Watchdog Stuart Bowen: Iraq Military Not Ready for U.S. Withdrawal

The Iraqi military isn’t ready for the withdrawal of U.S. troops and will have a hard time defending itself, the chief watchdog for Iraq reconstruction warns in an exclusive interview with Eli Lake. Plus, a senior Iraq official says a coup tip reported in the Times was a fake.

Iraq lacks formidable air and border defenses, suffers weaknesses in its military supply chain, and may face difficulties defending itself after U.S. troops exit at year’s end, the top American watchdog in the country warns.

“As we pull out of Iraq, the Iraqis will have a difficult time replacing the U.S. role in intelligence, logistics, and air defense,” Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, said in an interview.

Bowen, whose job has been to raise red flags about the U.S. mission rebuilding Iraq over the past eight years, said U.S. trainers have made great strides in professionalizing the Iraqi army and national police since their mission began in 2003. But he also warned that the planned pullout will leave Iraq without a functioning air force and that it remains to be seen how the military will acquit itself if engaged while deployed in the field.

“Whether they can sustain themselves if called upon for significant field operations is a big question mark,” Bowen said.

Before President Obama’s announcement Oct. 21 that all U.S. troops will leave Iraq by the end of the year, Pentagon officials were planning to leave behind small contingents—no more than 15,000 troops—to continue training, provide air support, and help deliver supplies in 2012, but those negotiations broke down over issues of legal immunity. The continuing weaknesses with Iraqi military and security forces were well known by U.S. military leaders, Bowen said.

“Logistics management is an Achilles’ heel for the Iraqi security forces that has long been recognized by U.S. trainers,” he said in a wide-ranging interview Monday. “The logistics culture in Iraq has been one of ‘use it until it breaks,’ rather than ‘use it, fix it; use it, fix it.’ It has been difficult to compel the Iraqis to adjust their approach.”

At a press conference announcing the withdrawal last month, Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough fended off questions about the readiness of the Iraqi security forces.

“As we’ve done very intensively, frankly, over the course of the last seven or eight months a full review of where we stand with the Iraqis, one assessment after another about the Iraqi security forces came back saying these guys are ready, these guys are capable, these guys are proven,” McDonough said. “Importantly, they’re proven because they’ve been tested in a lot of the kinds of threats that they’re going to see going forward, so we feel very good about that.”

Tommy Vietor, a National Security Council spokesman, praised Iraq’s security forces when asked for comment. He said they “have fully taken the lead on security, and our commanders on the ground assess that they are a competent counterinsurgency force.”

Vietor also acknowledged that some gaps remain. “We have long acknowledged that Iraq, not unlike many militaries in the region and around the world, will continue to face challenges in particular areas, including logistics and control of its airspace.”

The Obama administration remains committed to a training mission after the end of the year, he added. “Through the embassy’s Office of Security Cooperation, we will assist Iraq with purchasing and training on F-16s, long-range radars, and other equipment necessary for the surveillance and control of Iraqi airspace,” he said.

Last month, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Iraq was continuing to negotiate the details of the post-2011 U.S. training mission in his country.

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Bowen said the Iraqi army has some important bright spots. “The military and police are better equipped and trained than they have ever been before in modern Iraqi history, but they have a significant way to go before the military is capable of external defense, defending its borders,” he said, singling out Iraq’s special operations forces in particular. “They are among the best in the Middle East, if not the best.”

In the latest report from Bowen’s office, released Friday, Gen. Babakir Zibari said Iraq is not capable of providing for the country’s external defense now, though he added that the country may be able to suppress internal strife. He also said in an interview published in the report that Iraq’s air force will not be capable defending the country’s air space until 2020.

“The Iraqi air force is still at a very rudimentary phase,” Bowen said. “They have no jet aircraft—they rely on rotary wing aircraft.”

The U.S. Air Force is providing for Iraq’s air defenses for now. Obama agreed this year to sell F-16s to Iraq, and the White House has said there will be offices throughout the country to continue a kind of training mission past 2011. U.S. diplomats also are still negotiating the future of U.S. intelligence programs in Iraq. The CIA is assessing which intelligence and counterterrorism programs presently run by U.S. special forces the agency can take over.

In addition, the Obama administration is negotiating new agreements with Iraq’s neighbors, particularly Kuwait, to station troops in the country as a quick reaction force if needed in Iraq.

Bowen said he has major political concerns about the country. The military is suffering because Maliki has yet to appoint a defense minister, he said, though a political agreement from nearly a year ago said the ministry should go to a member of a rival political party.

“I would say an over-arching troubling fact regarding the special operations forces and the entire Ministry of Defense is that Prime Minister Maliki has direct charge of them,” Bowen said. “He ought to have appointed a permanent minister of defense after the post-election imbroglio was resolved. The special operations forces ought to be under control of that minister of defense and not the prime minister.”