2006 March 26 Sunday
Robert Kaplan Reports On Iraq

Robert Kaplan has reported extensively on the US military all over the world. He's spent time with US special forces and other US military units not just in the Middle East but in Latin America, Central Asia, and still other places. He's not one of those who visit for a few weeks and then strike an authoritative pose. After embedding for months with a US military unit in Iraq Kaplan says the old forms of power have more legitimacy in Iraq than the new democratically elected officials.

Judging from your piece, the U.S. military has resorted to working within the tribal Iraqi system, at least for the time being.

Yes, it has. One thing about the U.S. military in Iraq is that it's non-ideological. Making statements in Washington about building democracy is one thing. But on the ground, officers are working with tribal leaders in Mosul and other places. They're going to democratic council meetings but then working behind their backs with the tribal leaders, because it's the only way to make progress. In a crucible of war, you toss out ideas that don't work. Everything is oriented toward what works.

Is it possible that some people are genuinely comfortable living under a hierarchical structure and really don't want democracy at all? One Sunni man you interviewed for this piece asked, "What good is voting if the Shiites and Kurds will vote, too?"? That question has been coming up quite a lot in different forms since the Palestinians elected Hamas.

Everything I've seen in Iraq tells me that tribal sheiks have a lot more legitimacy than newly-elected democratic politicians. The tribal system is something we think of, with our cultural prejudice, as reactionary. But it's a long-standing, venerable tradition in Middle Eastern society. And it is not necessarily repressive. It's a form of order that may not be as enlightened as Western forms of order. But it's a form of order nevertheless, which is still better than chaos.

Tribes are natural to humanity. For most of history, they've been a stabilizing force, a socially organizing force. We shouldn't condemn tribes per se. Tribes form a much more natural means of political development than something like Western democracy, which is very new and has only succeeded in a relatively small geographic portion of the world. We've seen an explosion of democracy around the world since the 1990s. It's not clear yet how well it will succeed.

Note his argument for tribes being basically a part of human nature. If you haven't already read about the very tribal practice of consanguineous (cousin) marriage and the role it plays in Middle Eastern politics then start with my post John Tierney On Cousin Marriage As Reform Obstacle In Iraq and click back from there to what Steve Sailer and others have written about it.

Returning to Kaplan's interview, Kaplan says the lower down you go in the ranks of the US military in Iraq the more pessimistic the people become about the prospects for the Iraqi Army.

You write in this piece that sergeants are less optimistic than officers are about the future of the Iraqi Army. Why do you think that's the case?

There has been a debate about the training of Iraqi army and police units. One side of the debate says training is going well. Another side says it's not. The recent disturbances in Iraq, following the blowing up of the Samarra Mosque, showed that the Iraqi army units have a mixed record. Some units performed well; some performed badly.

This story brings the debate down to ground level. While I was in Mosul, I actually went out with individual Iraqi Army units. And what I found was that the only people who really know how well the training is going are the U.S. sergeants who go out with them on a daily basis. As you go up the chain of command, knowledge of this issue gets more abstract and unreal. It's almost as if the higher up you go, the more pressure there is to be optimistic.

The basic impression I got was this: The Iraqi units have made tremendous progress. It's gratifying for us. We really see that we're accomplishing something. But these guys are not there yet. If we left tomorrow, they would desert. We're finally doing things right, but all that means is that now we have to wait a long time. It's kind of like watching the grass grow or the paint dry.

Consider his point that the higher up you go in a chain of command the less anyone knows about how things are going. Well, then at the level of the top civilians in the Defense Department they are clueless at best and in the White House they are in fantasy land. The Iraqi military isn't going to work without loyalty. But Kaplan says "If we left tomorrow, they would desert.". Well, suppose we leave 3 years from now. Will they then be any less likely to desert? I doubt it.

Kaplan found the same pattern with Iraqi military unit quality that I've repeatedly posted about from other reporters: the Kurds make up the best Iraqi Army units. (PDF format)

The platoon undertook a foot patrol with an Iraqi army counterpart. You could not but be impressed with these Iraqi troops. Their TOC was as neat and well organized as 4-23's, with flow charts on the walls and satellite maps under table glass. They had strong-looking noncoms with game faces who flooded out of their white pickups and covered corners and fields of fire almost as well as the Americans.

There was only one problem: these troops were all ethnic Kurds, who at their headquarters had pictures of the Kurdish leader, Massoud Barzani. Would this unit stay loyal to something called "Iraq"? in the event of a weakening of the state following an American drawdown? Or were the Americans merely helping along the possibility of what some called "creeping Kurdistan"?? And was the possibility of a creeping Kurdistan actually a means of pressuring Sunni Arabs to constructively participate in the political process?

Kaplan's dreaming if he thinks the Kurdish soldiers have even a chance of remaining loyal to "Iraq". The Kurds are gone already. They have de facto independence. They will help the US deal with the Arabs. They'll pretend to act as "Iraqi" soldiers. But in exchange for helping the US with the Arabs they want independence. Oh, and if the US government has a shred of moral decency the US will let them have it.

I was surprised to learn that this Iraqi army platoon was rated near the bottom by American military training teams in terms of its fighting capability. When I asked for an explanation, I was told that the unit was bureaucratically underdeveloped at the battalion level. Although fighting well as a platoon was more important than "battalion ops"? (because counterinsurgency was about small-unit warfare and developing informants), no nationwide unity of military effort was possible without organized battalions and divisions. If this unit was a bad one, the Iraqi army, at least in terms of professional development, was doing a lot better than many supposed - or so I thought. Later, though, I heard of another platoon whose soldiers stole from the places they searched and, as one American captain told me, "shit in the side rooms."?

A Sunni Arab shopkeeper said to me: "When American troops patrol the streets with the Iraqi army, it is so awful and humiliating for us, because we know those Iraqi soldiers are really Kurds. Your occupation has strengthened our enemies."? This young man, the son of a former general in Saddam Hussein's army, engaged me in conversation for more than half an hour. I liked him. He turned out to be uncannily objective in his own way. He had just come back from Syria, upon which he heaped praise. "Syria now is so much better than Iraq,"? he said. "It is under tight control, so people there feel safe and can go about their lives with dignity. You Americans think you have brought freedom; you have just allowed the thugs from the villages to kill and rob from the educated people whom Saddam had protected."?

Law-abiding Iraqis are now free to be victimized by criminals. By failing to provide them sufficient security we've probably persuaded quite a few of them that freedom is synonymous with anarchy, murder, destruction, and suffering.

I say listen to the noncommissioned officers. They do not see the urge to fight in the Iraqi Army.Why? Because the urge isn't there.

While the colonels I met were confident that the Iraqi army and police could bear the burden given to them in a reduction of American forces, the staff sergeants and other noncoms working every day with the new Iraqi security elements were not. "Trust me, sir,"? one staff sergeant confided about an Iraqi army unit with which his platoon had just completed a three-hour patrol, "if we leave, they won't show up again in this neighborhood. They'll never leave their base." On another occasion, while surveying a school slated to be a polling station, the local Iraqi army commander kept demanding that his men be able to camp out at the school overnight. The American captain kept telling him "no."? One of the noncoms quietly remarked, "It's the same old story: all they want to do is hunker down and play defense, but they will not be able to hold off this insurgency unless they play offense."? As for the Iraqi police, the noncoms expressed even less confidence.

A recurring theme in Kaplan's essay is that the unemployment rate in Iraq is very high and therefore lots of young Iraqi men with nothing better to do with their time find the insurgency attractive. Also, older folks look around and see how little is geting rebuilt and how much is getting destroyed and think the US government has over-promised and under-delivered.

Kaplan's worth reading in full. He tries to be optimistic in part because he so obviously likes the people in the US military and does not want to see all their labor and losses to be in vain. But he relays a lot of raw material you need to get a sense of how things are going in Iraq.

One problem with Kaplan's viewpoint is that it definitely oriented around his experience with the US military. He doesn't flesh out the Iraqis as much as he fleshes out the US soldiers and officers and their viewpoints. But, again, he's seen quite a bit in Iraq and is worth your time to read.

I found the full text of Kaplan's article as a PDF on journalist Michael Yon's website. Also see a battle story from Mosul which Yon wrote in August 2005. Note how in that account Lieutenant Colonel Kurilla got shot by people he'd previously captured who'd been let go. This apparently happens quite often in Iraq. The release of enemy soldiers to let them fight again wasn't something that happened during WWI, WWII, the Korean War, or most other wars the US has fought in.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2006 March 26 03:48 PM  MidEast Iraq Military Needs

Stephen said at March 27, 2006 2:59 AM:

I don't believe this 'kurds are better fighters' spin. Why? I bet there's a strong positive correlation between the effectiveness of an Iraqi unit and the ethnicity or religion of the group its fighting.

I'd bet that ethnic Kurd units are not being tasked to fight Kurdish insurgents, instead they're tasked to fight arab units, and therefore their unit cohesion and morale is better. Conversely, I'd bet a Shia/Sunni unit would perform a lot better if it were tasked with attacking Kurdish insurgents. The real test for the Kurdish unit would be to task it with fighting Kurdish insurgents - my guess is that then we'd see a major morale drop.

Iraq doesn't have an army - it has a whole bunch of militia getting on-the-job training from western NCOs. Once the occupation is over the majority of those forces will take their modern training and shiny weapons and go back to their militia. The coming civil war (I'm now a convert to the view that a civil war is inevitable) will be all the more bloody because of that training.

Stephen said at March 27, 2006 3:08 AM:

And another thing...

Why are ethnically based military units being formed? Surely if you want to build an 'army of national unity' (snort) then the obvious thing to do is to form units that are ethnically diverse and then develop an esprit de core that transcends ethnicity. The Iraqi army in its current form is just a recipe for ethnic/religious division.

Knowing the screw up this whole operation has been, I'm not sure whether the ethnic army unit decision (or lack of one) was deliberate or accidental.

Stephen said at March 27, 2006 3:13 AM:

And another other thing...

An 'internal security' army is an entirely different beast to an 'external security' army. The calibre and motives of the recruits are entirely different, and internal security types must be trained differently in order to avoid them cannibalising their own citizenry.

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