LONDON: Any US-British exit strategy for Iraq hangs on rebuilding Iraqi security forces, but 20 months after Saddam Hussein's fall there is little evidence they will be a match for rebels and criminals any time soon.
Relentlessly targeted by insurgents who accuse them of collaborating with foreign occupation, Iraq's nascent police, national guard and army units have performed patchily.
"My best estimate is that Iraqi security institutions won't have significant capabilities until 2006," said Andrew Rathmell, former adviser on security strategy to the US-led authority that ruled Iraq for 14 months after last year's invasion.
"Assuming continued insurgency and crime, Iraq will continue to need a considerable international troop presence," he said. Instead of withdrawing troops as it had hoped to be able to do after the June hand over to an interim government, the United States will now deploy an extra 12,000 for next month's Iraqi elections, bringing US troop numbers to a record 150,000.
Rathmell, now a researcher for the RAND Corporation, told London's Royal United Services Institute this week there were no easy solutions to post-war problems arising from flawed planning.
The architects of the 2003 invasion had assumed a "benign security environment", not rampant insurgency and crime. Iraqi police and security services had proved far less capable of maintaining law and order than the Pentagon had expected.
Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has criticized a US decision in May last year to dissolve the armed forces and security agencies, along with the defence and information ministries, to sweep away the tools of Baathist coercion.
The move threw some 400,000 people out of work, initially without compensation, swelling a pool of armed and angry men for Saddam loyalists to recruit as they regrouped after the war.
"I think everyone realizes with hindsight that perhaps things could have been done differently," Britain's ambassador to Iraq Edward Chaplin said in a BBC interview this week. "But the first thing to remember is that actually the army wasn't so much disbanded as it simply melted away." The security vacuum has never really been filled.
DISORDER: US and Iraqi officials often cite the expanding numbers of Iraqi forces to show progress, but even these point to problems. Iraq has 93,000 policemen, according to a US report submitted to the United Nations on Monday. Of these only 51,000 are trained and equipped.
The report does not say why the force has more than 40,000 members without training or equipment, but many policemen are thought to remain on the payroll even though they are deemed unfit for duty due to disloyalty, corruption or incompetence.
The US report says the aim is to expand the police force to 135,000, the national guard to 62,000 from 40,000, the border guard to 29,000 from 15,000 and the army to 27,000 from 3,400, while specialized units are also set to grow.
Rathmell said increasing the numbers was less important than ensuring the security forces were effective, accountable and resistant to intimidation by their insurgent foes. -Reuters