War Stories

Over There

Why U.S. troops won’t be coming home from Iraq anytime soon.

U.S. soldiers are stuck in a catch-22

Now that an Iraqi government is taking form, however haltingly, how much longer will American troops have to stay? Judging from the data in two recent official U.S. reports, they probably won’t be coming home soon.

Read together, the two documents—the latest quarterly report by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, just released today, and the State Department’s “Iraq Weekly Status Report” dated May 4—suggest that the Iraqi leaders have a long way to go (by some measures, as long as they’ve ever had) before they can rebuild their country, secure order, stabilize their regime, and protect their borders without a large American military presence.

The paradox that stumped the U.S. occupation forces two years ago, shortly after the fall of Baghdad, continues to stump them today. On the one hand, their efforts to provide security won’t succeed until they restore essential services. On the other hand, they can’t restore essential services until the country’s key assets—especially its roads, oil pipelines, and electrical generators—are secure.

Oil revenue was supposed to galvanize Iraq’s postwar economy. Yet crude oil production has flattened out at around 2 million barrels a day, well below its prewar level of 2.5 million. Electrical power production hovers around 80,000 kilowatt hours—considerably short of the 100,000 KWH output before the war and far below last summer’s declared goal of 120,000. Baghdad homes have electricity for nine to 11 hours a day; in other cities, the figure drops to eight or nine hours.

Iraq’s reconstruction was going to be funded by a massive infusion of U.S. aid, $18.4 billion worth. Yet that aid—allocated a year and a half ago—is being directed and disbursed very slowly. Just $12.8 billion (roughly two-thirds) has been appropriated—and a mere $4.8 billion (less than one-quarter) has been spent.

In some sectors, the flow of aid is barely a trickle. For instance:

  • For the oil infrastructure, $1.72 billion was allocated; just $1 billion has been appropriated to specific projects; only $263 million—about 15 percent of the original amount—has been spent.
  • For transportation and communication, $509 million was allocated; $327 million has been appropriated, just $70 million (14 percent) spent.
  • For health care, $786 million was allocated, $557 million appropriated, and only $77 million (less than 10 percent) spent.
  • For water resources and sanitation, $2.16 billion was allocated, $1.06 billion appropriated, a mere $117 million (5 percent) spent.

(For more about this slow rate of spending, and how the situation is even worse than these numbers suggest, click here.)

Part of the reason for this sluggishness is mismanagement. Most of it stems from problems with security. The road to be repaired is impassible; the oil pipeline to be modernized keeps getting blown up.

Yet progress in security is moving slowly, too. Of the $5 billion in U.S. aid allocated to security and law enforcement, $2 billion (or 40 percent) has been spent. The inspector general’s report cites March testimony by Joseph A. Christoff, director of the Government Accountability Office’s international affairs and trade division: “As of mid-December 2004,” Christoff told a House government reform subcommittee, “paramilitary training for a high-threat hostile environment was not part of the curriculum for new recruits” to the Iraqi security forces. By early 2005, he continued, multinational training commanders had only “begun work on a system to assess Iraqi capabilities.” Moreover, “It is unclear at this time whether the system under development will provide adequate measures for determining the capability of Iraqi police.” (Italics added.)

Another thing that’s unclear is the size of the Iraqi police. The latest State Department report cites 58,224 officers in the police and highway patrol and 29,562 in “other” divisions of the interior ministry. However, unlike some earlier editions, this one doesn’t distinguish between police and highway patrol. An asterisk also notes that the number “includes unauthorized absences”—though how many is unstated.

The Iraqi army is said to have 73,450 “trained and equipped” personnel, but a report earlier this year by the U.S. Defense Department—whose armed forces live or die by how well-prepared the Iraqi army really is—noted that all but a few thousand of Iraq’s troops are only lightly equipped and not at all prepared for mobile warfare.

The good news is that, by most anecdotal accounts, the Iraqi forces—especially some of the militias—are getting better. The American in charge of their training, Lieut. Gen. David Petraeus, former commander of the 101st Airborne Division, is one of the most competent and creative officers in the U.S. Army.

The bad news is that training, until recently, has been halfhearted and slipshod. It takes a long time—some say two years or more—to get an army up to snuff from scratch. For that matter, the U.S. Army’s training and doctrine command estimates that it takes a year or more to train a squad of good trainers.

For these and many other reasons, the Iraqi leaders themselves want, however grudgingly, the American military to stay, at least until the insurgents are weakened much further. Juan Cole, a University of Michigan professor whose blog is generally critical of U.S. policy, estimates that only about one-fifth of Iraq’s parliamentarians want the Americans to leave; that most of them endorse a timetable for withdrawal rather than an immediate pullout; and that, in any case, they form no bloc, they’re scattered among several parties, and tend to play no prominent role.

As recently as last winter, some analysts and politicians—here and in Iraq—argued that the insurgents’ main targets were American soldiers; hence, end the occupation and the insurgency would dry up. This was always a dubious notion, in both the premise and the logic, but now it’s plainly wrong. In recent months, the Americans have cut back on large-scale offensives, yet the insurgents have stepped up attacks against Iraqis. Since the start of this year, 266 American soldiers have been killed in action in Iraq—compared with 724 Iraqi soldiers and police. (Until now, Americans hadtaken the brunt of casualties.) If the United States pulled out now, the Baathists, Zarqawists, and other insurgents would run wild. The country, rough and ragged as is, would fall apart.