By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 1, 2006
The strategy in Iraq, President Bush has said often over the past year, is to stand down the U.S. military as Iraq's security forces stand up.
By strict numbers, the Iraqi side of that equation is almost complete. Training programs have developed more than 300,000 members of the Iraqi army and national police, close to the desired number of homegrown forces. Yet as that number has grown, so, too, has violence in Iraq. The summer was worse than ever, with July the deadliest month in three years, according to U.S. military data.
With the insurgency undiminished and Iraqi forces seemingly unable to counter it, U.S. commanders say they expect to stay at the current level of U.S. troops -- about 140,000 -- until at least next spring. That requirement is placing new strains on service members who leave Iraq and then must prepare to return a few months later. Tours of duty have been extended for two brigades in Iraq to boost troop levels.
So is the "stand down as they stand up" policy defunct? Not according to the Bush administration. But the meaning of the phrase appears to have changed, as leaders have begun shifting the blame for Iraq's problems away from the U.S. military and onto the country's own social and governmental institutions.
When Bush began invoking "stand up, stand down" in 2005, he repeatedly indicated that he was talking about getting Iraqi defense forces trained and on the job. For example, on Nov. 15, he said, "The plan [is] that we will train Iraqis, Iraqi troops, to be able to take the fight to the enemy. And as I have consistently said, as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down."
More recently, Bush has insisted that "the 'stand up, stand down' still holds." But he added more conditions, saying the troops can come home "when our commanders say . . . the Iraqi government is capable of defending itself and sustaining itself and governing itself."
Military officers and other experts interviewed in recent days said that the Iraqi training program has worked but that its success is undercut by the lack of strong Iraqi political leadership. "You fix the government, you fix the problem," said an Army battalion commander who has seen hard fighting near Baghdad this summer.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld landed squarely in this camp recently. Referring to numbers of trained Iraqi forces, he told a reporter: "If we look at it one-dimensionally like that, there's no answer to the question, because the problem is not a military problem. In fact, the reality is that it's a political governance problem, and it's a governmental problem, and it's a problem of reconciliation."
In this view, it doesn't matter how many Iraqi troops are trained if there is no government to lead them. "I believe that you could have a million Iraqis within the Iraqi security forces and still be ineffective against the insurgents," said an Army colonel who recently returned from a year in Iraq.
Besides weapons and training, an army needs a reason to fight -- and so far, the Iraqi government has not been as persuasive as the insurgency or the militias in providing that key element. "There isn't yet an Iraq to defend," explained Thomas Donnelly, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "A nation, as well as an army, needs to be stood up."
Other military insiders say that regardless of Iraq's broader problems, the security forces remain an issue because they are not ready for action. The training program may have achieved raw numbers, but it needs more time to finish the job.
"I believe that our U.S. forces need to be here at these numbers for three to five more years, to be honest," concluded Army Maj. Daniel Morgan, a 101st Airborne officer who just completed his second tour in Iraq.
When asked about training of Iraqis, Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top U.S. commander for Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, spoke of an even longer term. "It's a generational level of work, not something that's going to be done overnight," he told PBS's Jim Lehrer last week. "And we're making good progress."
This school of thought emphasizes that "standing down" would apply only to U.S. combat forces. Even if Iraqi forces eventually stand up in the promised numbers and fight effectively, they still will need U.S. help in logistics, intelligence, maintenance and other specialized support functions for years to come, said an Army officer experienced in Iraq. He said he has heard from some comrades that providing such support may require a fairly substantial U.S. military presence in Iraq for as long as a decade more.
Some experts believe that the U.S. training program itself is flawed, lacking both funding and enough U.S. advisers and trainers. The training effort is "grossly insufficient, concentrated at battalion and brigade headquarters only," said retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who oversaw the program in 2003 and 2004. He and others believe that the effort will not really succeed until it expands to attach more advisers to smaller units, such as companies and platoons -- which Eaton said would take thousands of additional personnel.
The United States failed to send out enough really good advisers with language skills to work in the training program, added retired Marine Col. T.X. Hammes, another Iraq veteran. "Thus we train Iraqis, push them out the door and fail to support them," he said. This makes them unable to reach the real goal of providing security to Iraq, he added -- "or worse yet, due to lack of U.S. supervision, [they] become part of the problem."
Other experts say the "stand up, stand down" formula has not worked because the target number is insufficient, or because the number is the wrong measurement. The target of 325,000 trained security forces "is arguably inadequate to start with," said Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown University defense specialist. Given the total population in unstable parts of Iraq and a standard ratio of population to security forces of 20 to 1, he said, "Iraq really needs 500,000 troops and police."
Alternatively, some say it is not the number of Iraqi troops that counts; it is the quality. " 'Standing up' is a far broader term than many have understood," argued Army Lt. Col. James Gavrilis, a counterinsurgency expert and a Special Forces officer who participated in the invasion of Iraq. "I don't think a lot of people in uniform understood that it would entail developing the quality and character of those forces as well as their numbers."
Finally, some specialists contend that "standing up" Iraqi soldiers and police forces may in fact be contributing to the current outburst of sectarian violence, because the police especially are not seen as impartial players.
"To the degree that 'standing up' a Shia-dominated force is perceived as a security threat to Sunnis, you get a stronger and stronger reaction the more you stand up," said Frank Hoffman, a strategic expert and retired Marine officer. "This may account for what you are seeing -- the sense that national institutions that do not reflect political concerns will produce more violent reactions and a greater reliance on local militias."
A Marine officer who has fought in Anbar province and an Army captain who just returned from Baghdad agreed, both saying they fear that all the U.S. military is doing is training and arming Iraqis to fight a looming civil war.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.