“As long as the Iraqi people haven't given up on themselves, I don't think we should give up on them.”
Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey
Few officers in the U.S. military have devoted more time to Operation Iraqi Freedom than Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey. After leading the 1st Armored Division in Baghdad, Dempsey took command in August 2005 of the Multi-National Security and Training Command, Iraq, becoming the most recognized U.S. face on the effort to build an Iraqi Army and police force.
Although he doesn't label it a "timetable," Dempsey says the U.S. military and the Iraqis need a "transition scheme" so they can plan for the day when U.S. troops start to leave, and Iraqis take command of the war. And he says the U.S. needs a long-term security agreement with the Iraqis so it is clear what exactly we will be helping them with in the years ahead in terms of assistance and bases.
National Journal Staff Correspondent James Kitfield sat down in Baghdad recently with the man whose edicts Iraqi generals have approvingly taken to calling "Dempsey fatwas." Edited excerpts follow.
Q: In recent reporting on the progress of the Bush administration's "surge" and the Baghdad security plan, U.S. commanders have complained that units of the Iraqi Security Forces have turned up undermanned and unable to successfully "hold" neighborhoods after initial clearing operations. How would you assess their performance?
Dempsey: First I would tell you that as I've gained greater visibility into Iraqi security forces, from the individual soldier up to the Ministry of Defense, it has become clearer to me that this business is as much art as science. We have well-developed metrics. We can measure the ministry's ability to provide resources down to the units, for example, and the ability of field commanders to provide military advice up to the ministry. Despite all of our metrics, however, this business is still more about the feel you acquire for when Iraqi security forces are ready to do certain missions.
Q: Did the Baghdad security surge ask too much of the ISF, too soon?
Dempsey: The ISF units that deployed came into Baghdad at only about 60 to 65 percent of their authorized strength. What we gleaned from talking to Iraqi commanders from places like Mosul and Basra was they didn't have enough depth to pull out whole battalions, so they would leave a company behind, meaning battalions arrived in Baghdad under strength. They were just not willing to leave [home bases] unguarded, knowing that 30 seconds after they walked out the gate the bases and stations would be looted. I mean, it's mind-boggling!
So they left forces behind to protect those bases. What we've done in planning for 2008 is to focus on giving Iraqi forces more depth and mobility enablers like armored personnel carriers and route-clearing capability so they can move more safely on the roads. When that comes online, I think you'll start seeing that the ISF has enough depth to pull a unit offline to deploy to Baghdad or conduct needed training, and still have enough redundancy at home to protect bases.
Q: So you discount claims that certain ISF forces simply didn't want any part of the Baghdad fight?
Dempsey: I don't discount that some units didn't want to fight, I just believe that was the lesser of four or five reasons why units arrived under strength. We did have one case where several senior leaders at the lieutenant colonel and major level spoke out against the mission and advised their soldiers not to deploy. To the MOD's credit, those officers were quickly relieved. There was also some reluctance from units that grew out of the Iraqi National Guard. Local tribal and religious leaders as well as their families, in some cases, were encouraging them to leave a portion of their force behind so they would have something to return to when the time came.
In the end, the value system of the ISF is a lot like our own military, only the values are reordered somewhat. In the U.S. military, values like honor and integrity trump obedience. In the Iraqi military culture, obedience trumps all other values. And when ordered to deploy to Baghdad, most units obeyed. That highlights the importance of leadership in the ISF.
Q: How serious is the much-discussed shortage of mid-career leaders in the ISF?
Dempsey: The big challenge this year and next will be finding adequate numbers of qualified officers to lead this rather large and increasingly capable security force. We've been growing young second lieutenants through the three-year military academy, but it's hard to rapidly grow majors, colonels, and generals. Those have had to be recalled from former service [in the Saddam-era forces] and retrained. Unfortunately, that talent pool is thinning out. If you recall 2,000 former Iraqi military officers, by the time you screen them for criminal records and medical issues, you generally end up with around 400 or so who qualify, or about 20 percent. That's a problem when you have a need for 8,000 officers and 20,000 non-commissioned officers.
We've tried to encourage the Iraqis to accelerate the promotion of junior officers and non-commissioned officers based on performance in the field and condensed courses, but there has been a general reluctance on their part to do that. The Iraqis had this extraordinarily hierarchal, million-man army with 15,000-plus generals. The ministers of defense and interior still believe they can recall former officers from that force who have staff college and command experience. I don't share their confidence that we can keep going back to that well.
Q: What happens if the Iraqis don't budge?
Dempsey: I've told the Iraqi ministers that we can grow as many soldiers and police as they want, but they have to help me figure out who is going to lead them. That's becoming an increasing vulnerability as this force becomes one to be reckoned with. The difference leadership makes is as fundamental as the difference between good and bad units. We've had units involved in sectarian violence that changed almost overnight once we changed their leaders. So we're about to tell the Iraqis we won't build them any more units until they can figure out who will lead them. That will be a contentious discussion, because this is a completely sovereign government that is in charge of managing and paying for its own personnel system.
In terms of changing their policies, our primary influence comes in the ability to offer incentives and support. We use our money to jump start initiatives and then try and hand it over to Iraqis for ownership. So it's a real partnership, with all the challenges and give-and-take that implies. We'll see who has the more persuasive argument.
Q: Does the Iraqi Security Force need to grow larger?
Dempsey: Each year we do an annual "in-stride assessment" of the ISF to look at what capabilities it still needs. Last year, we decided that the Iraqis needed 24 more battalions to give commanders more depth so they can deploy forces to Baghdad and other hot spots. We're now in the process of looking to the end of 2007, and deciding what holes need to be plugged in 2008. The good news is, the hole is not that big. We will probably decide on the need for another 25 battalions or so to give the ISF a naval, aviation, and logistics capability so that, over time, this force begins to look like that of a fully sovereign government. My instincts tell me that by the end of 2008, the ISF will probably be sized about right. By that time it should have most of the enablers that make it self-reliant in terms of providing internal security. For some time Iraq will continue to need assurances from the United States in terms of its external security.
Q: Do you believe the Iraqi Interior and Defense ministries will be capable at that point of supporting such a sizeable force?
Dempsey: Well, in 2006, we transitioned responsibility for paying Iraqi Security Force salaries from the U.S. government to the Iraqis. That was extraordinarily difficult, and the transition went in fits and starts. There have been cases in extremis where we had to rush in and save the day for unpaid units. But today, Iraqi soldiers and their families receive their salaries, retirement pay, and "martyr payments" from the central Iraqi government. In 2007, we transitioned the capital expenditures and procurement of major equipment to the Iraqis. This year will be the first the Iraqi government spends more money on their own security forces than we do, and by a factor of nearly two to one. That's an enormous change. As the central Iraqi government feels more accountable to the Iraqi soldier, and understands that it is responsible for his welfare and life support, that soldier will feel greater loyalty to the government. We had to get away from this feeling on the part of Iraqi soldiers that it was the coalition that was primarily responsible for their well-being.
This year, we also informed both Iraqi ministries that in the future, the coalition would only provide fuel to the ISF in extremis. We saw that the Iraqi system was capable of providing fuel to its forces, but it was much easier for Iraqi commanders to go to their American counterparts and say "I'd love to go on a mission with you, but I need fuel." So we've gone from providing 60 percent of the fuel for the ISF to under 10 percent today.
When I congratulated Iraqi officials at a recent meeting for stepping up, they said there was no choice in the matter because I had issued a "Dempsey fatwa!" I told them if I knew earlier that was all it took, then I would have issued the fatwa much sooner. Once again, however, there is an art to this business in terms of understanding when the Iraqis must be made to assume new responsibilities. The good news is that they are generally eager to do so.
Q: I've heard complaints from the field about the ability of the Iraqis to supply their own troops. What is the problem?
Dempsey: ISF units are still not getting everything they need, but the Iraqi system is exponentially better today than it was before. We sometimes forget that this Iraqi government is only one year old. There are times when you want to slit your wrists because we have to walk them through issues so many times, but there is genuine progress at both the institutional level and in the tactical capability of front-line units. Whereas in the early days, insurgents would come in the front door of police stations and the police would run out the back, for instance, today we see pitched battles in which the security services do quite well. We haven't had an ISF unit break in the face of the enemy in a long time.
So, tactically, the ISF has made great progress. The greater vulnerability remains these institutional systems that are not fully functioning or mature yet. There are key nodes in that system where we still don't have the right people in place. So the last challenge will be to close the loop between the development of these institutions and the front-line forces, and that is really challenging because they are both in a tough fight.
Q: Given the sectarian influence evident in the Iraqi ministries and in some front-line security forces, how worried are you that the ISF could become a club in the hand of a politician or renegade commander with a sectarian agenda?
Dempsey: Starting at the top with the ministers, deputy ministers, and senior leaders in ISF headquarters, I'm convinced they genuinely want the Iraqi Security Forces to become institutions of national unity. I've personally seen them demonstrate that desire in the selection and screening of officers for promotion. But let me be perfectly clear on this point: That doesn't mean that, on occasion, some tribal leader or politician will not hand them a list and say, "I want these guys in the army." That cultural emphasis on personal relationships over credentials has been going on in this region for centuries, and the Iraqis are not above it by any means. But today, Iraqi ministry officials are more likely to take that ethnically homogeneous list and distribute the people across the force structure, so that not all 500 tribesmen are put in the same unit. Especially in the Ministry of Defense, they are keenly aware of the need to create institutions of national unity.
Q: So you think that fears of sectarian corruption of the ISF are overblown?
Dempsey: I should also make very clear that within the Iraqi government there is an irrational fear that the bad old [Sunni-led Baathist] party will return to power. That generates a level of fear of a coup that is impenetrable to me. I just can't see it, but the Iraqi government sees it very clearly.
So there is no question that the Shiite majority intends to position itself so that it is never again in a position to be dominated by the Sunni minority. That's why they want to be in charge of key positions in the ministries of Defense, Interior, and Finance. That's not an altogether irrational desire, but we keep a very close eye on it.
Sometimes they make leadership changes in the ISF with which we are very uncomfortable. Now, we can't always assume that every Iraqi leadership change is evidence of a sectarian agenda. Sometimes they are based on sound reasons, and other times on cronyism. And sometimes they are absolutely based on a sectarian agenda and someone trying to wield undue influence. That's why it's important that we stay engaged and maintain a good relationship with the Iraqi leadership, and try and understand their motivations. There have been times when we simply could not support a certain candidate for a leadership position in the Iraqi forces, and generally in those cases we've found an acceptable middle ground.
Q: You are scheduled to testify soon before a skeptical, Democratic-controlled Congress. How will you characterize progress in standing up Iraqi Security Forces after nearly two years year in this country?
Dempsey: If Congress allows me to articulate the progress we have made across the entire institution of the ISF, and not just focus on one [measurement] of violence or a particular suicide bombing, then I think I can make a case that the Iraqi government and security forces are evolving in a positive direction. But this is an evolution, not a revolution.
Q: Are you worried that Congress will press you for timetables or try to force you into a more rapid transition of responsibilities to Iraqi forces?
Dempsey: To some extent, I am a fan of transition. After we move to protect the Iraqi people with this surge, at some point we'll need to go back to transitioning responsibilities. As we saw with the transition of responsibility for buying fuel to the Iraqis, in some sectors we will never really know what they are capable of until we just let go. That's why I think we need both a stated transition scheme and a long-term security agreement with Iraq. Because at some point, the United States is going to move from its present posture of 20 brigades on the ground to something less. I don't know what the eventual U.S. force level will be, but we need to know what it is, and the Iraqis do too. That way, a future commander in my job can build forces to that established need.
Q: What will you say to lawmakers whose constituents have become weary of the Iraq war and its sacrifices?
Dempsey: I will tell Congress and the American people that our investment in Iraq has been well worth the effort, and that the Iraqi people deserve our continued support. We're making a difference, though obviously not on the timeline we were originally hoping for. Culturally, the Iraqis are different in terms of measuring success. But they are making progress.
The parliament hasn't ceased to convene. The army hasn't fragmented. The central government hasn't stopped providing resources to the provinces. Those would be indications of a country that had decided it's not going to make it, and I don't see them right now. As long as the Iraqi people haven't given up on themselves, I don't think we should give up on them.