A Few Good Men
The last couple of posts have been devoted to describing how Iraq's rivers, deserts and general geography influence what the insurgency and coalition forces do. Yet any plan, whether of the insurgency or the coalition, needs men to carry it out. Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and General George Casey gave a press briefing on September 30 focusing on the 'quantity of men' issue, a status report on the process of rebuilding the Iraqi Army.
First the raw numbers. Secretary Rumsfeld reports there are "technically 194,000 Iraqis" in the security forces. In terms of what may properly be referred to as the Iraqi army, General Casey said there were 100 battalions in all. These were divided, in terms of their capability into three categories: Category 1, 2 and 3 -- with Category 1 being the most capable.
|Category||Number of battalions|
|1||1 (as per leak in Congressional testimony)|
The widely circulated report in the press that of 3 Iraqi battalions that were formerly combat ready, only one is currently rated in that status is an example of how the 'quantity of men' issue has been misunderstood. That number turns out to be the number of Iraqi battalions in Category 1, which as we shall see later, is not the critical category at all. Here is the exchange that pertains to it:
Q: General, you and General Abizaid and the secretary, and others, have said that in large measure, our ability to pull American troops out of Iraq will depend on progress in training the Iraqi forces. You've just given a large number of figures there. But you said yesterday that only one Iraqi battalion, army battalion now, instead of the three previously stated, are able now to operate alone without U.S. military help. And yet you say that's not a setback to U.S. hopes to leave Iraq. Would you explain that? How is that not a setback, sir?
GEN. CASEY: Charlie, think about what you're saying; two battalions out of a hundred. One thing. Second, let me explain here the different levels and why we set them up like we did.
First of all, we purposely set a very high standard for the first level, because as we looked at our strategy, we said that whatever happens with the Iraqi security forces, when we leave them, we have to leave them at a level where they can sustain the counterinsurgency effort with progressively less support from us. So that first one is a very, very high standard. We set that standard knowing full well that it was going to be a long time before all Iraqi units got in that category. And so the fact that there's only one or three units, that is not necessarily important to me right now. Next year at this time, I'll be much more concerned about it. Right now I'm not.
General Casey emphasized that however one calculated what Iraqi battalions fell into which classification, in absolute terms the number of Iraqi units has increased enormously.
In May, Iraqi security forces conducted about 160 combined or independent operations at the company level and above, so about 100 people as company level, and about 160 operations. In September, that was over 1,300, and then our transition teams that we have put with the Iraqi security forces have greatly enhanced their development and their ability to operate with us. We are at the point now where 80 percent of all of the company-level and higher operations that are done are combined operations with the Iraqi or Iraqi independent operations -- big step forward.
Secretary Rumsfeld later reiterated the switch in percentages to illustrate the effect Iraqi numbers were having on security operations.
but at one point we thought that they were doing about -- that U.S. was doing about 80 percent of the patrols and the activity, and the Iraqi security forces about 20 [percent]. And today it's probably roughly reversed, that the Iraqi -- independent and Iraqi combined are probably 80 percent, and maybe 20 percent are U.S.-coalition only.
The eightfold increase in company-level operations in five months (from 160 company level operations in May rising to 1,300 in September) is one crude way to estimate the rate of training of Iraqi battalions . If operational tempo has not increased, this suggests that since there are 100 battalions now then there were only about 12 in May and the US military transition teams have been training about 18 new battalions each month. This is a very crude estimate, but it should in the correct order of magnitude.
Of these 100 battalions the truly important number are those in Category 2 (not the Category 1 batts the press was interested in) because it is on these that the operations over the next six months will be fought. The members of Press realized this in the course of the briefing and attempted to get the speakers to state this number without success.
Q: Category two is an important number. What is that number? Maybe we would chase that rabbit if you threw it out there for us.
GEN. CASEY: The numbers are classified, but I --
Q: But why is the number "one" not classified, then?
GEN. CASEY: Because unfortunately it got out and was -- (laughter) -- in the media.
But the importance of the numbers of available Category 2 Iraqi battalions was emphasized time and again. General Casey noted that it was with Category 2 Iraqi forces that the battle of Tal Afar was successfully fought -- and it is with these Category 2 batts that the near term campaign will be waged.
GEN. CASEY: You mentioned the Tall Afar model. I think that's a good example. Three Iraqi brigades and a third Iraqi infantry division went in Tall Afar with one of our brigades. Urban fighting. I mean, the toughest type of combat. And these Iraqi units were right there with our guys. And what happens is more and more we're seeing them -- and General Vines told me this morning -- in about half the cases now our guys are providing the outer cordon, and it's the Iraqis that are going inside; frankly, because they're much more effective in understanding what it is they're seeing there. But that's kind of the Tall Afar model. And none of those brigades that went in there were level one. They were level two and three. And so I'm trying to give you some sense of the capabilities of these guys.
(Speculation alert) In hindsight, it seems probable that the river and border campaigns waged over the past few months could not have been undertaken until the means were to hand: adequate numbers of Iraqi troops trained by the military transition teams. Only then could the seize-and-hold operations we are witnessing be successfully undertaken. If this is the case then while the news headlines were focused on dramatic battlefield events, the military training teams were winning a silent victory offstage, together with those who were assisting the establishment of a new Iraqi state.
In retrospect the public debate over "adequate numbers" of troops in Iraq may have been too narrowly framed. The average person would probably take "numbers" to mean the count of combat formations deployed to Iraq as the metric of 'how serious' the US was about tackling the insurgency and some military analysts were recommending deployments of 500,000 men. But if the debate had been cast in terms of how much "military power" had to be deployed to Iraq, remembering that military power is a broader term which is the composite of tooth, tail and force generation components, the answer would have been subtly different because it would have included such nonobvious elements as combat support, Iraqi force generation, political warfare and technological innovation applied to solve the problem.
A reader wrote to say that the classification of Iraqi units into categories depends on two things: capability and availability. Therefore the number of Iraqi battalions at any particular level of categorization could fluctuate according to such variables as whether the unit was on training. Going from level 1 to level 2 does not necessarily mean the unit has "gotten worse".