Decoding the McCaffrey Memo
If this is the cost of victory in Iraq, is America willing to pay it?
Good news and bad news on the war in Iraq: The good news is that victory is possible, our troops are the best ever, the Iraqi army is getting bigger and better, and most Iraqi people want a pluralistic government. The bad news is that it will take 10 more years to accomplish these successes—at least three years just to get the Iraqi military into shape.
This is the prognosis of a private seven-page memo that retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey wrote to the heads of the social science department at West Point, where he now teaches international relations. He wrote the memo—which has started to circulate on the Internet—after a weeklong fact-finding tour of Iraq and Kuwait, where he talked with more than a dozen top generals and received two dozen briefings at all levels, from ambassadors and commanders to grunts.
McCaffrey has criticized the way the Bush administration has waged this war (last fall, he decried the Pentagon's "childish assumptions" of how many troops would be necessary), but he has not joined the ranks of retired generals calling for Rumsfeld's scalp. He supports the war and thinks our troops need to stay till the job's done, whatever the price.
The significance of this memo is that it reveals—from an optimistic but realistic insider's perspective—the magnitude of the price, and it's probably way higher than what the vast majority of Americans are willing to pay.
McCaffrey begins his memo with praise for how much progress has been made: "The morale, fighting effectiveness, and confidence of U.S. combat forces continue to be simply awe-inspiring. … They are the toughest soldiers we have ever fielded. … The Iraqi Army is real, growing, and willing to fight. … The Iraqi police are beginning to show marked improvement in capability." A few "are on a par with the best U.S. SWAT units."
Then comes the far more extensive downside.
The Iraqi army battalions, he writes, "are very badly equipped with only a few light vehicles [and] small arms. … They have almost no mortars, heavy machine guns, decent communications equipment, artillery, armor, or … air transport, helicopter, and strike support."
The bottom line: "We need at least two-to-five more years of U.S. partnership and combat backup to get the Iraqi Army ready to stand on its own." (Emphasis added.)
The political-administrative apparatus is in worse shape still: The "corruption and lack of capability of the ministries [of defense and interior] will require several years of patient coaching and officer education in values as well as the required competence." (Emphasis added.)
And this is nothing compared with problems in the police force. "The crux of the war hangs on the ability to create urban and rural local police with the ability to survive on the streets of this increasingly dangerous and lethal environment," McCaffrey writes. It is "a prerequisite to the Iraqis winning the counter-insurgency struggle they will face in the coming decade." And yet:
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.