Iraq: What will it take to fix it and get out?

Advice: How long the United States stays in Iraq, experts agree, might depend on how soon it gets serious about troop training, security and reconstruction efforts.

October 17, 2004|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

EITHER DO it right or get out.

That, in a nutshell, is the advice on Iraq many experts would give to whoever occupies the Oval Office for the next four years.

Doing it right will not be easy. "To be really honest about it, so much damage has been done, I don't know if anything can be done now," says Thabit Abdullah, an Iraqi who is a historian at York University in Toronto.

That is everyone's starting point; just how far down the river Iraq has gone and how tough it will be to paddle back upstream.

Given the current circumstances - an economy flat on its back, basic security almost nonexistent and the infrastructure in shambles - it could take a 15-year occupation and hundreds of billions of dollars to produce a stable democratic state.

If we're not ready to make that effort, some experts believe it would be better to get out quickly. And even if we are ready to stay, it would be good to signal our willingness to leave, making it clear to Iraqis that their fate is in their hands and that the United States does not plan a permanent occupation.

Whatever our course, everyone agrees a necessary first step will be to establish security by training a competent Iraqi army - an effort that has scarcely begun.

"We have got to do better training on the ground," says Benjamin Barber, whose latest book, Fear's Empire: War, Terrorism, and Democracy, deals with many of these issues. "The numbers that have been mentioned - 120,000 troops trained - are completely phony. They got the equivalent of a week's training. They need three months."

Lee Strickland, a former senior analyst at the CIA, agrees. "The training we are providing the Iraqi national guard is almost laughable," he says. "It's a 13-day training program. I can't even vet somebody in 13 days, much less teach the rudiments of combating an urban insurgency."

The lack of training was noted as one of the main reasons that Iraqi forces have proven to be ineffective.

"No Iraqi unit has acquitted itself well in battle," says Strickland, head of the Center for Information Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park. "When Fallujah was handed over to the 6th Battalion, it dissolved and deserted, and actually went over to the insurgents," he says.

Martha Crenshaw, a terrorism expert at Wesleyan University, also backs a stepped-up training program, though she recognizes its downside.

"I know that there are really large numbers of Iraqis who want to join the military and the police because they need a job," she says. "It is really difficult to vet them and control them, so there are risks in a very quick enlargement of the Iraqi self-defense forces. But it is the way we have to go."

"You don't fight terrorists with air strikes," Crenshaw adds.

The loss of security in the weeks after the fall of Baghdad is pointed to as the biggest mistake the United States made. Regaining it is paramount

"When the Americans first came in, the Iraqis thought they were supermen with their technology and know-how," Abdullah says. "But after the incredible inability to clamp down on the looting, the resistance began to test the Americans and saw they were not able to do anything," he says.

Barber says that while the Iraqis are being trained, the United States should "not just internationalize the military force, but Arab-ize and Islamicize an international force" by getting troops from countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Indonesia to come into Iraq.

Strickland agrees. "We could make it, as we always do, financially worthwhile to these countries," he says.

But Abdullah is not so sure. "That could lead to a more violent resistance because the forces would be less capable and thus more vulnerable," he says. The only way this can be done is to have the Iraqis do it, and this is where the training has to come in."

Beyond security, the advice is to get serious about Iraq's reconstruction.

"When you look back at what you hear is being done in the public sector - we open a sewage plant - it's almost laughable," Strickland says. "We need something like the Marshall Plan, with Marshall Plan-type resources, where we are spending literally billions to rebuild the country."

That sort of money has been allocated for Iraqi reconstruction, but Strickland says the amount actually reaching the ground is "laughable."

Abdullah says that Iraqis - eagerly reading what he says is an excellent free press - know all too well how much money is going to U.S. companies like Halliburton and Bechtel.

"The Americans need first to include Iraqis in the decision-making and planning of how the reconstruction funds are going to be spent," Abdullah says. "And secondly, Iraqis need to feel the benefits of that money," calling for an elimination of subcontracting to foreign firms and workers, instead hiring Iraqis.

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