F or more than two years, the heart of U.S. military strategy in Iraq has been "Iraqization," the creation of an effective Iraqi security force that can take the place of U.S. Marines and soldiers. Thereby, the United States can eventually withdraw without leaving behind a terrorist safe haven and fractured Iraq. A wide range of military officers, policymakers, and scholars argue that through re-invigorated American efforts at training, equipping, and advising the Iraqi Army, any shortcomings in the Iraqi security forces can be overcome. Even Democrats who oppose the surge strategy support Iraqization, contending that Iraqi security forces are perfectly capable of suppressing violence now but that only when the United States "stands down" will they truly "stand up."

Between February 2004 and February 2005, and later from February to August 2006, I served as an advisor to the I Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF) in Al Anbar province. During that time I interviewed members of the Iraqi Army and police, held discussions with American advisers, and directly observed Iraqi Army and police operations. Al Anbar is overwhelmingly Sunni and infamously is a center of insurgent activity. Therefore, it is critical to the success of the Iraqization strategy. Failure there means a U.S. withdrawal would leave hard-core insurgent groups, specifically Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), free to operate and possibly organize terrorist operations outside the province. Even if it is successful everywhere else in Iraq, Iraqization will have failed if it cannot work in Al Anbar.

My research in Al Anbar province suggests that Iraqization can never lead to a stable or unified Iraq. The Iraqi Army, the focal point of Iraqization, has been unable to win the support of the Sunni population, who view it as a Shia occupation force. Without the local population’s help, the Iraqi Army cannot suppress insurgent activity, no matter how much advising, training, or equipping is invested into it. As long as ethnically integrated (and therefore predominantly Shia), the army will not succeed. If the United States draws down and tasks the keeping of the peace to the army, Al Anbar could very well become a safe haven for AQI and a breeding ground for international terrorism. Neither the recent surge nor the current Iraqization policy will alter that fate. Thus, continuing to advise, train, and equip the Iraqi Army only delays such a fate and sacrifices more American lives.

Fortunately, this outcome is not inevitable. A strategy of "grassroots Iraqization"–one that places greater resources and authority in the hands of local Sunni police units–could, based on my experiences in Al Anbar, create islands of stability and significantly constrain AQI’s influence in a long Iraqi civil war. Because of close connections to the Sunni community, local Sunni police units, the other arm of the security forces in Al Anbar, enjoy stronger popular support and experience greater success against the insurgents than the Iraqi Army. The thing holding them back is their alignment with the United States and the Shia government, thus denying them the breadth of popular support necessary to secure more than two or three towns or neighborhoods. The police may never entirely overcome this constraint, but they can progress, and expand beyond Al Anbar, if the United States and the Iraqi government give Sunni sheiks, imams, former military, and other local leaders money, access to jobs, political positions, and control over military formations so that they have the authority to convince more of their followers to join the police and give the police information. Thereby, over time, local police can gain greater popular support, expand secure areas, and become a long-term constraint on AQI–America’s number-one enemy in Iraq.

This is hardly an ideal course. By giving non-elected Sunni groups economic, political, and military power, Sunni autonomy would be increased and the movement toward a unified democratic state would be weakened. The United States would be creating nothing less than Sunni militias and turning to them for security, rather than to the legitimate arm of the state, the Iraqi Army. The United States obviously would prefer to avoid this scenario and hope that political reconciliation efforts and military operations–such as the ongoing surge–would allow the Iraqi Army to succeed. Yet, experts argue, the surge and political reconciliation efforts are not likely to prevent civil war from being the long-term reality. At this point in the conflict, strategy must be about choosing the least-worst options so that we can salvage U.S. interests in what is likely to be a divided and war-torn Iraq.

The Origins and Early Development of Iraqization

The United States and its coalition in Iraq began building Iraqi security forces as early as 2003, but it did not become the focal point of U.S. military strategy until General George Casey, commander of Multi-National Forces Iraq (MNF-I), ordered a review of his military strategy at the end of 2004. The review concluded that the formation of the Iraqi Army was lagging and needed to be accelerated so that it could shoulder counterinsurgency operations and allow U.S. forces to eventually withdraw. Even if insurgent activity could not be entirely eliminated, Casey hoped the Iraqi Army could suppress it to a level that would not fracture the Iraqi state and would keep AQI from operating freely. Accordingly, Casey directed the Coalition forces to shift their focus from fighting insurgents to training Iraqis.

The Coalition designed the Iraqi Army to be a national force that integrated Kurds, Shia, and Sunni. Some degree of integration in fact occurred–I encountered a number of Sunni officers–but overall the Sunnis were always underrepresented throughout the country. In all, 10 divisions (recently raised to 13) were planned. In order to accelerate Iraqi Army development, MNF-I created the transition team concept–10 to 12 advisers embedded into every Iraqi Army unit, from battalion to brigade to division. Additionally, each Iraqi battalion was partnered with a Marine or U.S. Army battalion, which would assist in their operations and training. Usually, the partnership process began with an Iraqi company working with a U.S. company. Eventually, the company would operate independently, followed by the battalion, then the brigade, and ultimately the entire division. To be sure, the Coalition also developed local police forces, recruited from the areas where they would serve and organized into city and district stations. But they received fewer advisers and resources than the army.

The Iraqi Army in Al Anbar
By March 2006, the Iraqi Army in Al Anbar numbered two divisions (about 10,000 personnel) and provided 40 to 50 percent of the infantry for counterinsurgency. Three brigades operated independently. Despite this growth in numbers and capability, the army faced incessant attacks and, as of early 2007, after two years of operations, it could not suppress the insurgency even with U.S. forces present, which made it highly unlikely it would be able to do so absent U.S. forces–the primary goal of Iraqization. Most disturbing for American interests, AQI continued to maintain a presence throughout the province. In a leaked intelligence report in September 2006, Colonel Peter Devlin, the I MEF intelligence officer, wrote, "AQI is the dominant organization of influence in Al Anbar, surpassing the nationalist insurgents, the Iraqi Government, and MNF [the Coalition] in its ability to control the day-to-day life of the average Sunni." The inability of the Iraqi Army to suppress insurgent activity was mirrored throughout the Sunni areas.