Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Iraq: First the Good News

The right wing talking point of the last fortnight seems to be that the MSM is failing to report all the good news from Iraq. Laura Ingraham, William Bennett, Michael Fumento, Howard Kaloogian, George Bush, and many others have all pushed this theme.

Stephen Kaus asks the right question. What, exactly, is the good news that the MSM is failing to report? For the most part, I agree with the Kaus's answer: there is no good news. In one area, however, I disagree. Unlike Kaus, I think that there is evidence that the Iraqi army is increasingly capable, and that one could make a case that this "good news" is underreported. However, I would argue that the good news about the improved ability of Iraq's military forces is overwhelmed by terrible news in the broader political situation, and that as a result, the overall picture in Iraq is terrible and getting worse.

Kaus is understandably skeptical of claims that the Iraqi military is improving:

Is it [the underreported good news] the Iraqis taking over the battle? We have heard that before and the statistics then went backwards. Laura Ingraham acknowledges that the previous iterations were false ("I think what we're doing now in Iraq is maybe finally the right thing. The Iraqi military is taking over more of the battle space."), but neither she nor the government seems to have anything specific. Saying that "more and more Iraqis are taking the fight," as President Bush did on Thursday is a little short in the evidence department.

Good point. Since Laura Ingraham and George Bush failed to tell us that the Iraqi military was in bad shape before, they're hardly credible when they tell us know that the situation has improved. However, we needn't rely on them. Anthony Cordesman of the Center on Strategic and International Studies is one of the leading American experts on Middle Eastern militaries and the author of Inexcusable Failure: Progress in Training the Iraqi Army and Security Forces as of Mid-July 2004. If the title doesn't convince you that Cordesman is willing to be critical of the administration, here are some details:
. . . failed dismally to execute their plans in the security sector . . .

The CPA never standardized its public reporting on the status of Iraqi training, although the data always implied a much higher level of training than actually took place. The training data on the Iraqi security forces were also altered in ways that disguises the level of training in most services in the in CPA reporting issued from April 2004 onwards, by implying that training under the Ba’ath regime, or limited on the job training under the Transition Integration Program (TIP) was adequate.

Most of the training was little more than at the token level . . .

No single mission is more important than security, and no Iraqi popular desire is clearer than that this mission be done by Iraqis. The US has been guilty of a gross military, administrative, and moral failure. It seems to be finally taking steps to correct these mistakes, but its past history shows that detailed progress reporting is essential, and that the US military has been reluctant at best to come to grips with the need for an effective effort.
So if Cordesman thinks that the quality of the Iraqi military is improving, I think we should take notice. Here he is in a February 15 draft report:

In spite of the problems facing Iraqi forces, they have made major progress. Changes in the US led Coalition advisory effort have led to steadily higher selection and training standards and better equipment and facilities. Embedding US training teams in each new Iraqi unit, and pairing them with US combat units until they could operate on their own, has made a major qualitative difference in the field. More and more Iraqi units have come on-line.
By early December, a total of 50 battalions were at Level 1-3 readiness and active in dealing with the insurgency. In March 2005, there were only three battalions manning their own areas—all in Baghdad. A total of 24 battalions were in charge of their own battle space in October and 33 in late December. In January 2006, the US army transferred an area of operation to an entire Iraqi army division for the first time in Qadissiya and Wassit provinces, an active combat area south of Baghdad. In early February 2006, 40 of the army’s 102 battalions had taken over security in the areas where they operated, and in contested areas, such as parts of Fallujah, Ramadi and Samarra.

The Army was making real progress in developing effective personnel. NCO and specialist training improved, officers and NCOs now had considerable experience, and most training institutions were now functional. The Iraqi Military Academy at Al Rustamiyeh, modeled on the British academy at Sandhurst, graduated its first year-long course of 73 officer cadets on January 19, 2006.62 The NCO academy at Q-West Base Complex was also fully functional, and provided training to NCOs which had already demonstrated their capability by serving in Iraqi forces. A "master trainer program" to teach Iraqi NCOs how to train other Iraqi soldiers was underway and producing significant numbers of graduates by January 2006.
Is this enough progress? Does this progress excuse the administration's earlier failures? No. But it is progress nonetheless.

But how important are these changes? Does the fact that Iraqi security forces are improving mean that the overall situation in Iraq is improving? Are we making progress? Citizen Cain says no. Our next post will cover just a few of the reasons for pessimism.

(note: lightly edited for format and to add links on 4/2)