Training of Iraq’s security forces, crucial to any exit strategy for Britain and the US, is going so badly that the Pentagon has stopped giving figures for the number of combat-ready indigenous troops, The Independent on Sunday has learned.
Instead, only figures for troops “on hand” are issued. The small number of soldiers, national guardsmen and police capable of operating against the country’s bloody insurgency is concealed in an overall total of Iraqis in uniform, which includes raw recruits and police who have gone on duty after as little as three weeks’ training. In some cases they have no weapons, body armour or even documents to show they are in the police.
The resulting confusion over numbers has allowed the US administration to claim that it is half-way to meeting the target of training almost 270,000 Iraqi forces, including around 52,000 troops and 135,000 Iraqi policemen. The reality, according to experts, is that there may be as few as 5,000 troops who could be considered combat ready.
The gap between troops “on hand” and the overall target for fully trained and equipped security forces has actually widened in recent months, according to John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington-based think-tank. Between October and November last year, just before the Pentagon quietly stopped giving figures for fully trained troops, the shortfall more than doubled, from 69,400 to 159,000. At current levels, the targets would not be met until next year.
The sleight of hand over troop numbers provoked a sharp clash during Condoleezza Rice’s Senate confirmation hearings to become Secretary of State. After she quoted Pentagon figures claiming 122,000 Iraqis had been trained, she was told by Democratic Senator Joseph Biden: “Time and again this administration has tried to leave the American people with the impression that Iraq has well over 100,000 fully trained, fully competent military police and personnel. And that is simply not true. We’re months, probably years, away from reaching our target goal.”
David Isenberg, an analyst at the British and American Security Council, said “disaster is too polite a word” for efforts to train Iraqi forces. “We are not being honest about the numbers,” he added. “We have no consensus about who has been trained, about who we are talking about.”
The insurgency, which has claimed the lives of 60 police, soldiers and would-be recruits since the election, has disrupted both sides of the equation. Not only has it forced the occupation authorities to drastically increase their estimate of the required number of Iraqi security forces , but training and recruitment have been disrupted by constant attacks, desertions, political suspicion and a catalogue of errors by the invaders, starting with disbanding the Iraqi army immediately after the war.
The Iraqi police force is considered the biggest failure, being poorly equipped and trained. US officials also say that tens of thousands of Iraqis are claiming police salaries but are not working, and nearly half of the force has been sent for further training.
A police colonel told the IoS: “I keep on hearing that we have been trained and we have been given the arms necessary by the Americans. But I seem to have missed all that. We have had people sent here who I would not trust at all. I have discovered that the Americans have made no checks on these men. Do you wonder why police stations and army barracks get blown up?”
Meanwhile, recommendations to attach more US advisers to the fledgling Iraqi units stoke fears that this Vietnam-era policy will further delay any exit from Iraq.