Shadowland: No Way Out?

Lame-duck Secretary of State Colin Powell can expect a pretty cool reception when he shows up on the warm shores of the Red Sea next week for a conference of Iraq's neighbors. "Why don't we just call the whole thing off?" suggests a member of one Gulf Arab delegation. There are hard questions to be addressed, and every party there is vitally concerned with stabilizing the region. But Powell is hardly the guy to give credible answers these days. "What's he going to do?" asks Mr. Gulf, "Serve coffee?"

The U.S.-anointed Iraqi government will be meeting in Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt, with every country on Iraq's borders, and the G8 club of the world's most industrialized countries will be providing its patronage. But Powell can't give them a convincing answer to the most important question on most of their minds: does the United States ever intend to leave Iraq? And, if so, when? How?

You might think you've heard the answer. On the eve of the U.S. elections, Powell himself categorically denied stories that the Pentagon is building 14 permanent military bases in Iraq. "Our goal is to assist the Iraqi people to have elections, to write a constitution, to put in place a fully legitimate government that rests on that constitution ... and then to bring our troops out," he told Egyptian television. President George W. Bush hit the same note in his acceptance speech, after winning re-election: "We will help the emerging democracies of Iraq and Afghanistan--[applause]--so they can grow in strength and defend their freedom. And then our servicemen and women will come home with the honor they have earned." But there's nothing on the drawing boards, in fact, to suggest Iraq can defend its freedom if our servicemen and women come home. Not now, not next year, and possibly not for generations to come. Ever since the old Iraqi Army was dissolved by the Americans last year, the country has been dependent on the United States for its national defense.

Some influential Iraqis think that's just fine, especially after all the wars that Saddam Hussein's enormous military dragged them into over the last 25 years. They argue that this is the moment to sort out the nation's internal affairs, and if the United States provides a protective umbrella, so much the better. "If our guests [the Americans] want to build 14 permanent bases, we might as well make use of that," says Mowaffak al-Rubaie, the Iraqi national-security adviser whose proposal for pacifying the country by breaking it into a loose federation was the subject of last week's column, "A Make or Break Plan for Iraq." Michael Eisenstadt, from the influential Washington Institute for Near East Policy, argues in a recent study that Iraq should just forget about being able to defend itself against Iran. "For the foreseeable future, it will fall to the United States to counter Tehran's capabilities," he says.

Everything about the way the Pentagon is organizing Iraq's security forces shows that the administration shares that view. According to the numbers Eisenstadt has culled from piles of contradictory data issued in recent months, there are now about 101,000 more-or-less trained members of the Iraqi internal security apparatus: the National Guard, the police, border guards, the highway patrol, pipeline protection units, dignitary protection units, some SWAT teams and a couple of special-ops brigades. Plans are to double those numbers in the next year or so. But the forces that might provide defense or deterrence against Iraq's foreign enemies are negligible. "The regular Iraqi Army has 4,507 troops," writes Eisenstadt in the first in a two-part series addressing the challenges facing the Iraqi security forces. By the end of next year it may have 27,000, and eventually perhaps 50,000. That is, about one tenth the size of Iran's military, and less than half the size of Israel's.

The Iraqi Air Force--the key to any modern military establishment--is even more pitiful. It "consists of 167 personnel, with plans for 502," says Eisenstadt. You got it: that's people, not planes. Right now the Iraqi Air Force has just two two-seater reconnaissance aircraft and eventually might get 16. It's got two C-130 transports, and might someday have a larger transport squadron. It has six Vietnam-era Huey helicopters, with 10 more on the way. No fighters. No bombers. Any banana republic has better air power.

"It's clear the [American] intention has been to establish a protectorate," says W. Patrick Lang, formerly one of the Defense Intelligence Agency's top experts on the Middle East. A military like the one being organized in Iraq can't threaten its neighbors, to be sure, but it can't defend itself either--not even internally. The record in Fallujah makes that sadly apparent. The few thousand Iraqi government troops deployed there took a back seat while the Americans did all of the bombing, of course. And that will continue to be the case. The Americans also did most of the dying. At last count, eight Iraqi soldiers were killed in the same fighting that cost 51 Americans their lives.

So it's no wonder that many Iraqis--including the majority of the insurgents, who still see themselves as fighting foreign invaders--simply don't believe the American administration's spin about pulling out of Iraq sometime soon. Iraq's neighbors don't believe that either. And neither should anyone else.