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Former CIA Officer Says Iraq Can Be Stabilized By Trained Security Forces

October 27, 2006 at 6:35 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And now, we resume our conversations on specific ideas about what the United States can or should do next in Iraq. We’ve already explored ending the occupation immediately and decentralizing Iraq. Tonight, in the third conversation, the focus is on training Iraqi security forces. Ray Suarez is in charge.

RAY SUAREZ: And with me is Michael Vickers, director of strategic studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington research institute. He served as an Army Special Forces officer and a CIA operations officer. He’s briefed President Bush twice over the past few months.

And, Michael Vickers, when we asked you what to do in Iraq here on out, you said, “Finish the training of the Iraqi security forces.” Why did you name that as your best idea on how to proceed from here?

MICHAEL VICKERS, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments: Well, I think the key to the strategy going forward is really to transition over the next 18 months or so from an American-centric, direct approach — where American forces have primary responsibility for security — to an Iraqi-centric, or indirect approach — where Americans are in a support role, a vital support role as advisors, trainers, providing logistics and firepower.

But the Iraqis are the ones who are going to have to win this war over the longer term, and America has to have a strategy that’s sustainable across political administrations.

RAY SUAREZ: So when General George Casey said this week that he believes the Iraqi military could be expected to take primary responsibility for securing Iraq in 12 to 18 months, to you that’s a plausible time frame?

MICHAEL VICKERS: I said I don’t think the specific date is important; I think the outer end of that18 months, 20 months really is. But the important aspect is that we begin to hand it over rather than continue to assume primary responsibility for ourselves.

As the famous T.E. Lawrence or Lawrence of Arabia said, “It is their war. Your job is to help them, not win it for them, and that’s the way you defeat insurgencies over time.”

A new direction in security

Michael Vickers
Former Special Forces Officer
Eighty percent of our effort has been with the Iraqi army, which is a pretty good institution right now, but less effort with the police, and that's really the important one for the long run.

RAY SUAREZ: OK. Taking that proposition, what would it take, what would we have to start doing now that we haven't already been doing during the earlier years of the occupation of Iraq?

MICHAEL VICKERS: Well, the training effort actually began rather slowly in advisory effort. And then there's been a lot of progress to date. We've gone from no Iraqi security forces to almost 300,000, but this been ramp-up has been plagued by a number of issues: militia infiltration of the police, which is really the most important institution over the long run; some desertions in the Iraqi army units.

But there's been a fair amount of progress. However, the advisory effort is still too small. They have about 3,200 total advisers in Iraq. By comparison in South Vietnam, where a population of 17 million, we had 16,000 toward the end of the war, when we were handing things over to the Vietnamese.

So the effort probably needs to be at least doubled from its current level. Eighty percent of our effort has been with the Iraqi army, which is a pretty good institution right now, but less effort with the police, and that's really the important one for the long run.

And also, we're not sending our best people there. Our best people are still going into the main combat units because that's where the promotions are. And so the advisers have been more reservists, not counting the special forces, which is about 4,000 or so of those in Iraq right now.

More, better trainers for Iraqis

Michael Vickers
Former Special Forces Officer
[The standard American unit advising the Iraqis]is probably half the size that it needs to be, maybe one-third the size.

RAY SUAREZ: So more American trainers per Iraqi unit?

MICHAEL VICKERS: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: And better American trainers?

MICHAEL VICKERS: And better, yes. And then strategically shifting to this role where they have primary responsibility over a two-year period or so.

Now, the basic element that we have, just to put this in more concrete terms is -- the standard American unit advising the Iraqis is about a 10- to 12-man team, commanded by a major lieutenant colonel, with some six captains and six NCOs. They're responsible for a 500-man or so Iraqi battalion. There's about 100 of those in Iraq.

They can't cover the entire battalion, work with the staff, and then be down with the units that are going out on missions and do all of the paperwork that's required and get the logistical support. The team is probably half the size that it needs to be, maybe one-third the size.

RAY SUAREZ: If you ramped up from that 10 to 20 or 30, would that really, just that small increment, an extra 20 American people in uniform, have that large an effect on 500 or 1,000 Iraqi people in service?

MICHAEL VICKERS: It would help over time. And then the other aspect of this is having better coverage with the police, which is critical to long-term success in Iraq.

I mean, it's certainly not a panacea. Insurgencies take time to defeat. But it will also transition to an approach that puts the Iraqis in the forefront, or Iraqi-centric, as I said, and also can shore up bipartisan support in America, which is absolutely critical.

Changing Iraq's military structure

Michael Vickers
Former Special Forces Officer
But over time, the military responds to, Who gets promoted?

RAY SUAREZ: You've talked about combat assignments, carrying more prestige, more possibility for promotion. Don't you have to change something pretty basic and internal about the military in order to give status and heft to training Iraqis? How do you do that inside the culture of the military as it exists today?

MICHAEL VICKERS: Well, the military response to incentives -- and, of course, the problem we've had in Iraq is the advisory effort has largely been a pick-up game. We didn't have any of these capabilities, other than the special operations forces, before we went into Iraq. And so this capability has had to be stood up very, very rapidly.

But over time, the military responds to, Who gets promoted? Is this a centrally selected position, rather than a "hey you" position, you know, "You'll do," rather than, "You're our best guy," and you're competing for this job. And the person who gets this is really lucky.

And that's where we need to move to over time, and, you know, we're not there yet. Now, it's only been a couple of years, but if we're going to succeed in Iraq over the longer term, this is going to have to become the primary effort, resourced accordingly and then staffed accordingly.

Beyond Iraqi politics

Michael Vickers
Former Special Forces Officer
Armies and security forces are always a reflection of the society from which they spring.

RAY SUAREZ: How do you get an Iraqi army and an Iraqi national police force that is above politics? Right now, a lot of the splits and tears inside those forces reflect the splits and tears inside the society.

MICHAEL VICKERS: Oh, absolutely. Armies and security forces are always a reflection of the society from which they spring. And Iraqi politics is really the central issue that will determine Iraqis' fate, not this security solution, direct approach or indirect approach, but really whether the Iraqis have the desire to reconcile, to share oil resources, all of the hard political problems, eliminate the sectarian violence and compromise. The security strategy that we use is really there to enable that, but politics are central.

RAY SUAREZ: Right now, there are units in the Iraqi armed forces that consider themselves sectarian units, and they refuse assignments in different parts of the country or they desert if they're sent to places where it's felt the native population is hostile to their group.

Do you have to start from scratch, or can we work and sort of retrofit and fix the couple of hundred thousand men that are already in uniform?

MICHAEL VICKERS: Well, you adjust as you go. The overall demographics of the Iraqi security forces is reasonably representative. But as you said, when you try to transfer units from, say, outside of Baghdad into Baghdad, then you get resistance.

Or the police forces have been far more infiltrated by militias than, say, the army, which is more of a national institution in the way it's gone through training and has had less desertion problems. But this is reflective of Iraqi politics, and it's something Iraqis and we are going to have to work our way through over time. It will sort out as politics sort out.

RAY SUAREZ: And, to be clear, in your view, it's not too late. And at the end result, we can have an Iraqi force that's ready to defend the whole country?

MICHAEL VICKERS: Well, they have to, in my judgment. It's the only way that we'll succeed over the long run and they will, and they'll have to determine what kind of Iraq they really want. I think it is clearly in their interest, as they look into the abyss, that a unitary Iraq is the far preferable solution. I think it is from our perspective, and we ought to support them in that role. But they're going to have to increasingly take the lead over time to make that happen.

RAY SUAREZ: A lot of what we've talked about is about the plausibility on the Iraqi end. Are you optimistic about the American ability to make the kinds of changes that you see as necessary to standing up this Iraqi force?

MICHAEL VICKERS: I think we can, if we manage this transition over the next two years and communicate this to the American people. I don't think there's broad support for just abandoning the Iraqis to their fate. I think that would break up inevitable in Iraq, and I think it would cause a lot of security problems for us.

The problem is the American people, I think, will increasingly expect the Iraqis to shoulder the principal burden and, if not this year, then next year. And so we have to have a strategy that reflects that reality across the next administration.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Vickers, thanks for joining us.

MICHAEL VICKERS: My pleasure.

JIM LEHRER: Our Iraq conversations will continue next week.