June 1, 2006  

Building an Iraqi Army

"Iraqi Army Will Be Built by End Of the Year," read the headline in today’s New York Times. According to Lt. Gen Martin Dempsey, who runs the training mission in Baghdad, the new Iraqi army will be "fully capable of recruiting, vetting, inducting, training, forming into units, putting them in barracks, sending them out the gate to perform their missions."

Ah, if that were all there were to it.

First of all, building an army – or more precisely, putting an army in the field – is not the same as sustaining an army. An army is an institution as well as a field force; it develops doctrine, buys equipment, educates soldiers as well as training them. It prepares for war more than it fights battles. It is also an expression of the political will of a nation.

The American measure of the Iraqi army has too often been a measure of American political will. President Bush’s aphorism, "When the Iraqi army stands up, we can stand down," is simply misleading. We transmit a message – that our strategic goal is simply to "stand down" rather than achieve victory – that is music to our enemies’ ears.

Look: it is unquestionably a good thing if, this time around, we are doing a more thorough job of creating an Iraqi force that will fight in places like Fallujah when they encounter insurgent resistance; by most accounts Gen. Dempsey has continued the improvements begun by Lt. Gen. David Petraeus two years ago. But by itself, this is not enough to create a stable security environment in Iraq.

The Iraqi army is the first institution of a new and legitimate Iraqi government, and it must do much more than win tactical fights. It must prove that the government in Baghdad is not simply a one-time collection of sectarian interests. It must prove that an Iraqi government is not incorrigibly corrupt. It must prove itself to be the servant of the state and will be the school of the state, an institution where a new Iraqi political culture takes root, where Iraqi loyalties are transferred from the clan, the tribe, the sect to the nation.

That’s a heavy burden, but is also the real measure of success. There’s no way to rush that process, no blitzkrieg formula. And once the Iraqi army is on a secure footing – and, while touting its increasing skills, Dempsey also acknowledges that the field force would continue to rely heavily on American support and was deficient in "leader development" – other organizations, most crucially a real police force, must be "stood up."

If the United States really means to wage a Long War in the greater Middle East, it still must resist the temptation to define victory downward. Not only do soldiers deserve straight talk instead of rosy scenarios, but so do all Americans.