Saturday, April 11, 2009

Are Iraqi Forces Ready?

The Obama administration has committed itself to a timetable for withdrawal. Following the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) signed between the Bush White House and Baghdad, American combat troops are to be out of the country's cities by June 2009, and then be completely withdrawn by the end of 2011. The question then is whether the Iraqi forces are up to the job of taking over security. There is little reporting on specific operations by Iraqi units, but the anecdotal stories that are available show a mixed bag.

In November 2008 the U.S. signed the SOFA with the government of Iraq. Under this agreement U.S. combat troops are to withdraw from major cities and towns to their bases by June 30, 2009. U.S. soldiers responsible for training Iraqis would remain, and American troops will still carry out operations within Iraq. There is some talk about Iraqis asking U.S. forces to stay in certain unstable areas such as Baquba in Diyala province and Mosul in Ninewa, in addition to Basra beyond the June deadline. American troop levels are also expected to drop from around 140,000 in March 2009 to approximately 128,000 by September. They would stay at that level until after the Iraqi parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for December. After the balloting is over and confirmed troops levels are supposed to drop to around 35,000-50,000 by August 2010, and then be completely out by December 31, 2011.

If this arrangement is followed through with, Iraqi forces will have primary responsibility for most of Iraq by this summer. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has repeatedly said that his forces are up to the challenge. The size of the Iraqi security forces has almost doubled from around 320,000 in January 2007 to 637,495 by December 31, 2008.

According to the Pentagon's quarterly reports to Congress the number of National Police battalions operating went from 27 to 34 from January 2007 to October 2008. The National Police are a paramilitary force that supports the military in counterinsurgency operations. In January 2007 23 battalions were partially capable of conducting operations in coordination with Coalition forces, and four could plan and carry out operations with U.S. support. None were considered independent yet. By October 2008 that had grown to 1 battalion being formed, 15 that were partially ready to operate with U.S. forces, 16 that could operate with U.S. support, and two that could work independently. That showed that during the process of expansion the National Police had been able to keep up with its training and readiness with the percentage of units capable of operating with some support going from 14.8% in January 2007 to 47% in October 2008, and the number of independent battalions going from zero to two.

From the beginning of 2007 to late 2008 the number of Army battalions went from 112 to 175. In January 2007 five were being formed and couldn't operate yet, 17 were dependent upon U.S. forces, 78 could operate but with Coalition support, and 12 were considered independent. By October 2008 five battalions were being formed, 54 were incapable of working without U.S. forces, 99 were semi-dependent, and 17 were considered independent. By December the Pentagon reported that 165 of 185 Iraqi battalions were in the lead or independent. The Army has gone through the most growth so its capabilities have been harder to keep up with. In October 2008 15.1% of the force were partially capable and in January 2009 that had increased to 30.8%. The number of battalions capable of operating with some Coalition support went down from 69.6% to 56.5%, while those considered independent dropped from 10.7% to 9.7%. What these numbers actually mean is still up to debate as Anthony Cordesman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies has often pointed out.

Status Of Iraqi Forces

Incapable of Operating

Partially Capable

Capable With Coalition Support



National Police Battalions

Jan 2007






Oct 2008






Iraqi Army Battalions

Jan 2007






Oct 2008






The Iraqi Army is considered farther along than the police. U.S. officers often say that their Iraqi counterparts are more capable of carrying out operations, however their quality still varies. An American commander told the Stars and Stripes in February 2009 that they still don't trust Iraqis with advance information on operations. The U.S. believes many Iraqi units are infiltrated with insurgents and militiamen. A U.S. commander found an Iraqi officer in southern Baghdad who was tipping off Shiite militias before raids for example. Rather than being fired or punished he was simply transferred to a Sunni area. U.S. soldiers and contractors are supposed to be partnered with all new Iraqi Army units. A U.S. officer that ran one of these Military Transition Teams meant to train Iraqis said there weren't enough Americans to advise all the Iraqi units so most of them have been okayed to operate whether they are ready or not. Another issue is the motivation of Iraqi troops. After the SOFA was passed all U.S. operations are supposed to be carried out jointly with Iraqi forces, although this does not always happen. There have been several stories that in practice, it is usually the Americans that initiate and lead patrols. The same Stars and Stripes article followed one patrol in Diyala that had the Americans doing all the work. A U.S. unit showed up and told the Iraqis that they were going on a mission. The Americans ended up arresting a suspected insurgent. The event was recorded as an Iraqi led patrol and nabbing. It's also still common for large numbers of Iraqi soldiers to be on leave at any given time.

The Iraqi police still have far more problems. Iraqi soldiers are drawn from across the country and are usually rotated. Police on the other hand, are locally recruited and serve in those same areas. That means they are more open to influence by political parties, militias, and others. There is also the issue of infiltration. On February 24, 2009 an Iraqi policeman shot and killed a U.S. soldier, an interpreter and two Iraqi policemen in Mosul. Three American soldiers and another interpreter were also wounded in the attack. In another incident in that city, a U.S. patrol was attacked with two grenades with Iraqi police looking on who did nothing. Abuse is often common in Iraqi jails as the judicial system relies upon confessions rather than evidence. A review of the Interior Ministry by the William and Mary College however said that the leadership is developing, and progress is being made fighting corruption and sectarianism. The Interior Minister claimed in March 2009 that he had fired 62,000 members of the Ministry since he took office in 2006 in an attempt to clean it up. The major problem the William and Mary researchers found was that the police and Interior were not institutions yet that followed rules and regulations, but were mainly driven by individuals. The National Police are the elite of the Interior Ministry, and have been largely cleaned up of militias, and are doing much better.

Does this mixed bag of reports make for a competent security force that is ready to protect the country? A phrase "Iraqi good enough" has often been mentioned as a response. Iraqi forces are not up to the quality or standards of American forces, but Iraq is not the United States. There will still be problems with outside influences, corruption, and abuses, but Iraq's police and army for the most part are probably competent enough to hold areas and fight insurgents or militiamen when confronted. They also have until 2011 to develop with American assistance. That may be good enough for Iraq.


Arraf, Jane, “US general: American forces may not leave key Iraqi cities,” Christian Science Monitor, 3/27/09

Associated Press, “Iraqis fear U.S. pullout of volatile Mosul,” 3/9/09
- “U.S. troops to remain active in Iraq after pullback,” 3/15/09

Cordesman Anthony, “The Changing Situation In Iraq,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 4/1/09
- “How Soon Is Safe? Iraqi Force Development And ‘Conditions-Based’ US Withdrawals, Final Pre-Publication Draft,” 2/17/09

Department of Defense, “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq,” December 2008

DeYoung, Karen and Kornblut, Anne, “Obama to Announce U.S. Troop Withdrawal in Iraq,” Washington Post, 2/27/09

Druzin, Heath, “Coalition forces fight in insurgent stronghold while residents urge U.S. troops to leave Mosul,” Stars and Stripes, 3/8/09
- “Iraqis taking the lead? Yes and no,” Stars and Stripes, 2/22/09
- “Shooting of four U.S. troops highlights trust issues between two forces,” Stars and Stripes, 2/27/09

Engle, Richard, “The sixth war in Iraq,” NBC News, 3/20/09

Human Rights Watch, “The Quality of Justice, Failings of Iraq’s Central Criminal Court,” December 2008

Kaplow, Larry, “The Last Day of the Iraq War,” Newsweek, 1/12/09

Salaheddin, Sinan, “Iraqi security leader wants ‘war of intelligence,’” Associated Press, 3/14/09

Sherman, Matt and Carstens, Roger, “Cooling the Streets: Institutional Reforms in Iraq’s Ministry of Interior,” Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations at The College of William and Mary, 11/14/08

Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, “Quarterly Report and Semiannual Report to the United States Congress,” 1/30/09

United States Government Accountability Office, “IRAQ Key Issues for Congressional Oversight,” March 2009


Elizabeth Miller said...

In my view, the critical question is when will the Iraqi government - with LOTS OF HELP from the US, UN, regional and major powers etc. etc. etc. - begin to move toward NATIONAL political reconciliation.

Unless and until this process begins, the "Iraqi security forces" will NEVER be ready, plain and simple.

AndrewSshi said...

The giant worry here seems to be Mosul. As long as Maliki can keep the Sahwa more or less signed on (or transitioned to the police) for things in Diyala and western and southern Baghdad, the great challenge that the Iraqi Army and police have is in Mosul, since that's the one part of the country where there's still an honest-to-goodness, "al Douri *will* march triumphantly into the Green Zone, dammit!" insurgency.

I think that it's still anybody's guess if they're ready to do most of the heavy lifting there themselves.

Joel Wing said...


The Iraqi general in charge of Mosul says that the forces there are not ready to take responsibility from the Americans. The local police especially are undermanned and underequipped.

After the elections violence in Mosul has gone right back up to what it was before. I think for two months there were no mass casualty bombings there for example, now there were two in just the last couple weeks, one of which wounded 70.


I think in terms of their day to day responsibilities the Iraqi forces for the most part can do their job. Not great, but good enough.

In the bigger picture however, they do need to come up with a resolution to the growing Arab-Kurdish dispute.

Maliki for example wants the Iraqi Army to take control of all of Ninewa province and that's causing a lot of tension. The northern section of the province is controlled by the Kurds. There was almost a shootout between an Iraqi Army patrol and a peshmerga unit a little while ago. Also during one flare up some Kurdish units in the security forces refused to follow orders.

AndrewSshi said...

That's why I find Mosul so worrying. If there's not some sort of reconciliation, the ongoing insurgency there could metastasize into something nationwide again.

Joel Wing said...

Things could always get worse in Mosul, but I'm not sure that would spread to the rest of the country. I think the reason why the insurgents have been able to hold out so long there is because of the tensions between Arabs and Kurds. That doesn't exist in most of the country, just in Ninewa, Tamim and Diyala.

AndrewSshi said...

I agree that the big thing that allows the bad guys to still flourish in Mosul is the ethic difficulties, but giving the insurgency even some neighborhoods where they're more or less free to move without let or hindrance could have effects far out of proportion to the amount of real estate they're holding down.

Hell, Fallujah in 2004 and then western Baghdad and the Salman Pak/Iskandariya area in 2005-6 gave them enough places to build, store, and ship enough bombs to make things very, very difficult for the U.S. Now granted, Fallujah and the so-called Baghdad belts were a close enough drive into downtown Baghdad that it made it easy to foment chaos from there, but it's still only a day's drive from Mosul.

Elizabeth Miller said...


I really wish that I could share your apparent optimism when it comes to the possibility of sectarian violence raising its ugly head again...and, I'd like to understand what this optimism is based on...

Joel Wing said...


Point taken about having a base to facilitate attacks throughout the rest of the country. There is hardly anything written about the actual insurgency or AQI these days, but last thing I read were that a lot of the attacks in Baghdad were being organized from the rural areas of Diyala. The Interior Ministry also recently warned that there were sleeper cells in Baghad itself that were carrying out the recent bombings.


The reason why I don't think sectarian fighting between Sunnis and Shiites will break out anytime soon is based upon a couple things.

1) Attacks are down 80%. Before the violence was across large stretches of the country in every region. Now almost all the attacks are in Baghdad, Diyala, Ninewa, Salahaddin and Tamim. That's mostly northern Iraq where the insurgents are using the disputes with the Kurds to portray themselves as the protectors of the Arabs. The South is almost completely devoid of violence and Anbar has hardly any incidents anymore

2) Civilian deaths are down from 2,000 a month at the height of the sectarian war down to between 300-400/month. Usually a couple mass casualty bombings account for a large number of those casualties.

3) The last several public opinion polls of Iraqis show that they are increasingly feeling safe and secure and positive about their future within their own neighborhood. When asked about the rest of the country they still have a lot of reservations and don't seem to be comfortable going out of their neighborhood. I think if sectarian tensions were still high they wouldn't have those views.

4) Almost every Shiite religious holiday pilgrims are attacked with bombings and the Shiites haven't responded.

5) The Mahdi Army has been disbanded, and the Special Groups aren't even really active anymore.

6) The National Police that were basically a Shiite death squad has been largely purged and are much more professional now.

7) Despite the government's crackdowns on Sons of Iraq in 2008 and this year, there has only been one outburst of fighting which lasted 2 days in one neighborhood of Baghdad.

8) Inter-Shiite violence is even down. The Sadrists and Supreme Council use to knock each other off quite often. That's been over for a while now.

9) The ethnic cleansing of Baghdad has been solidified by the blast walls put up by the U.S., and the end of the fighting. Very few displaced and refugees have come back as well to disrupt that.

That doesn't mean that sectarianism doesn't exist anymore. It's just not being expressed through mass violence anymore.

Joel Wing said...

I forgot to mention that many, perhaps the majority of Sunnis, have also given up on the insurgency.

This Day In Iraqi History - Jul 20 Ayatollah Khomeini endorsed ceasefire in Iran-Iraq War

  1920 Pro-Independence delegation of Iraqis met UK High Commissioner Wilson who invited 20 pro-British Iraqis Meeting w...