The handover

Yesterday afternoon a reader sent me a link to an story about the efforts to hand responsibility for some areas in Iraq completely over to Iraqi forces. I didn’t get to post on it right away and, being MSNBC, the story is now about something completely different.

Here is a link in the Detroit Free Press that seems to be more or less what my readers sent: Handover of power to Iraqis to start with some cities

The reader wrote

Personally, I think they need to gather some of the best (and ethnically diverse) soldiers that the Iraqi Army can muster, and put them in control of a major city, one that has had some security problems but not in such a dangerous area that it would threaten to overwhelm them. This should remain in place for a few months, and would accomplish the following:

1. Gives Iraqi troops experience in actually “owning” a city without the coalition forces always there to back them up. These troops could be rotated out to spread this experience to other cities, increasing the Iraqi role across the country.

2. Iraqi troop cohesion, purpose, and morale would (I imagine) improve as a result of a successful “watch”.

3. A successful “watch” over a few months would be a major symbolic victory, both boosting the morale of the Iraqi people, and hurting the morale of the terrorists and insurgents.

4. We can get more of our boys (and girls) home.

This is key. If Iraqis don’t (or can’t) step up to the plate, US soldiers are going to be bearing the bulk of the burden in Iraq for the foreseeable future. If Iraqi forces can perform solidly, these “secret” plans of US and UK draw down that have been attracting so much attention can be put into motion and pretty much everyone everywhere except for the Iraqi insurgents and multilateral suicide bomber alliance will be happier for it.

Now, this has been tried before, and the results were dismal.

First, after the first Stryker Brigade’s successful introduction, Iraqi forces were put in charge of Samarra. The Strykers had pretty much pummeled the insurgency in the city into submission, and things looked okay. The Iraqis moved in January of 2004 when the Strykers moved up to Mosul. By late summer the insurgents were running the city and the Big Red One had to assist in operations to reclear it.

More well-known but far less significant was Fallujah. After the initial Marine push into the city during the uprisings of early 2004, US forces drew back and allowed Iraqi forces to assume control after a deal was struck. That went so well that the Marines and the Army had to retake the city building by building in November.

But the Iraqi Army is far different today than it was then. The troops are far better trained and equipped. A number of major operations over the summer have given many troops badly-needed experience. Since the elections, more Iraqi residents support the Iraqi troops and have become fed up with the insurgents, providing fewer hiding places for the bad guys and more tips to intel groups.

I think we need to do exactly what my reader suggests. We need to pick a spot (or several spots) and give the Iraqis pretty much full control for day-to-day security and operations. If major high-value targets or a coordinated offensive materializes, US troops could support them, but (other than airpower) I’d like to see what the Iraqis can do.

Off the top of my head, I’d wonder if Samarra, Kirkuk, Urbil, Najaf, and maybe even Basrah might not be potential Iraqi-controlled cities. Kirkuk and Urbil, in predominantly-Kurdish areas, and Najaf and Basrah, in the Shiite south, would be high-visibility examples of what Iraqis can expect if things can get under control. Samarra could be a bone tossed to the Sunnis as an act of good faith. In addition, some neighborhoods in Baghdad could go all-Iraqi as a further test and example. Mosul is too close to the Syrian trail, and Fallujah and Ramadi are still too touch-and-go.

We could initially pull the US and multi-national troops (mostly Brits from Basrah) back, staging some as a powerful quick reaction force to be dispatched if any Iraqi forces falter. The rest could be sent on the offensive along the Syrian border, or be used to swamp Ramadi. In any event, even if the Iraqi forces fail, we’d at least have a better idea of where we stand.

Until we try it for real, we won’t know for sure. Until we know for sure, we can’t begin the draw down. Until we begin the draw down, we won’t have a clue whether this has all been worth it.


  1. It sounds like a good idea, but IMO it is a flawed idea. You are putting the cart before the horse. IMO a better idea is to train and form mixed ethnic Iraqi units. Then send them into combat away from their home area. Preferably in the field away from the home towns but in close contact with (but not under)the americans. The idea is to form unit conhesion, and to find / premote leaders and NCO’s. To instill the concept of meritocracy based advancement. The goal is to convert the Iraqi soldiers allegience from his tribe and family, to his unit and leaders. (eg. band of brothers) Once the Iraqi units gain competent leadership and gain the confidence (they can kick ass), Then you throw them into the cities. This will cut down on desertion and curruption, and it is always best to have the men with guns, believe that merit should define advancement and that curruption is no acceptable. (this will ultimately create an army whose mission is to protect Iraq and insure the government be as secular as possible. )

  2. James, I agree with everything that you put forward. Fortunately, MNC-I is already months ahead of you on this one (minus some issues in some units with diversity), and we are starting to see some of the fruits of our adaptations to a more effective strategy in Iraq. For example, in Mosul, when the police collapsed last November, the Iraqi government brought in already specially trained special police battalions over the next several months that were specially trained and from outside Mosul, meaning that their families couldn’t be intimidated. There are several Iraqi Army units (battalion/brigade level) that that own their own area of operations. I know that the city center in Mosul belongs to an Iraqi battalion and that there are several Iraqi AOs in Baghdad. Unfortunately, the MSM continues to perpetuate the myth that all Iraqi forces are worthless through their focus on the spectacular – units that are having issues (they have reported successes, but not in proportion to the failures). One of the lessons learned from last April is that officer leadership is the key to unit effectiveness; where the O’s lead front and center, the units thrive. Where they don’t, the units stagnate and suffer desertion, morale, and effectiveness problems. The increased US advisory role is helping to correct this deficiency by strongly advisor the senior Iraqi leadership on who to fire and hire based on proven peformance in the field. While not always successful in the getting the proven into the right positions, at a minimum, they are able to get proven performers in key supporting roles as XOs and S3s to prop up weak commanders where they exist. This transition from a privileged based Officer Corps to a US style Officer Corps has been difficult, as has trying to grow a NCO Corps. Growing NCOs will help overcome the current overdependence on officers to make decisions.

  3. James and Shek: Wow! Thanks for the great comments! I wasn’t trying to put the cart before the horse, and although I think we need to get Iraqis MUCH more involved ASAP, I’m not suggesting we throw them in before they’re capable. It will be a test, of course, but let’s make sure they should be able to pass the course before we throw them into the deep end of the pool. I’ve got the impression, and it’s backed up by Shek’s comments, that there are in fact many good Iraqi units that are probably ready (or as close as they can get without actually doing it) to hit the streets. It takes a long time to build a competent army. Many nations never get there at all. And many that do don’t have the wherewithal to keep it there. During early 2004 the spectacular failures of the Iraqi army were great press and that seems to be the impression that everyone’s kept, but for those really trying to get to the truth behind the headlines (even for an armchair wannabe like me) it’s clear that Iraqi forces have been involved in many big ops and have generally performed well. I cringed when I heard about those failures in early 2004, wondering if we had just thrown away a year’s worth of work. Fortunately, it appears that the lessons learned were mostly the right ones, and that things have moved forward significantly since then. The comments about the officer corps and corruption get to the heart of why I didn’t support the idea that the existing Iraqi army should have been kept intact. Sure, there would have been some short-term advantages to that plan and some of them would have saved lives. But long term, I think we would have been stuck with the same values and assumptions that got the Iraqi army into the condition it was in in 2003. And the majority of the leadership obviously consisted of Baathist-loyal Sunnis. Kurds and Shiites would have been hesitant to join, and they would have been treated badly once they did. Meanwhile, how stable would things be with a Shiite-dominated civilian government and a Sunni-dominated military? I think we’ve, with some fits and false starts, taken the right road with the Iraqi army, and if they aren’t ready to should more of the load today, they will be soon. Which is good, since we need them to very badly.

  4. What I have never seen in the MSM is the question of the possibility of a military coup five years down the road if we didn’t disband the Iraqi Army. Now, I was in Iraq for much of the time that the debate surrounding that decision was in full force, so maybe I missed it, but it hasn’t surface since then for sure. I think that people will be very surprised when all of a sudden later this year and beginning next year the Iraqi Army is truely front and center in the counterinsurgency. The US will still have a major role playing backup, but it will be a ‘fire fighting’ role, not a lead role. The number of Iraqi units in the pipeline is huge, and as time progresses, more soldiers serving will have bought into the new Iraq and the vetting process will further flush out infiltrators, making these units even more effective. I think you are seeing some of the benefits of the increased number of capable Iraqi units already, as you have a much greater presence of US forces along the Syrian border and operating throughout Anbar. This should only increase as the year progresses.

  5. If this is already happening, a big deal needs to be made of it in some major city, with constant mention at press conferences, maybe some embedded reporters, even if they’re just US military reporters. Maybe a giant ‘MISSION ACCOMPLISHED’ banner across the gateway to the city. 🙂

  6. The Pershmerga are most likely the most competent (Iraqi) fighting force in Iraq. That said, the Pershmerga also represent a great danger to the formation of a long term stable state. Simply put, the Kurds are a nation apart from Iraq. The Pershmerga is the Kurdish army. Sending the Pershmerga (in cohesive units) into Sunni areas, would be the equivalent of sending a Jewish army as a peace keeping force into Germany just after WWII. A key measure in the future of Iraq is the incorporating the Pershmerga into the greater Iraqi army. Current plans of leaving the Kurdish lands in the hands of the Pershmerga will lead to future issues.( I am thinking of Turkey and Iran, not to mention a declaration of independence once the US leaves.) That said, another item we should be looking into is providing ‘scholarships’ to exceptionally promising Iraqi officers. These officers should be taken to the states for more advanced training. As, the small units of the army become competent and reliable, the Iraqi army’s senior leadership will soon become a limiting factor. Simply put, Sadam did not want a capable and competent senior military leadership. The results of that decision are clearly evident in the Iraqi army combat ability. All that aside. I believe that we will be needed (combat wise) in Iraq for at least the next three years. However, our presence would be a sliding downscale. With the army being able to significantly downsize in about a year.

  7. KTLA, First, the MSM is really biting on stories that demonstrate Iraqi competence. Next, if we were to press the issue and play this up too much, then those forces would become a strategic target for the insurgents. Conduct some spectacular attacks against these areas and then you’ll have people proclaiming all is lost a la Tet. In terms of timing, their is no real political impact as mid term elections are still 15 months away. By then, you’ll have a reduced presence with large AOs belonging to Iraqis, a constitution, and a permanent government.

  8. My above comments should state ‘not biting’ on stories of Iraqi competence, instead of ‘biting.’