Thursday, January 18, 2007

To arm or not to arm

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has a solution for keeping U.S. troops out of Iraq: adequately equip Iraqi government forces.

"If we succeed in implementing the agreement between us to speed up the equipping and providing weapons to our military forces, I think that within three to six months our need for the American troops will dramatically go down. That's on the condition that there are real strong efforts to support our military forces and equipping them and arming them," Maliki said.

He's right as far as he goes. The United States has been reluctant to provide the latest gear to the Iraqis, including heavy weapons and high-tech equipment. And that has definitely hampered the Iraqi ability and will to fight.

But there's a good reason for that reluctance: we don't trust the Iraqi government to maintain decent control of those weapons, and not simply let them slip into the hands of militias, death squads, Iran or the insurgency itself -- or simply become major tools for the Shiite side of an outright civil war.

It's a classic Catch-22: Iraq can't defend itself and stop the sectarian violence until we give them weapons, and we don't want to give them weapons until they demonstrate they can control the sectarian violence. And Maliki's words don't change that equation: is he asking for weapons in his role as Prime Minister, or in his role as a prominent Shiite with militia and Iranian ties?

Maliki is trying to demonstrate he's serious, most recently by arresting 400 members of the Mahdi Army, Muqtada al-Sadr's militia. But it remains to be seen whether that's a serious effort or mere windowdressing, the sacrifice of a few scapegoats.

While I understand the Iraqi government's dilemma, I see no reason to start shipping them heavy weaponry. Heavy weapons don't win counterinsurgency campaigns; boots on the ground do. Give them armored Humvees and decent APCs, plus plenty of good small arms; those are the kinds of things that are helpful and not particularly sensitive. But a large-scale weapons program should be viewed with skepticism, especially if it involves items like tanks and artillery that have limited application in a guerrilla war but can prove highly useful in ethnic cleansing.

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