TCS Daily

Iraqis Need to Bear the Burden

By Melana Zyla Vickers - May 26, 2004 12:00 AM

How's this for conscientious objection? If the new Iraqi army does not want to participate in military operations in Iraq, it doesn't have to. Americans will do the work instead.

One might think such an arrangement would be the fantasy of some exertion-averse Iraqi, insufficiently grateful to the U.S. for its multi-billion-dollar, multi-thousand-troop ouster of Saddam and now determined to keep his Guccis shiny while American soldiers toil in the heat, dust and gunfire.

But it's not an Iraqi fantasy. It's an arrangement proposed by the American government itself.

"Can (Iraqi forces) opt out of an operation if they don't want to or something of that nature? And the answer has to be yes," Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 18. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz added: "I agree exactly."

If ever there was an illustration of what's wrong with the administration's perception of the U.S. role in Iraq, this is it: Current Iraq policy puts the U.S. military far too much in the front and center in that country, and relies far too little on transferring the burden of fighting armed insurgents, nation-building and policework to the Iraqis. The reasoning ranges from the Iraqis being unready and untrained, to them being unwilling, to them being unable to take the lead role in their own security and defense.

Yet sidelining the Iraqis with exceptions and concessions such as the opt-out clause is damaging to both Iraq and the United States. It puts off the day when a new Iraq is militarily master of its own house. And it shoves the U.S. -- which was never supposed to be the bull's eye of insurgents and antagonists in Iraq, only the liberator of the Iraqi people -- more deeply into the burdensome, dangerous, and increasingly unpopular position of military occupier.

Deputy Secretary of State Armitage compared the Iraqi military's opt-out arrangement to a NATO country's ability to refuse an order from the U.S. supreme commander in a NATO operation -- in Kosovo, for example. But the parallel is not a good one: The new Iraqi national army is rather obviously not some member of the 'coalition of the willing' in Iraq, nor some junior or equal partner in a military alliance. It should be the first line of defense and security in a reborn Iraq, aggressively taking over American work whose drawdown schedule should by now be clear.

Instead, with a month to go before the handover of governance, the Iraqi forces are nowhere near ready to assume U.S. duties. They lost many early recruits to complaints of poor pay -- itself a slightly perverse situation that could only take place where proud young men felt they were being led by foreigners. There are signs that seasoned leaders are staying on the sidelines waiting for the U.S. to leave center stage. The Iraqi forces flinched at minor participation in counterinsurgency efforts in recent months. And they are far short of their target of 40,000 troops by 2007. In addition, only 10% of the Iraqi police force has graduated from the police academies.

By contrast, the 138,000-troop U.S. military presence in the country appears open-ended, with President Bush suggesting Monday that it may even increase.

If the U.S. were more determined to hand over its military burden to the Iraqis, they might be better prepared to carry that burden. Putting Iraq in a central role requires a policy shift toward the kind of minimum-personnel strategy that the U.S. successfully followed in its counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan or El Salvador, or that the British followed in colonial India:

  • El Salvador: The U.S. from 1981-91 used a mere 55 military advisors, mostly Special Forces, to support the Salvadoran government and 10,000-man military in their fight against 10,000 Marxist insurgents.
  • Afghanistan: In that country where the U.S. ousted the Taliban regime in 2002, some 15,000 U.S. and coalition troops remain to keep relative peace and fight insurgents, but there is no doubting the centrality of the Afghan national government and forces.
  • The British colonization of India: The British in the 1800s governed India's 250 million inhabitants with a mere 70,000 British troops and 900 British civil servants, for a ratio of one British soldier for every 3571 Indian civilians. The British troops were aided by an additional 125,000 Indian troops under British command. These local forces not only kept the peace in India but also policed rebellions in the British Empire from China to Africa.

Right now, the U.S. role in Iraq is more reminiscent of the U.S. role in Vietnam, where it relegated the Vietnamese army to a sideline role with disastrous consequences. Or to the U.S. presence in South Korea, where for decades tens of thousands of Americans have provided security to one of the wealthiest nations in the world, while that nation's sons are free to pursue civilian careers instead of devoting themselves to their own national security. And why not? American protection is a free good for them.

Surely, the kind of dependency South Korea has on the U.S. isn't the sort of dependency Iraq should have, also. Yet right now the U.S. is enabling it.

Success in Iraq will depends on the Iraqis' ability to help themselves -- in policing, in counterinsurgency, and in basic nation-building. They won't help themselves -- nor even be able to -- if the U.S. doesn't require that they share the burden and assert themselves on the front lines today, tomorrow, and in the years to come.


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