I served as a platoon leader in the U.S. Army at the height of the surge in Dora, one of Baghdad’s most violent neighborhoods. While deployed there, I learned what is required to build a nation’s security forces. It is a lesson that appears to be largely overlooked in Washington in the ongoing debate over how to proceed in Afghanistan.
As I discovered firsthand, creating security forces is not simply a matter of recruiting troops, giving them training and equipment and then sending them out to do battle against a hardened enemy. The real process of forging foreign military forces only begins when they are partnered with American combat units. This partnership takes time and requires the commitment of large numbers of American and other coalition troops. As we found out in Iraq, avoiding such a full-fledged partnership merely guarantees failure.
Before the surge, we attempted a premature transition, quickly handing over responsibility to newly created Iraqi military units. Following minimal training, these units were sent to the front lines with small U.S. training teams of a dozen or so men. Few were partnered with American combat units.
Lacking in confidence, this resulted in fractured Iraqi forces and widespread sectarian violence. The American advisers played critical roles, but by themselves they could not train and prepare new units for independent operations.
This simple lesson was learned at great cost. So it is disturbing that so many politicians and pundits overlook such recent history. Those who propose the accelerated training of Afghan military and police units as an alternative to increasing American troop commitments are offering a false choice.
Far from being an effective exit strategy, attempts to hand over responsibility to unprepared indigenous forces will only bog us down further in Afghanistan. Fielding competent Afghan military and police forces will require a lengthy partnership with our soldiers and thus a more substantial American deployment.
When I arrived in Iraq in the fall of 2006, my infantry company was assigned to the Dora district of southern Baghdad, an Al Qaeda stronghold and site of some of the fiercest urban combat of the surge. We were paired with a National Police battalion that had recently completed its initial training.
Our new Iraqi partners looked great. They had brand new Humvees painted with Iraqi flags, newly issued AK-47s and clean, crisp uniforms. They were more disciplined than any Iraqi police we had encountered in the past. Yet this good first impression did not last.
This National Police battalion, which arrived in Dora before we did, had been charged with maintaining order at the height of Iraq’s sectarian violence. The unit was almost entirely Shiite and was deeply distrusted by the overwhelmingly Sunni population, who launched frequent attacks on their compound.
The National Police conducted brutal reprisals, firing indiscriminately on the population, affecting blatantly sectarian detentions and frequently being implicated in the torture of their prisoners. This behavior led to a police force that served as accelerator to violence, not a solution to it.
Following the adoption of the surge strategy, my company was partnered with the National Police. At first, we acted as chaperones more than colleagues, curbing the worst of their tendencies. We investigated the legitimacy of detentions, intervened on behalf of the population when appropriate, and generally impeded their usual operations. This was a heavy drain on resources in the middle of a pitched battle with Al Qaeda, but our intervention was necessary to avoid further escalation.
Gradually, we integrated the Iraqi police into our patrols, one or two individuals at a time, teaching them when to shoot and when not to, slowly building their confidence. As we added more policemen to our operations, we introduced them to the community in order to overcome the mutual animosity. Many in the National Police were agents of Shiite militias and, in order to improve the unit’s legitimacy, we gathered evidence against these sectarian policemen and arrested them.