U.S. News & World Report
August 7, 2006

Can Iraq Be Fixed?

Politicians dance around this question, but here's the reality: It will take U.S. troops years of work, and success is hardly a sure bet

By Kevin Whitelaw and Anna Mulrine

July was supposed to have been, at long last, a good month for the U.S. effort in Iraq. A new unity government was fully formed and at work. The feared terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi was dead. And U.S. and Iraqi officials had launched a new security plan to stanch the bloodshed in Baghdad. It hasn't quite worked out that way. Rather, Baghdad in July has been wilder and more dangerous than ever, engulfed by a wave of targeted assassinations, reprisal attacks, and mass kidnappings. When Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visited Washington last week, the air was not celebratory but instead one of crisis. The primary outcome: a decision to increase the number of U.S. troops in Baghdad.

That news is distressing to those Americans already restless to bring troops home and may fuel doubts among some who want to see the job through. The Iraq venture has claimed the lives of more than 2,500 U.S. soldiers and marines and cost upwards of $300 billion. Yet, the political debate in Washington seems strangely divorced from reality. Several Democrats call for a withdrawal timetable, as if victory can simply be scheduled. Republicans, led by the Bush administration, pledge that America will stay until the job is done, without making clear what, exactly, that means or how long it may take. In the end, neither side really faces up to the most fundamental questions: Is there really a way out of Iraq that will not send the country into deeper chaos? Will America be able to leave an Iraqi government behind that can survive and sustain itself? And how many more years will U.S. troops need to be in Iraq to get to that point?

The underlying problem is evident: A speedy withdrawal is the surest way to plunge the nation into a full civil war, but staying longer carries a high cost without necessarily improving the odds of success. "Leaving too soon would have enormous potential downside--that this unity we are trying to build could unravel, that sectarian violence could escalate," Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, tells U.S. News. "That could bring in other powers on opposite sides, therefore expanding the war to places outside of Iraq. Terrorists could take over a region like Anbar and use it as a base to threaten the world." Wayne White, who was the State Department's top intelligence analyst on Iraq, shares those worries, but adds, "What we don't know is what the odds will be one, two, five years from now."

Workload. If the near-term perils are clear, the definition of success is harder to pin down. On one level, it hinges on leaving behind a capable Iraqi government. This entails not only reliable security forces but also a government that can supply those troops and deliver basic services to the Iraqi people. Today, these tasks require deep U.S. involvement--and it will take much longer for Iraqis to pick up the workload than the Bush administration or most political leaders in Washington are willing to admit publicly. "To build something that can outlast us, we're talking about being there at least another five years," says Sen. Joseph Biden, who returned from his seventh trip to Iraq in July. "If we were doing it well and we had a little luck, we could be there in a circumstance where we are not dying but we are spending."

The United States is also wearing out the tools it needs to win. The U.S. military is straining under the burden of keeping 130,000 troops in Iraq, even as commanders in many sectors say they cannot afford reductions. U.S. money is running out, too. The $21 billion in reconstruction aid from Congress is almost all in the process of being spent. And few on Capitol Hill are eager to come up with more, even though Iraq's needs--$100 billion to build a modern infrastructure, according to World Bank estimates--far outstrip its own oil revenues.

When U.S. troops first headed toward Baghdad in the spring of 2003, the Bush administration offered soaring rhetoric about forging a model democracy that would help transform the Middle East. That dream might not be dead yet, but the Bush administration has been gradually defining down success. "The standard is not going to be 'no violence,'" Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security adviser, tells U.S. News. "What you can hope for is an Iraq where there are effective security forces that are controlling and taking responsibility for security throughout Iraq and where the marriage of political leadership and security forces is sufficient to deal with insurgents and terrorists so that it does not interfere with the operations of government." But even this more tempered definition of victory might not be achievable--leading some to say the United States should just back off. "I argue it is easier to work with the reality rather than try to put back together a country that for its entire 80-year history has been a failure," says Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. diplomat who has advised Iraq's Kurdish leaders. He advocates allowing the Kurds to go the final mile to form their own independent state in the north, while tolerating a Shiite Muslim theocracy in the south. But even Galbraith, author of the new book The End of Iraq, concedes there is no easy way to draw the lines. "There is no solution to Baghdad," he says, "other than this awful civil war."

Baghdad, home to nearly a third of Iraq's population, is the key to Iraq. "It's the largest Sunni city, the largest Shiite city, and the largest Kurdish city," says Andrew Krepinevich, at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank. "It's a variation on that old phrase about New York: If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere."

Not all the news in Iraq is bad. The unity government has held together so far and is beginning to tackle some thorny issues. Oil exports have hit a post-invasion high, while electricity in Baghdad is finally on the upswing. The insurgency appears to have been at least temporarily weakened in the wake of Zarqawi's death. Even U.S. casualties dipped in July. In the view of the White House, this leaves sectarian violence as the major obstacle. "If we can get beyond that challenge," says a senior administration official in Washington, "we feel pretty good about the progress we're making on other things."

But the street violence has become so endemic in Baghdad that many experts have been debating whether or not the country is already in a low-level civil war. Regardless of the answer, the sectarian strife has the potential to tear Iraq apart--and is now seen as a bigger danger than the insurgency. The sectarian fighting broke out into the open after the February bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, but it had been building for many months. Bullet-riddled corpses, and an alarming number of headless bodies, turn up on the capital's streets daily.

Now, the death toll is huge and getting worse each month. Iraqi statistics show that over 14,000 civilians were killed in the first half of this year--in June, it was more than 100 per day, even after the launch of a Baghdad security plan that was supposed to reduce the carnage. The resulting spiral of violence is threatening any remaining trust between Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites. As a consequence, a growing number of Iraqis are fleeing their homes in mixed neighborhoods. The United Nations reports some 150,000 Iraqis have been displaced, which is almost certainly too low an estimate. Quietly, some in Baghdad are beginning to call it ethnic cleansing. "It is both alarming and underreported," says a western diplomat in Baghdad. "It is conceivable that most of Baghdad will become ethnic enclaves--it is getting there pretty quickly."

Behind closed doors, U.S. officials are telling Iraqis that they need to deal urgently with the problem of militias--both those inside the police and those run privately by Shiite leaders. For Maliki, this would mean confronting some of the same Shiite leaders who helped bring him into office. "There is not indefinite time to do this," says a senior U.S. official in Baghdad. "This sectarian killing eats at the fabric of the basic compact between the three communities."

If there is a bright side, it is that for the first time, this pattern of violence is not exacerbated by the presence of U.S. troops. Indeed, U.S. soldiers have been one of the few brakes on the killings. But the lines are getting blurry for U.S. troops, who increasingly find themselves caught in the middle. "There has been a shift in how coalition forces are received in predominantly Shiite areas due to their belief that we now favor the Sunnis because we tried so hard to bring them into the democratic process," says Maj. Mark Cheadle of the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division, responsible for security in Baghdad. "Neither side, in general, seems particularly enthused with our aiding the other sect."

Security Forces. One desperate need, of course, is for capable security forces that reflect Iraq's sectarian makeup. But a graduation day last April at Camp Habbaniyah training center remains a demoralizing and cautionary tale. Some 1,000 newly commissioned Sunni soldiers from the insurgent-ridden Anbar province were parading before the review stands filled with proud U.S. and Iraqi military officials. Suddenly, the highly anticipated ceremony fell apart. The graduates started "taking off their uniforms and throwing them on the ground," recalls Col. Lawrence Nicholson, who commands Marine Regimental Combat Team 5, which trains Iraqi security forces in western Iraq. "It was ugly." They had just learned that they would not be serving, as they expected, in their hometowns because of leadership concerns that locally recruited graduates would be more likely to collaborate with the insurgency.

At the time of the walkout, some military officials downplayed the event--one spokesman called it "a momentary but very brief display of displeasure" involving "a very small number" of graduates. In reality, fully three quarters of the class quit the military in the weeks that followed. "We cannot sustain this level of attrition," says a senior U.S. military official, who estimates that the Iraqi Army needs 20,000 recruits in Anbar province just to make its goal of 6,500 new soldiers.

Nationwide, the Iraqi Army has grown substantially in size--up to 113,000 soldiers. But many of the units are still not fully integrated, and few can operate without U.S. support. The Pentagon has touted the handover in July of Multhanna, one of Iraq's most peaceful provinces, to Iraqi security control. But even Nasier Abadi, deputy chief of staff for the Iraqi armed forces, concedes that not a single Iraqi Army battalion is ready to operate independently.

Coaching. Within the Pentagon, many officials privately agree with the assessment of retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who in a widely circulated memo estimated that the United States needs "at least two to five more years of U.S. partnership and combat backup to get the Iraqi Army ready to stand on its own." What's more, he added, the "corruption and lack of capability of the ministries [of defense and interior] will require several years of patient coaching."

It is patient coaching that is meant to come from hundreds of transition teams throughout the country, in which U.S. military trainers are embedded with Iraqi Army and police units--teams that are widely considered to be the linchpin in America's exit strategy in Iraq. But though these vital military transition teams are billed as handpicked, elite units, the forces are too often "cobbled together," according to a defense official who has studied the teams. Indeed, one U.S. military report concluded, "The Army could do better to screen [military transition teams] for proper qualifications in skill."

Marine trainers in Fallujah tend to agree. "We're not really set up to train other people to be policemen," says one marine. The teams often report feeling undertrained and overwhelmed. One senior Pentagon official estimates that, throughout the country, Iraq is short U.S. military training teams "by a factor of four or five." President Bush seemed to acknowledge the shortfall last week, when he called for more U.S. military personnel to be embedded with Iraqi units to make them "more effective." What's more, the transition teams all too often lose institutional memory as U.S. trainers rotate to new assignments. In one team that was training an Iraqi Army battalion, seven of the dozen marines volunteered to extend their seven-month tour to one year in order to build on the progress made with their military counterparts. But their requests were denied, according to their commander. The marines were told they were needed by their home units, which were facing manpower shortages.

In addition to requesting more trainers, U.S. defense officials have for months been privately lobbying for better equipment for the Iraqi Army. "Clearly, we can't withdraw from Iraq unless Iraqi security forces have a clear-cut advantage over the forces they're dealing with," says McCaffrey, who has called for more light armored vehicles, mortars, artillery, and air support capabilities for Iraq's military. But some military officials express grave concern about what would happen to U.S.-provided equipment should Iraqi security further degenerate. "It's the question of the century: How much of our technology to give them, considering the possibility that the country could degenerate into civil war," says one Army Forces Central Command official. "How much ends up six years down the road in Iran? What if we give them all new technology, and they use it against each other? What capabilities should we give them?"

An even bigger problem is the Iraqi police, which a senior Pentagon official estimates is basically three years behind the Army. Training has been spotty, and many units are known to be riddled with militia members. In Baghdad, Shiite death squads are deeply embedded in the Shiite-dominated police force. "When are you going to be able to send the police force into central Baghdad and not have people think they are coming to kill them?" Senator Biden asks. In Sunni areas, insurgent forces have infiltrated the ranks. At the same time, in places like Fallujah, local police face being tarred with a U.S.-collaborator label. Concerns about retaliation are ever present. "If we push them to do an obvious coalition mission," says a U.S. military trainer, "they threaten to quit."

Recruiting has been so frantic over the past two years that many of the current officers have not even been vetted. In recent months, Iraqi and U.S. officials went back and fingerprinted every police officer serving under the Ministry of Interior and began comparing them to past police records. "We have already identified approximately several thousand people currently employed by the Ministry of Interior and the security forces who come under it who have criminal records," says David Everett, a retired U.S. colonel who served as an adviser for the Interior Ministry until last April. Their crimes ranged from petty to violent. "In the very near future," Everett says, "many of them are going to be discharged."

Logistics. Training soldiers is only part of the battle. An army must also be supplied, transported, and, perhaps most important, paid. "It's much easier to teach a bunch of guys how to fight than to give them a logistics system," Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the second-ranking commander in Iraq, tells U.S. News. Supply lines between Iraqi battalions and the Ministries of Interior and Defense remain, in many cases, nonexistent. "The Iraqi Ministry of Defense is nothing but a facade for the American logistical operation," says Kenneth Pollack, a former Iraq analyst for the CIA now at Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. "If you withdraw American support, they would be completely incapacitated in a week or so." Basics like boots and bottles of water, too, are strictly rationed, when they are supplied at all. "Trying to get something as simple as a tire and a jack from the [Defense Ministry] is a nightmare," according to one U.S. military transition team member. One Iraqi battalion in Fallujah, for example, was allotted three bottles of water per soldier per day--not nearly enough for them to conduct their daily three or four foot patrols, which can run four hours each.

Other logistical failures--like the lack of maintenance regimens or paying soldiers late or not at all--have also handicapped the Iraqi Army. A regular paycheck is a key reason recruits sign up with a force that is already viewed with suspicion. "They don't get paid, and they go home on leave and tell that to all their buddies," says one U.S. marine in the region, where marines with one regiment become so concerned about this trend that they began offering $100 in cash to every Fallujah soldier with a late paycheck.

Police face all kinds of shortfalls. During a daily meeting in their office at the main police station in Fallujah, marines run down complaints from Iraqi police officers: "We try to get them to patrol," says one trainer. "They'll say, 'Well, we can't patrol because we don't have gas.' We want them to go out and fight insurgents. They'll say, 'Well, we can't fight because we don't have bullets.'"

The American military trainers worry, too, about the Iraqis' dependence on them. Lt. Gen Martin Dempsey, in charge of training Iraqi security forces, uses the analogy of the teeter-totter. "On the one side is the ability of our Iraqi counterparts to absorb what they need to, and on the other side is the danger that they will become dependent on us," he tells U.S. News. "My job is to look at every aspect of this mission of training and determine when is the right time to transition control over to the Iraqi side. If I do it too soon, it tips, and if I do it too late, they become so comfortable and dependent--it's literally too difficult to encourage their capacity for them."

Civilian government. Another barrier standing between Washington and withdrawal is the ability--or lack thereof--of Iraq's civilian bureaucracy to function on its own. U.S. advisers serve in all key Iraqi ministries, which also rely on American logistics, support, and guidance to deliver basic services. "It appears here that the ability of the government of Iraq to support any of the functions normally associated with a national government ranges from extremely limited to nonexistent," says a western diplomat in Baghdad. "The key ministries--finance, oil, electricity, justice, water resources, etc.--show no signs of being self-sustaining." His candid rundown: the Ministry of Trade is hobbled by corruption "at all levels," and the Housing Ministry shows no signs of independent activity.

Just as in the military logistics area, U.S. officials have stepped in frequently over the past three years and supplied Iraq's critical needs directly, rather than build up the government's ability to operate. In several recent reports, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Iraq has warned that U.S. efforts to build up Iraqi capabilities to run their own programs, including the state-of-the-art infrastructure projects funded by Washington, have been lacking.

U.S. officials say that they are now more focused on building Iraqi capacity. But SIGIR and others remain concerned that the U.S. effort is still falling short, in part because the civilian effort is understaffed. "They need the same degree of hands-on training and help for their civilian bureaucracy as they need for their military to be stood up," says Senator Biden. "But they don't have anybody to do that."

Politics. There is one saving grace. U.S. officials believe that a majority of Iraqis still want to make their new government work. These days, the White House strategy is centered around a basic premise--harnessing oil revenues as the strongest (and perhaps the only) force holding the country together. In public, Bush has hinted as much: "My advice to them is to use their energy assets as a way to unite the country." Iraqi political leaders, however, have yet to resolve how, exactly, the revenues will be distributed.

The failure to move beyond the rhetoric is part of a larger pattern. While U.S. officials have largely been pleased with Maliki's public statements, they are growing impatient waiting for him to take stronger action. Washington is counting on the Shiite prime minister's national reconciliation plan to help defuse both primary sources of violence in Iraq--the Sunni insurgents and the Shiite militias. "We've moved from a strategy where we thought military force would stop the violence and the political process would follow," says Noah Feldman, a law professor at New York University who served as an adviser in Iraq in 2003. "We now are hoping that the political process will move enough to stop the violence."

On the Shiite side, Maliki has yet to move strongly toward dismantling the militias. He also needs to reach out to the alienated Sunni community. But the central element of the Sunni outreach has also been delayed indefinitely. In a key compromise to encourage Sunni participation in the last election, Shiite leaders promised to hold a conference as soon as the new government was formed to consider amendments to the Constitution, which was drafted almost entirely by Shiite and Kurdish politicians. Sunni leaders are looking for key concessions that could boost their level of influence in the central government. This conference, however, has fallen off the radar screen in Baghdad and will not take place until the fall, meaning it could easily stretch into next year.

It is not clear how long Iraqis will wait. "They haven't polarized to the degree that everybody feels that the only way out is through fighting," says Dana Eyre, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace who served as a U.S. adviser in Iraq. "It's like Thelma and Louise heading toward the cliff. We can see the edge, but we haven't gone over it yet."