Lost in the turmoil and scandals of Katrina and Rita was the sudden reassignment of Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of the Multinational Security Transition Command in Iraq, whose job was to train Iraqi military forces, which, from most of the evidence, are still raw.
General Petraeus, whose assignment lasted about a year, will be exiled to the U.S. heartland to train U.S. military officers.
His mission was, by most U.S. standards, including those of President Bush, the most important task in Iraq. U.S. troop withdrawals hinged on General Petraeus' success in preparing Iraqi forces to take over security functions from U.S. troops.
There is no question that General Petraeus' reassignment was abrupt and with cause. He leaves his assignment unfinished by a long shot. From a career standpoint, a training assignment at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., is the end of his promotions. Had he pleased the chain of command, he might have been off to a high-level billet on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
There's been no explanation for his reassignment. A smoke screen of his purported accomplishments covered his departure. But the smoke cleared a little when the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey, declared before a surprised Congress on Thursday that the number of combat-ready Iraqi battalions was reduced from three to one.
It appears that U.S. politicians had one set of figures on the number of trained Iraqi forces, the Army another. They differed widely. The credibility gap might have been what brought down General Petraeus. But pervasive corruption issues also always loom in Iraq.
The Army and General Petraeus now understand that training the Iraqi military under combat conditions is not the same as commanding a U.S. division filled with well-trained professional volunteers. About the only carping in the last year about General Petraeus was that a Special Forces officer would have been better suited for the job. These officers have the reputation within the Army of thinking outside the box. This might have been sound criticism.
When the general was being interviewed on the eve of his reassignment, he pointed out that he was taken aback by the role of bribes in Iraq, known as baksheesh. He appeared shocked at how much they permeated the country's ancient culture. Welcome to the real world, general.
He had an unrealistic mission. It might have been the case of a good man in a bad war.
It takes about 17 years to train a battalion commander, so expectations on combat effectiveness of Iraqi forces should be kept low. Given the complexity of the Petraeus mission, it would take at least six months to define the problem and assign the right people to help him do the job. It would require another six months to put recruitment and training programs in place, and another year to make adjustments.
Even this optimistic timetable is subject to crisis because the operation is hopelessly run through Iraqi interpreters, who have divided ethnic and sectarian loyalties that likely corrupt any serious effort to measure success. The year that General Petraeus held the job was barely enough time for him to get his feet wet.
The best the United States can hope for in Iraqi forces are light infantry units, not much larger than a battalion. These will have very little self-contained firepower or armor. Transportation will be a problem. They will have to rely on the coalition for communications, logistics, fire support and air power.
The biggest problem for the United States in training Iraqi forces is that after military engagements, many Iraqis return home to sleep with the insurgents. The reliability factor is a nightmare for the coalition, an unsolvable problem, even with massive bribes.
It will take billions more dollars to equip Iraqi forces with gear that the U.S. Army really needs. It will take 20 years of expensive and deadly handholding by U.S. forces, and even afterward, the force could crack in a moment if the imams or ayatollahs whistle.
As for long-term prospects, it appears that the locus of Iraqi military power will reside in the militias, and these are not federal troops. Most of the effective Iraqi troops used against the Sunni insurgents are really components of Kurd and Shiite militias. Their use against the Sunnis exacerbates the sectarian strife.
Under these conditions, coupled with suicide bombers, there is no hope for any long-term stability or security based on building up Iraqi forces. Serious corruption is widespread in Iraq. About $6 billion in U.S. funds is missing. The former defense minister in the interim Iraqi government, Hazem Shaalan, has been indicted on corruption charges. And the United States is still trying to determine who authorized spending millions of dollars for junk and obsolescent Polish helicopters bought and delivered to Iraq.
U.S. casualties in Iraq continue to mount alarmingly. The war costs more than $1 billion a week. Military equipment is being ground up and needs replacement. The damage inflicted on the Gulf Coast by Katrina and Rita is enormous. Mr. Bush's dilemma clearly now is guns or butter. He cannot have both without wrecking this country.
Retired Army Col. Robert E. Bartos was chief of foreign intelligence on the Army staff, an Army attaché to the U.S. embassies in Moscow and Belgrade, a battalion commander in Vietnam and a member of President Ronald Reagan's transition team.
© 2005 Baltimore Sun