The Preparedness of Iraqi Security Forces

The Preparedness of Iraqi Security Forces

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi security personnel have received U.S.-led counterinsurgency training. But big questions remain over their readiness to replace U.S. forces.

Last updated March 27, 2008 8:00 am (EST)

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Since toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003, U.S.-led forces have worked to rebuild the country’s army and police with money, weapons, and training. As of late 2007, $19.2 billion (PDF) had been spent on the effort. By early 2008 more than 425,000 Iraqis had received counterinsurgency training, including nearly 200,000 army, air force, and navy personnel, and roughly as many police. But the effectiveness of Iraq’s security forces has become a major question mark for military analysts. Broken promises, sectarian infiltration, and the inability to track trained personnel and equipment have slowed the rebuilding effort. As the U.S. enters its sixth year of war in Iraq, some experts are questioning whether Iraqi security forces will ever be ready to take the place of U.S. forces. Renewed fighting between rival Shiite militias in March 2008, and the Iraqi government’s efforts to quash the violence, emerged as a vital test of the country’s fledgling security forces.

What do the Iraqi Security Forces look like now?

The original Iraqi Army, with roughly nine-hundred thousand soldiers and security personnel, was disbanded (PDF) by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in May 2003 and replaced with U.S.-trained fighters. In mid-2007, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) totaled (PDF) more than half a million soldiers, police and paramilitary troops, according to data compiled by military experts and the Pentagon. The new Iraqi army, falling under the jurisdiction of the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, totaled roughly 141,000 in January 2008, according to Pentagon numbers, with additional support forces (PDF) numbering nearly 20,000. It is divided into twelve divisions and one-hundred thirty-four battalions, with an additional thirty-seven battalions planned. By early 2008 an estimated 77 percent of Iraq’s army units were capable of planning and leading their own missions. The Iraqi Police Service—controlled by the Ministry of the Interior—numbered 155,000 trained personnel in January 2008. U.S.-led coalition forces provide training and equipment for the localized units, which are similar to police departments in the United States. The Interior Ministry also oversees the Iraqi National Police Force of 41,000, which responds to insurgent violence, terrorist strikes and public unrest. 

The Pentagon says other security forces that have received training include about 28,000 border agents; five-hundred dignitary security officers; and four-thousand members of an Interior Ministry forensics unit. Additional security forces include more than one-hundred thousand building guards from the Facilities Protection Service; and approximately one-hundred thousand Peshmerga fighters from the Kurdish-controlled north.

“Not only do Iraqi security forces fail to provide security; they have become part of the problem.” —Rand Corporation, August 2007

Where are these forces located?

Iraqi Army divisions are deployed throughout the country, with a greater concentration of forces in northern and central provinces. Under the security plan in place in August 2007, five of the army’s divisions operate in and around Baghdad, including the second, fourth, sixth, ninth, and tenth IA Divisions.

Iraqi Police are operating in each of Iraq’s eighteen provinces, with the best-equipped units stationed in Baghdad, Baqubah, Basra, Fallujah, Kirkuk, Mosul, Najaf, North Babil, Ramadi, and Samarra.

National Police are stationed primarily in Baghdad, with smaller contingents in Samarra and Balad.

Border agents have been trained to patrol all of Iraq’s border crossings, including seventeen land ports, four sea ports, and four air entry ports. However, the Pentagon’s most recent stability report does not include staffing locations.

Facilities Protection Service personnel are divided among Iraq’s twenty-seven ministries; the Pentagon does not maintain personnel status reports.

Kurdish forces patrol Iraq’s northern region. Some units are conducting joint missions with the Iraqi Army.

How effective are these forces?

While some U.S. defense officials give the ISF credit for toughness and growing counterinsurgency skills, many analysts have serious doubts about the forces’ effectiveness. By the Pentagon’s own estimates, only 65 percent (PDF) of trained forces are available at any given time; others say the ratio is closer to 50 percent. The reason in part lies with Iraq’s primitive banking system, which is based solely on cash transactions. At any given time, half the country’s trained soldiers are traveling home to hand deliver paychecks to their families, a problem the U.S. Defense Department recognizes as the “greatest contributor” to undermanned units. But experts note other hurdles slowing security force development. Anthony H. Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., writes in an August 2007 report that despite some progress, Iraqi units have significant performance problems; lack resources; and suffer from sectarian divisions. Ridding the police of corruption and sectarian loyalties is considered a must (PDF).

He predicts the problems could take three to five years to fix. An August 2007 report (PDF) from the Rand Corporation is even less encouraging: “Not only do Iraqi security forces fail to provide security; they have become part of the problem.”

“I cannot recall for you the last report of an ISF unit avoiding a fight.” —Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, August 2007  

Gen. Peter Pace, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in July 2007 that the number of Iraqi army battalions operating independently of coalition assistance had dropped to six, down from ten in March 2006. Pace blamed the downturn on rising casualties and aging equipment. Yet he pointed to the Iraqi battalions “operating in the lead” as a sign of progress (Reuters).

Do ISF forces interact with Iraq’s militia groups?

Militias continue to pose a major threat to Iraqi security and there are persistent reports of security bodies being infiltrated by them. For example, the Facilities Protection Service (FPS), originally a four-thousand member force tasked with protecting Iraqi property and the country’s ministries, has reportedly (WashPost) become a band of over one-hundred thousand armed militiamen, with no central command or oversight. U.S. officials have described FPS members as militants paying allegiance to the ministries they protect, largely run by Shiites. Authors of the Iraqi Study Group Report concluded the FPS has become complicit in sectarian violence, and is a source of “funding and jobs” for radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.

The Mahdi Army and Badr Organization have has also emerged as significant obstacles to security. A Wall Street Journal report on August 30, 2007 says Sadr’s Mahdi militia has infiltrated the government so deeply it’s hard to identify the enemy. The Badr militia, the paramilitary wing of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), is also widely believed to have infiltrated (RFE/RL) Iraq’s police and security services. Sadr’s decision in February 2008 to extend by six months a freeze to his militia’s operations raised hopes of lasting stability. But the eruption of Shiite-on-Shiite violence in Basra, Baghdad, and elsewhere a month later renewed fearsthat the security gains of 2007 could evaporate (WSJ). The ability of Iraq’s security forces to tamp down the violence is seen as a vital test for Baghdad’s government. President Bush said Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s decision to send thousands of troops to Basra was a “positive moment” (AFP) in Iraq’s ability to defend itself. 

What role have Iraqi forces played in the “surge”?

The training of Iraqi Security Forces slowed during the Pentagon’s so-called “surge,” which infused thirty-thousand additional American troops in and around Baghdad to curb sectarian violence. Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the former head of police and military training in Iraq, told (PDF) a House panel in June 2007 that "the balance had tipped" from training Iraqi forces to protecting Iraq’s population. “It didn’t have to be either/or, but certainly, in the near term, we had to ensure the population was secured,” Dempsey said. Nonetheless, ISF units continued to fight alongside coalition troops during the build-up. Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, deputy U.S. commander in Iraq, said in August 2007 that Iraqi security forces are conducting thousands of operations monthly—including independent patrols and checkpoints—and continue to plan operations against top terrorist targets. “I cannot recall for you the last report of an ISF unit avoiding a fight,” the general reported.

How well are the Iraqi forces managed?

Experts point to weak Iraqi management as the cause for problems in tracking equipment and personnel. Weapons meant for Iraqi units have gone missing in recent years, according to the Government Accountability Office (PDF). And a poor management infrastructure has even led the Iraqi Ministry of Interior to lose track of its people. "It is unknown how many of the more than 320,000 employees on the military’s payroll are present for duty on a given day," the U.S. military noted (PDF) in June 2007. John Pike, a defense analyst and director of, said shoddy record-keeping raises serious doubts about the data touted by the Pentagon and Iraqi government. “I was initially persuaded they were measuring something,” Pike said. But he added that over time, “it became apparent that whatever the Defense Ministry was counting was different from what the Interior Ministry was counting.”

A House subcommittee concluded in June 2007 that despite three months of study, it could not determine the “operational capability” of Iraqi forces. “We are actually left with more questions than answers," the House Oversight and Investigations subcommittee concluded (PDF).

Can the Iraqi government turn things around?

Not anytime soon, many experts say. An August 2007 National Intelligence Estimate found that despite plans by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to expand the Iraqi army by approximately twenty-four thousand troops, measurable security gains “will take at least six to twelve months, and probably longer, to materialize.” Adding to the government’s problems are reports the United States could cut funding for ISF operations next year. According to an August 2007 analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Bush administration’s 2008 war funding request slashes payments for security training, to $2 billion from $5.5 billion. The Iraqi government spent $9 billion on training and equipment in 2007—the first year it spent more than the United States—but continues to rely heavily on U.S. funding sources, the analysis found. Signs of political progress are emerging. An August 27 power-sharing agreement among Iraq’s major political factions renewed hopes of a functioning parliament. But the deal was reportedly not enough to lure the country’s largest Sunni Arab political back into the fold.

“It is unknown how many of the more than 320,000 employees on the [Interior] ministry’s payroll are present for duty on a given day.” —Pentagon report to Congress, June 2007

What could help spur security reforms?

One solution would be to properly vet military and police forces before being offered employment, screening candidates with clear sectarian leanings. According to Rand, the Ministry of the Interior needs a thorough overhaul to remove sectarian divisions—within the ministry and among security units. A lack of internal controls and corrupt (PDF) officials “has made it easy for politicians to employ partisan fighters."

CFR senior fellow Stephen Biddle says such an overhaul would still create problems. “The idea that we are going to weed out all the sectarian elements, produce a cleansed ISF and then leave and hope it stays that way” is unrealistic, Biddle says. “I think the stronger we make the ISF, unless we are very careful, the more proficient we make the civil war to come.” An independent U.S. assessment of Iraq’s National Police is likely to bolster that argument by calling for the force to be completely remade (IHT).

Others see a need to improve security of facilities and transports used by Iraqi military and security forces as a way to raise confidence, and recruiting numbers. April 2007 was the deadliest month for military and security forces in Iraq since July 2005, according to the Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index. Those numbers in early 2008 had declined dramatically before intra-Shiite violence erupted around the country.


Are there alternatives to stepped-up training?

Biddle argues for an increased reliance on local cease-fire deals, in which local tribes or security forces are given greater responsibility in exchange for turning their weapons away from U.S. forces. The strategy has worked in Anbar province, the most hailed development since implementation of the Bush administration’s surge strategy in January 2007. Tribes which initially fought the U.S. alongside insurgents are now assisting in efforts to rid the region of al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Pentagon is actively looking to replicate the success (AP) with other tribes and militant groups. In some regions, U.S. commanders appear to be relying less on national forces and more on “neighborhood watch” groups plucked from Shiite and Sunni tribes. The Wall Street Journal says the shift is aimed at moving security responsibilities away from the central government, which has so far failed to foster reconciliation. But Biddle says security negotiations, whether at the national or local levels, must come with strings attached. “A major problem for the U.S. in Iraq is a shortage of bargaining leverage for getting Iraqi factions to reconcile,” he says. “Given this, we need to exploit every potential source of leverage we can—including the expansion and training of the ISF.”


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