One question hangs over the entire Coalition enterprise in Iraq:
"Why doesn't the Iraqi military have its own air force?"
Or, perhaps, the question should be revised:
"Why doesn't anyone in the U.S. ask, 'Why doesn't the Iraqi military have its own air force?'"
The White House and the Congress are locked in a squabble over whether 21,000 more troops should be sent to Iraq, but no one in our government seems willing or able to address the fundamental problem, that Iraq is no closer to having a sovereign government now than it was three years ago. This new troop escalation is doomed to fail, because it is targeted at symptoms rather than root causes of the crisis. More U.S. soldiers are needed in Baghdad not because there are too few Iraqi soldiers, but because the Iraqi soldiers that exist are unwilling to put an end to ethnic violence in the capital. It is true that Iraq's political leaders have shown little enthusiasm for this task, but much of their reluctance no doubt stems from a sense that their soldiers would not obey orders to attack Shi'ite militias like the Mahdi Army even if they were given.
Any platitudes about how the Iraqi army needs further "training" are ridiculous, and the new plan to "embed" U.S. soldiers among Iraqi units is an admission of this fact. Placing U.S. soldiers among Iraqis is an attempt to force the Iraqi military to cleave to the mission designed by U.S. Centcom. This is not likely to have much success. If they so desire, Iraqi units can find ways of evading or altering the mission that are imperceptible to their U.S. "embeds," who do not speak Arabic or understand the local culture.
No progress will be made in Iraq until the Iraqi military commits to the mission of national order and unity, and that is not going to happen as long as the status quo persists. Air power is key to the counterinsurgency. When any unit, Coalition or Iraqi, finds itself ambushed or outnumbered, fighter jets and helicopter gunships come to bail them out. It is these assets (along with heavy artillery and armored tanks) that give government forces the combat power advantage over insurgents, and right now all such assets are U.S.-owned and -controlled. The hand that controls air power is the hand that holds the leash, and Iraqi soldiers will not fight as long as that hand is an American one. The U.S. has spouted a great deal of rhetoric about desiring Iraqi soldiers to "stand up," but in reality what U.S. leaders have wanted is for Iraqi soldiers to "sit up and heel," and the Iraqis know it.
Control of air power is what makes a government sovereign. This is the post-WWII corollary of Mao Zedong's dictum- "political power grows from the barrel of a gun." While it is true that any armed group may exercise political power to a degree, the hallmark of sovereign power in the 21st century is control over the capital assets that reign over the modern battlefield- planes, helicopters, tanks, missiles- as possession and maintenace of such assets requires a stable base of tax revenue. Iraqis learned this lesson the hard way in the wake of the first Gulf War. Saddam Hussein's government was on the verge of being overthrown by a Shi'ite uprising before George H.W. Bush agreed to lift the "no fly" ban and allow Hussein to deploy helicopter gunships to "restore order." These weapons were the steel spine that secured Hussein's position of political supremacy. By contrast the current Iraqi government hunkered down in the Green Zone is spineless.
No doubt U.S. leaders have refrained from equipping the Iraqi military with heavy weapons in part out of fear of unintended consequences. Few voices can be found in the U.S. who will advocate trusting the Iraqis on this score. This sentiment is as strong among opponents of the war as its advocates (as this blog post by Steven Pizzo demonstrates). As legitimate as concerns about the misuse of heavy weapons may be, persistent refusal to entrust such power to the Iraqi military amounts to no more than crass paternalism. It is difficult to understand why no one on either side of the aisle in the U.S. government would realize as much. A latent form of neocolonial bigotry seems to pervade the mindset of U.S. leaders both Democrat and Republican, so that no one questions the wisdom of treating the Iraqi military with unrelenting and unalloyed contempt.
Moreover, it is obvious that the concerns preventing the U.S. from supplying the Iraqi military with heavy weapons are not merely prudential. As the conflict drags on it becomes clear that there was never any plan to develop a fully national and sovereign military for the Iraqi state. The Bush administration seems to have believed that post-conflict Iraq could enter into a strategic relationship with the U.S. parallel to that between the U.S. and Japan post-WWII. Iraq would not need heavy weapons, without which no sovereign nation can defend itself from even its smallest, weakest neighbor, because the U.S. would stand guarantor of Iraqi sovereignty against the threat of foreign invasion (presumably from permanent bases in Iraq akin to the U.S. facility on Okinawa).
Such a plan was foolish in the extreme and based on a misreading of historical precedents. The reasons for the practicability of the strategic partnership between the U.S. and Japan are complex. In comparing that situation to Iraq, however, only one difference need be examined to demonstrate why such a structure could not hold. If Japanese society had contained constituent groups as deeply divided against one-another as Sunni, Shi'a, and Kurds in Iraq, a strategic partnership could never have been forged, as each group would have been too suspicious of possible U.S. partiality toward its opponents to rest tranquil in a situation of U.S. strategic predominance. The U.S. will never be able to stand guarontor of Iraqi sovereignty the way it has in Japan, the Iraqi military will ultimately have to be fully equipped if a stable homeostasis is ever to be achieved in that country.
No end game will be reached in Iraq until the Iraqi military is fully armed. Yes, tragic consequences may follow that step, but the U.S. has no choice other than to take it and let the chips fall where they may. U.S. leaders worry about the power that heavy weapons will afford the Iraqi military, but one must remember that such assets are simultaneously a liability. Helicopters, planes and tanks are acutely expensive, once a government or army possesses them they immediately begin to calculate how they must behave in order to assure that these assets are not lost or destroyed. Right now, with the U.S. army standing arbiter between the warring factions, Iraqis are free to commit atrocities without fear of what they might lose as a result. If the Iraqi military were possessed of assets it needed to guard, its leadership (both political and military) would be compelled to strategize to contain the conflict and thus preserve those assets for the long term.
As Iraq spirals ever more rapidly into chaos, it becomes increasingly imperative to build Iraqi institutions that can endure and wield authority in the eyes of the Iraqi people themselves. There is little the U.S. can do to assist Iraq's political institutions toward that end. The Iraqi military, however, is an institution that the U.S. can bolster through one easy step. Once Iraq's military has all of the powers of a modern, sovereign, and autonomous armed force, it will enjoy the authority of a legitimate institution in Iraqi society. Until it does there will be no end to conflict and violence in Iraq.