Getting substantial numbers of capable and well-trained Iraqi security forces in place is essential to enable the United States and other coalition partners to withdraw military forces from the nation and turn over security responsibilities to the Iraqis. But there's no clear public understanding of the size and capacity of Iraqi security forces today. Equally unclear is the question of what sort of Iraqi security capacity and numbers of security personnel will be needed before coalition forces can go home.
President Bush said in the Sept. 30 presidential debate that there are already 100,000 Iraqis trained to “make Iraq safe and secure.” In the Oct. 13 debate, the president said by the end of the year there would be 125,000 Iraqis trained to provide security. But others have labeled these numbers an exaggeration.
The issue dividing the two sides hinges on the definition of “trained.” And the number of trained Iraqis needed to take over full security responsibilities in the nation depends not so much on the size of the forces, but on what they are trained to do and how capable they are.
We should not think that as long as enough people are deemed “trained” and given a uniform that the Iraqis will be capable of providing for their own security. We must always be asking who is being trained, to do what, and how well. Some questions to ask today: Are the Iraqi forces capable, and are their capabilities the ones that Iraq needs? Do they have the equipment they need to be effective?
About 40,000 of the 100,000 trained security personnel President Bush referred to comprise the Iraqi National Guard, which plays primarily a support role to coalition forces. National Guard personnel have received somewhere between a few days and two or three weeks of non-standardized training. Most Guard members have no capacity or very limited capacity to act independently in a combat situation, although many have been useful both in combat and for other missions. So while it is accurate to say they are trained, they are not prepared or capable to take the place of American and other coalition troops.
Training and equipping Iraqi police personnel was for many months not a high enough priority for Washington and other coalition capitals to allocate sufficient human and financial resources to ensure the sort of training that could create an effective police force. As a result, fewer than 40,000 of the 85,000 Iraqi police formally in uniform (there are 30,000 more on the books) have received any training at all by coalition trainers. The form and extent of that training varies widely.
Training is more consistent for the tiny and nascent specialized police units, but those remain very few in number — fewer than 200 people trained or in training, although 5,000 are planned for these forces.
Progress is being made for the border patrol troops. About 15,000 of the nearly 17,000 personnel on hand for this force were deemed trained as of mid-September.
Training is better for military personnel other than the National Guard. All of the 21,000 personnel of the Iraqi army, prevention force, special operations force, air force and coastal defense force have been trained. Regular army troops are subject to a standardized eight-week training program. The specialized forces undergo focused training programs. It is not just a matter of training, however. The police force also has yet to be thoroughly vetted to determine who belongs in uniform and who does not. In fact, the vetting problem is widespread throughout the Iraqi security forces. This is a product of abysmal information and weak communication of what information is available.
The numbers for most Iraqi forces remain well below needs. The requirement assessed by Iraqi and coalition planners is for 135,000 trained and vetted regular police officers along with the 5,000 specialized forces noted above. Estimated force needs for the border police have been set at 32,000, and for the armed forces (excepting the National Guard) at more than 36,000. Even the National Guard is 20,000 individuals short of its goals.
Combined with continuing shortages of crucial equipment — including weapons, communications equipment, body armor and vehicles — this suggests that it will be some time before the Iraqi security services are ready to stand alone or take the place of coalition forces in any significant way. The performance of the Iraqi forces in combat and in crime-fighting over the last few months supports that assessment.
Since last spring, Iraq and its coalition partners have worked to build Iraqi capabilities in an environment where both resources and information were sorely lacking. To a large extent, they have done well considering the constraints and limitations they faced. The police, the National Guard and the Iraqi Army continue to train. Specialized military and police units are in development. And the border police are finally receiving much needed attention.
But the record to date on Iraq's violent streets shows that while they are improving, the Iraqi forces have a long way to go before they are ready to provide for their nation's security without significant help from coalition forces. Reaching that point will require continuing and significant commitments of personnel and funding for both operations and, even more crucially in the long term, training and support from the United States and other partners for some time to come. Without such commitments, neither Iraq's security nor those of its partners can be assured.
Olga Oliker is an international policy analyst at the RAND Corp., a nonprofit research organization. From January through April of this year, she served as an advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad.
This commentary originally appeared in Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service on October 20, 2004.