail by relying on the strategy of training an indigenous army and expect it to win a war we cannot win.

We need a negotiated solution which I tired to sketch last week. We need to develop a set of tasks for the American military that includes preventing coups or outbreaks of conflict among those now allied with us. At the same time we need to bring in Iraq's neighbors and the UN for serious discussions about how to maintain a unified and relatively peaceful Iraq.

On a personal note I am still learning the blogging game. So while I very much appreciated the comments on my first post, I did not reply. I will this time.


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Dr. Halperin -- with your argument on the importance of motivation in training foreign troops in these types of situations, it's easy to see why over time your military that you were trying to stand up would take on a sectarian cast. In Iraq, for instance, it's Shi'ites and Kurds who want to avenge their communities upon the Sunni Arabs. This isn't exactly new information, but I haven't seen such a stark illustratrion of the problem until now.

We need to consider who we are actually training and what we can hope to accomplish. While we will not know the precise number until later, there is every reason to believe that many of those we recruit in the army and the police are actually part of the insurgency and at the very least provide tactical intelligence.

Thanks to praktike, who posted a link to the very same KR story I was going to cite. (And thanks to Kevin Drum, who posted the link at his Washington Monthly blog yesterday.) The biggest problem with the new Iraqi armed forces seems not to be infiltration by the Sunni insurgents. Rather, the main problem is that these forces are overwhelmingly composed of converted Shiite and Kurdish militias, eager to take advantage of the assistance offered by their new US buddies to rule the country, and along the way to turn the tables and exact some payback from the Sunni Arab groups that were, until very recently, their oppressors.

No wonder that Iraq's Sunni Arabs are none too eager to see the current political process succeed. And no wonder that insurgent operations have move increasingly away from direct attacks on the US, and more toward attacks on the new government and its agencies. As the government and its armed forces "stand up", Sunni Arabs are smacked down.

Personally, I am skeptical that the slow pace of building up the Iraqi armed forces is due to difficulties in "training". The problem is finding any substantial group of capable individuals in Iraq that any US leader in his right mind would dream of fully arming, and putting in charge of the country's security. There is no party of non-sectarian "Iraqi nationalists" of adequate size and sufficient commitment to run the country in a manner remotely in sympathy US interests. The most numerous, organized and committed groups apparently have other agendas. The US failure in Iraq is not military training so much as what the communists used to call "political re-education". There don't seem to be a lot of Iraqis committed to the Democratic Nationalist ideology that quickens the heartbeats of the political revolutionaries in Washington.

US officials recently spoke darkly about the small number of Iraqi troops who were capable of operating on their own, without US advisors. I suspect the concern is not so much about military capabilities, as about commitment to something close to US goals. These troops must have US babysitters with them in the field, to prevent them from engaging in ethnic cleansing, score-settling, kidnapping and other kinds of base criminality.

I think part of the motivation for recruiting soldiers into the armed forces is just to take a lot of young men off the street, where they would be engaged in even less wholesome activities, and give them jobs. There are only so many young guys you can stuff into Abu Ghraib. Perhaps our next move should be to build up the Iraqi Navy. Offer some big signing bonuses to a few million young guys, put them on decommissioned US and British ships, and float them around in the Indian Ocean for a few years. Call it "training".

This looks extremely serious.

So we need the US army on the ground to keep the iraqi army from doing genocidal stuff. And the stronger the iraqi army gets, the stronger the US army has to be to stop them. We can't stand down as they stand up. If we get too weak then we can't stop them; they'll turn on us.

It's sounding more and more like what we need to do is provide money (and maybe physical assistance) to help the relocation of civilians go smoothly. When we help get the target civilians out of harm's way we are helping the ethnic cleansing happen, but we are also reducing the violence.

All these attacks that are purported to be by sunnis are pretty disturbing too. Are they really sunnis? Lots of iraqis think the british guys who got found posing as arabs were really doing terrorist actions that would get blamed on sunnis or somebody. I don't see any way we could exploit that. If we found a bunch of israelis doing it and announced that, it would only cause more trouble for israel. Maybe if we leave we could let them think it was us doing it, and that might help them lay off the sunnis some? But that would be bad for us in the long run. Maybe it really is sunnis, how would I know?

I'm stuck with hindsight. If we hadn't encouraged ethnic splitting so much. If we hadn't encouraged the shia to revolt back in the Bush I days. I think in general it's bad to encourage a subject population to revolt unless we can provide enough aid for them to win. We were wrong with the kurds and with the tibetans and so on. Real wrong with the Contras. When the revolt fails it causes too much hard feeling and hard feeling against us and people are likely to remember when we come back.

Maybe we could start training units that are 20% kurd and 20% sunni and 40% shia and 20% american? It doesn't sound plausible.

And then I remember we went after the shia group that was most ready to accept sunnis, partly *because* they weren't against sunnis. Back in those days we were talking like we'd leave iraq someday, maybe in 5 or 10 years, but then we were still in germany after 50 years. We didn't do anything to give them the idea we actually intended to leave someday. And now we're having trouble getting out.

I dunno. Halperin's idea looks like it's part of what we *have* to do if we don't give up. But giving up looks more nad more like the least bad approach to me.

At the same time we need to bring in Iraq's neighbors and the UN for serious discussions about how to maintain a unified and relatively peaceful Iraq.

How do you propose to pressure the Bush administration into talking with Syria and Iran? There was a story in the Financial Times last week that claimed Hadley was scouting around for someone to replace Assad, and negotiations now consist of catapulting messages at each other.

Cal, It's not a question of "pressuring"--it's a question of which faction in the administration will win the argument. There's been a debate raging for a long time and I feel like it's now coming to a head.

it's a question of which faction in the administration will win the argument.

Is either faction suggesting that we negotiate with Syria? My sense is that one side wants to issue ultimatums and the other side just wants to bomb Syria into anarchy.

It's inconceivable that Bush would actually talk to Syria and Iran about stabilizing Iraq. The howls from the neocons and Christian conservatives would be deafening. (Not to mention the fact that it would be humiliating for Bush personally.)

It's been obvious for some time that negotiating with Iraq's neighbors is necessary if we want to avoid catastrophe. The reason it hasn't been done is because it is politically impossible for Bush to do.

Cal, It's not a question of "pressuring"--it's a question of which faction in the administration will win the argument. There's been a debate raging for a long time and I feel like it's now coming to a head.

In the current environment, I worry about ideologically motivated officers in the field taking matters into their own hands, and manufacturing incidents that will force the political hands of leaders in Washington and Damascus, or provide the pretexts the war party needs to pump up the noise machine and expand the war into other countries. Or perfectly legitimate skirmishes with insurgents that fall within the authorized rules of engagement could escalate accidentally into engagements with Syrian troops along the Iraq-Syria border. I was disturbed to read last week that at least one such firefight has already occurred.

The factional conflict in the administration always seems to be coming to a head, but so far has never been resolved. It has been going on since the beginning of the Bush administration. It is disturbing that Bush himself seems incapable of choosing a side in this conflict. Even while elevating Rice, who seems inclined to move in a more practical direction, he appoints Bolton to the UN ambassadorship, and lets that guy run his own competing foreign policy out of New York.

Bush has two major Washington constituencies that he apparently can't afford to lose. So far, he has seemed perfectly content to preside over an incoherent, bipolar foreign policy, so long as he is able to keep both constituencies just happy enough that they don't abandon him. Bush doesn't play politics because politics is a pragmatic necessity that serves a clear, dominant agenda; he articulates and pursues agendas from time to time because agendas placate the constituencies that are the pieces in the political game. He rationalizes his approach as "creative tension", but it is just political pandering and placating as usual.

On the other hand, it may also be that Bush is simply too dull even to understand some of the policy debates that swirl around him, and doesn't recognize that his supposed underlings are actually pursuing conflicting goals. He seems preternaturally vulnerable to sycophancy, and seems to make his personnel decisions on the basis of the shine he has taken to an individual, rather than that individual's policy agenda.

It does seem that the revolutionary hawks are down. Wolfowitz and Feith are gone, Libby is on the way out, Cheney is in semi-seclusion and the Plame and Franklin cases have weakened them all. But these guys have been down before, and they always seem to find a way to come back. Lead by Kristol and Frum, the chief propagandists, they have used the Miers nomination to fire a very large shot across the administration's bow, and have let Bush know in no uncertain terms that he cannot take their support for granted.

It seems depressingly easy to ignite a conflict with Syria. Just wait for some major insurgent attack, and then find one of these marvelous letters that keep turning up in Iraq - this time one from Syrian intelligence to neo-Baathist insurgent leaders. (Our enemies have a remarkably difficult time hanging onto their mail.) I'd like to think our media is up to the task of sniffing out forgeries and disinformation, but it took them a long time to get on the case of the Niger-uranium letter, didn't it? Even after Joe Wilson wrote his editorial and trashed the letter, most of the press was much less interested in following-up on the susbtance of the matter - where the letter came from, what was the truth about Iraq's alleged WMD programs, etc. - than they were in following the scandalous and partisan "Plame-gate" side of the story. The issues raised by the letter itself were considered incidental to the whiff of administration scandal, and the blood in the political waters. There is only one story in Washington - the eternal partisan battle between Democrats and Republicans. Until some story is folded up into a typical scandal story, or partisan political battle, it tends to be ignored.

Bush strikes me as a dull-minded and a weak leader, a rather typical pol with a folksy delivery, and a modest talent for affecting a steely-eyed glint and stiff-shouldered resolution. On his good days, he can at least create the appearance that he is in charge and knows what he is doing. But he hasn't had many good days lately. I wouldn't count on any deep administration foreign policy conflicts being resolved under Bush. He possesses neither the brains nor the stones to take charge of these matters. He is likely to keep bumbling along, while cannier people pull the strings, direct the flow of events and drag his administration this way and that.

Isn't one problem when talking about negotiating with Syria and Iran that you assume those two countries are actually interested in a productive negotiation? Why should Iran want to give us anything (though they may wish to have us at the negotiating table so they could appear to have us negotiating)? Even if their diplomats were interested, doesn't the intelligence agency tail wag the policy dog a bit in Iran? Take the US problems with State vs Pentagon vs CIA and step up exponentially... Syria might be more willing to talk, but there seems to be conflicting behavior coming out of them, too. Lastly, shouldn't the Turks and Saudis be brought into this, the former because of the Kurdish question, and the latter because of the unfortunate habit of Saudi teens to go to Iraq and be martyrs--encouraged no small amount by various imams and a mind-boggling anti-Western school curriculum?

I appreciate the interest generated by my post here and on other blogs.
One interesting issue raised in the comments is whether it every makes sense to proposed solutions that you know the President in office will never accept. I think the answer is yes. It serves to demonstrate that progressives have ideas about what to do as well as criticisms of what is being done. Moreover, one never knows. Sometimes if one hits the right momement with the right idea it gets adopted despite all the cynics.
On the regional conference it should include all of Iraq's neighbors and the P-5 and the UN. In an ideal world the President would go (as many have done) and immerse himself in the frank discussion of competing interests that is needed.

I agree that it's fine to suggest solutions, provided you have no political credibility. Somebody might notice and start to try them.

It is wrong for opposition politicians to propose solutions because they will be misrepresented by the press. At this time there are only three possibilities for politicians.

1. Support the war.
2. Be silent or waffle.
3. Oppose the war.

#1 is stupid. #3 will get a large bunch of wingnuts to be deeply permanently against you. They'll rant about you in the same breath with Jane Fonda until you're out of office.

There's no point in politicians or political candidates suggesting anything more subtle than staying the course or bugging out, until they can get the media attention to actually explain what they mean.

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