James Fallows' opus on how the U.S. has FUBARed training Iraq's army has been rightly getting a lot of attention. But there's one thing I think it misses: The question of identity. If the U.S. helps create 'capable' soldiers and those soldiers are actually loyal to, say, their own Shiite militia, is that a net positive?
BAGHDAD -- Among the varied armed security men on Baghdad's streets these days, you can't miss the police commandos. In combat uniforms, bulletproof vests and wrap-around sunglasses or ski masks, they muscle through Baghdad's traffic jams in police cars or camouflage-painted pickup trucks, clearing nervous drivers from their path with shouted commands and the occasional gunshot in the air.
The commandos are part of the Iraqi security forces that the Bush administration says will gradually replace American troops in this war. But the commandos are being blamed for a wave of kidnappings and executions around Baghdad since the spring.
One such group, the Volcano Brigade, is operating as a death squad, under the influence or control of Iraq's most potent Shia factional militia, the Iranian-backed Badr Organization, said several Iraqi government officials and western Baghdad residents....
In the past year, the U.S. military has helped build up the commandos under guidance from James Steele, a former Army Special Forces officer who led U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in El Salvador in the 1980s. Salvadoran army units trained by Steele's team were accused of a pattern of atrocities.
The first commando units -- the Lion Brigade, Scorpion Brigade and others -- were formed last year under a Sunni interior minister, Falah Naqib, and include many Sunnis who worked in the repressive security organs of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. The [new] Volcano Brigade was built up under the current, Shia-led government and "is mostly made of men from the Badr militia," said a Shia source close to the unit. Like most of a dozen people interviewed about the commandos, he asked not to be named for fear of being killed.
I am, of course, supportive of training Iraqi forces, particularly since you might be able to
"professionalize" them and convince them that death squads aren't the best of tactics. But the training needs to be one part of a larger strategy. Insisting--hoping--that the U.S. can "train" Iraqi forces to drop their ethnic loyalities is strikes me as nothing more than an assumption, an assumption upon which much of the U.S.'s chance for 'success ' rests.
Maybe I'm being too pessimistic. But check out Peter Galbraith's piece in the New York Review of Books about how there is no "Iraqi" army; there are basically only units loyal to their own ethnicities. There is "exactly one mixed battalion" in the army.
In other words: Is the notion of an "Iraqi" army and an "Iraq" itself fool's gold? Is it something the U.S. assumes is attainable not because of the liklihood of it but because of our own biases and blinders? I don't know the answer. But I wish some people at the top were thinking about it.