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Setbacks temper expectations for Iraqi forces

Mar. 30, 2008 - 02:36PM   |   Last Updated: Mar. 30, 2008 - 02:36PM  |  
Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton, second from left, reviews Iraqi troops at a training facility in Taji, Iraq in June 2004.
Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton, second from left, reviews Iraqi troops at a training facility in Taji, Iraq in June 2004. (Jim Krane / The Associated Press)
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Iraqi army soldiers celebrate during a handing over ceremony in Karbala, Iraq in Oct. 2007. (Alaa al-Marjani / The Associated Press)

Iraq's new army is "developing steadily," with "strong Iraqi leaders out front," the chief U.S. trainer assured the American people.

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Iraq's new army is "developing steadily," with "strong Iraqi leaders out front," the chief U.S. trainer assured the American people.

That was three-plus years ago, the U.S. Army general was David H. Petraeus, and some of those Iraqi officials at the time were busy embezzling more than $1 billion allotted for the new army's weapons, according to investigators.

The 2004-05 Defense Ministry scandal was just one in an unending series of setbacks in the five-year struggle to "stand up" an Iraqi military and allow hard-pressed U.S. forces to "stand down" from Iraq.

The latest discouraging episode was unfolding this weekend in bloody Basra, the southern city where Iraqi government forces — in their toughest test yet — were still struggling to gain the upper hand in a five-day-old battle with Shiite Muslim militias.

Year by year, the goal of deploying a capable, free-standing Iraqi army has seemed always to slip further into the future. In the latest shift, with Petraeus now U.S. commander in Iraq, the Pentagon's new quarterly status report quietly drops any prediction of when homegrown units will take over security responsibility nationwide, after last year's reports had forecast a transition in 2008.

Earlier, in January last year, President Bush said Iraqi forces would take charge in all 18 Iraqi provinces by November 2007. Four months past that deadline, they control only half the 18.

Responsibility for these ever-unfulfilled goals lies in Washington, contends retired Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton, who preceded Petraeus as chief trainer in Iraq.

"We continue to fail to properly resource and build the very force that will enable a responsible drawdown of our forces," Eaton told The Associated Press.

Retired Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, a West Point professor and frequent Iraq visitor, also sees insufficient "energy" in the U.S. effort. "Even now, there is no Iraqi air force; there's no national military medical system; there's no maintenance system," he told a New York audience on March 13.

The current chief trainer counters that his Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, known as MNSTC-I, has made "huge progress in many areas, quality and quantity."

"But we're not free of difficulties," Lt. Gen. James Dubik told reporters on March 4.

A look back by the AP, as the Iraq conflict enters its sixth year, finds the $22 billion training effort has been a story of uncertain steps and policy reversals, corruption, questionable numbers and distrust, ending with an Iraqi military with narrow capabilities and years more "standing up" ahead.

The first reversal came even before the 2003 U.S. invasion, when the Pentagon discarded prewar plans that called for restructuring the 400,000-man Saddam Hussein-era army into a postwar force of 150,000 to 200,000.

Instead, U.S. occupation chief L. Paul Bremer ordered the old army disbanded, and the Bush administration opted for a token military force to guard Iraq's borders — an "afterthought," said Eaton.

"President Bush declared ‘mission accomplished' on 1 May, and on 9 May I get a phone call, ‘Get thee to Iraq and rebuild the Iraqi army.' I looked at my wife and she said, ‘A little late for that.' You would have expected this to be an ongoing program," Eaton recalled.

The makeshift plan envisioned putting one 700-man battalion at a time through a nine-week training course — a rate that would have produced a mere 8,000 troops over two years.

Eaton persuaded Defense Department officials to raise that target to 40,000 troops by late 2004, but even that was a "patently inadequate force," says Ali Allawi, later Iraq's defense minister.

"Deep suspicions began to be harbored as to the true intentions" of the Americans, Allawi writes in his memoir, "The Occupation of Iraq."

Abdulwahab al-Qassab, a retired Iraqi major general who observed developments from a post at Baghdad University, contends the Americans never wanted to rebuild a solid Iraqi army.

"It wasn't welcomed by the Israelis, the Kurdish factions that used to fight the Iraqi army, and some of the Shiites," al-Qassab said in an interview.

Walter B. Slocombe, who was Bremer's chief defense aide, denied to the AP that Israel's interests influenced U.S. actions, but he and other U.S. officials have acknowledged that the animosity of Iraq's Kurds and Shiites to the old Iraqi army helped shape those early decisions.

As 2003 wore on, Vinnell Corp., the U.S. military contractor hired to do the training, proved unequal to the task. The first Iraqi battalion, graduating in October, quickly fell apart because of desertions, and the second battalion refused to fight against insurgents in Fallujah in April 2004. The Jordanian army, meanwhile, was asked to take over training Iraqi officers.

As of June 2004, when Bremer's occupation authority gave way to a sovereign Iraqi government, the military still numbered only 7,000 men, as the focus shifted to fielding Iraqi police. Paul Wolfowitz, deputy defense secretary, predicted — incorrectly — the Iraqis could soon "take local control of the cities."

The evolving training program, now a mixed U.S.-Iraqi effort, was plagued with problems. Petraeus' new MNSTC-I was slow to be staffed. Meanwhile, top Defense Ministry officials, including the minister, Hazem Shaalan, were methodically looting the procurement budget of at least $1.3 billion, Iraqi investigators allege. Shaalan, who denies the accusations, and most of the others left the country by mid-2005.

By then the Pentagon was reporting 60,000 "trained and equipped" Iraqi troops available, a number achieved only by integrating lightly armed national guard units into the army. American commanders "do not report reliable data" on training and equipping Iraqi forces, U.S. government auditors complained. By late 2005, the U.S. command had to acknowledge that only one of 86 Iraqi army battalions was ready to fight on its own.

The Iraqis still were not given artillery, big mortars or other heavy weapons. Iraq's political unpredictability and dangerous sectarian-political divides clearly made the Americans wary that heavy weapons might be turned against them, concludes Arab military analyst Nizar Adul Kader.

"This could have been one of the fears that Americans had to take into consideration," said Kader, a retired Lebanese major general.

Auditors also found that the training command kept such poor records on distribution of personal weapons to Iraqi soldiers that some may have been passed on to insurgents or anti-American militias.

When Sunni-Shiite hostilities exploded into a bloodbath in 2006 — up to 60 civilian killings a day in Baghdad alone — it exposed the unreliability of the Iraqi military, some of whose units, paralyzed by desertions and reluctant officers and troops, failed to back up U.S. operations.

The U.S. command's goals for a homegrown takeover of most Iraqi security slipped — from spring 2006, to late summer, and then beyond. In November 2006, the Pentagon forecast that all 18 provinces would come under Iraqi security control "in 2007."

Reviews in 2007, by a congressionally mandated commission, by Government Accountability Office analysts, by the Pentagon itself, found that Iraq's sectarian animosities had permeated and weakened army units, heavily Shiite and Kurdish. A civil war among Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni factions could shatter the military.

Last November, GAO auditors again sharply questioned Pentagon claims on the number of Iraqi battalions able to operate "independently," since such units often depend on U.S. fuel, ammunition and other supplies, American advisers and intelligence, and U.S. air support.

Desertions persisted. In its latest quarterly report, in early March, the Pentagon says some 197,000 military personnel have now been trained, but that number includes the equivalent of two divisions — 27,000 men — estimated to have gone AWOL in 2007. Some 224,000 police are listed as trained, including an unknown number who left their posts.

The Iraqi military's list of unmet needs remains long: artillery and modern armor; advanced communications and intelligence systems; a logistics network able to supply everything from food and fuel to transport and ammunition; combat hospitals; airpower.

"This is not a balanced fighting force," said al-Qassab, the retired Iraqi general. "It's only people armed with assault rifles and pickup trucks and they go and raid like a militia."

The Iraqis and Americans are working to make Iraqi logistics self-sufficient by mid-2009. But as for "fire support," training command spokesman Lt. Col. Dan Williams said, "heavier artillery is still a ways down the road."

Regarding Iraq's tiny air force, a handful of helicopters, old transports and light planes, "in my opinion, we were late to start on this," Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert R. Allardice told the AP last June, as he took over aviation training in Baghdad.

Today, as he leaves the command, Allardice confirms there are still no plans for modern jet fighters for the Iraqis, only small, propeller-driven attack planes.

Chief trainer Dubik, meanwhile, is troubled by a shortage of midlevel Iraqi officers. The Pentagon's March report says this shortage "will take years to close."

It looks like years, not months, will be the measure of progress. After a half-decade of war, Dubik says Iraqi defense officials don't expect to take over internal security until as late as 2012, and won't be able to defend Iraq's borders until 2018.

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