A Thin Blue Line
Why Iraqi cops are struggling.
Posted Thursday, Oct. 7, 2004, at 1:17 PM
Other obstacles, too, have hampered the creation of a reliable police force. Even many longtime Iraqi cops have never received much training, because for years they resided at the bottom of Saddam's security barrel, surviving on petty protection collections and kickbacks. When the insurgency gained steam, some of them joined the enemy forces. Others continue to wear the uniform but support the other side. "From our perspective, at best the IPs are passively turning a blind eye to insurgent activity, and at worst he was part of the muj himself," said a Marine lieutenant colonel who commanded a battalion in the Anbar province. "Blue uniform by day, wire-twister by night." The uncertain loyalties of the men on the force have also presented a vetting challenge for Petraeus and his staff. "One rule of thumb for future regime changes," the lieutenant colonel said, should be "after you win, keep the army and fire the cops." But, he added, "We did almost exactly the opposite."
Of the 82,000 police in Iraq, about 32,000 have undergone American training, mostly outside Anbar. "Training" implies not just teaching them a curriculum, but, more important, vetting the recruits and establishing their allegiance so that Americans will have confidence in them.
Last week before a congressional committee, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage mocked the Iraqi police as "shake-and-bake." Gen. John Abizaid shot back on Meet the Press that " 'shake-and-bake' gives some sort of an idea that the Iraqi police … are somehow or another unserious, unqualified and unprofessional people, and that's just not true." Abizaid and Petraeus understand that until recently, American policy-makers have encouraged the poor performance of the police by purging their leaders, disbanding their army, and setting out to finish off the "dead-enders" all alone. These actions have allowed the Iraqis to accept democracy as a gift, rather than as a hard-won result of a collective struggle in which they have a stake. And now they are being placed at the tip of the spear.
With elections set for January, the police face a daunting challenge. They are performing satisfactorily in about 80 percent of the country. But there are about 10 tough Sunni cities that will require sufficient control to permit Iraqis to line up at polling stations without being gunned downed or bombed. No trend can predict the outcome. On the one hand, many police have abandoned their posts. On the other, there is neither a shortage of recruits nor a lack of will among the remaining cops who have been fighting and dying by the hundreds. Whichever the case, the elections will be the test of Iraqi police resolve.
Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense and author of two books on the war, recently returned from his 13th trip to Iraq.
Owen West, who took two leaves-of-absence from his job Goldman Sachs where he co-heads the veterans' network. to serve with the Marines in Iraq, is the author of The Snake Eaters: An Unlikely Band of Brothers and the Battle for the Soul of Iraq. He is also the author of two novels and numerous articles about adventure sports and military affairs. His writings can be found at www.westwrite.com.