An Iraqi battalion last week refused to go into battle in Fallujah and a third battalion of U.S. Marines was sent in instead. That is the crux of the awful problem facing the Bush administration one year into its optional war in Iraq.
The ultimate goal of the U.S. invasion and occupation was pedagogical: America would teach the Iraqis, and by extension the entire Middle East, how a liberal civil society works. It turns out even the most basic police functions of the new Iraqi state remain in shambles.
The Iraqi Interior Minister Nouri Badran quit last week and it is becoming clear why. Badran was charged with putting together an Iraqi civil defense force. Some 50,000 men were given varying jobs in everything from police forces to front-line army units, with the idea they would be for the security of the new regime. However, American commanders estimate that up to a quarter of the Iraqi security forces quit or worse, actively changed sides in the latest round of fighting.
The latter situation relates to the claim by Blackwater USA security contractors that their men were set up by Iraqi security forces in Fallujah, resulting in the deadly ambush and subsequent mutilation of the Americans' bodies that was then broadcast around the globe. If true, and no one up or down the official American chain of command is saying much about it, the set-up would explain the ferocity of Marine counterattacks in Fallujah, not to mention the U.S. resolve to find the bad actors in the incident.
Regardless of the precipitating cause, the fighting in Fallujah represented the first attempt by the U.S. to insert newly-trained Iraqi forces into the field. The 2nd Battalion of the Iraqi army graduated basic training in January to great fanfare and with America's commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, in attendance. The unit's 620 men represent fully a quarter of the standing strength of the Iraqi army.
Despite what must be grave disappointment, U.S. officials responsible for their training put the Iraqis' refusal to fight in Fallujah in the context of several miscues, one of which was training that emphasized defending Iraq from external threats, not civil unrest. Also "communication" problems which resulted in the Iraqis thinking they were going to be used as shock troops in bloody Fallujah instead of the support role actually envisioned are blamed. In other words, simple fear.
But there is no glossing over the fact that if an American unit pulled the same stunt, hard time in Leavenworth would await them. American troops deserve to know that Iraqi troops will be held to some sort of standard, as well as that there are some Iraqis who are willing to fight for the new Iraq. As the Bush administration never tires of pointing out, Iraq is a big place, with millions of people in Baghdad alone. Coming up with a functional army of 2500 should not be that hard.
In fact, the Pentagon has no choice but to grow a new Iraqi army, as America is tapped out of fighting units. Former drug czar Barry McCaffery wants 80,000 new troops for the Army, reflecting the upper range of a view common among the uniformed service. But there is no way that kind of number will ever get past Don Rumsfeld, who believes his commanders' obsessions with troop-counts are as antediluvian as mutton-chops and lancers.
Here is where the principle disconnect with reality lies, a confusion that is oddly shared by both Rumsfeld and the hysterical headlines that say the U.S has "lost control" in Iraq. In a military sense, that claim is not true. There is no piece of Iraqi real estate an American commander cannot claim within a few hours given the forces at hand. But the blustering Rumsfeldian view mistakes this ability for the presence of actual civil control in the country. As the ongoing fighting shows, civil control can fall away in minutes.
The Iraqi security forces were supposed to provide the framework for an Iraqi civil society based on the rule of law. That has not happened. What we have are American units tear-assing around the country hosing down the hot spots. In theory, this can be sustained indefinitely.
But in practice, the June 30 transfer of power, absent any real Iraqi responsibility for safety and security in the country, will just be a change in letterhead for a perpetual American presence.