America set a long clock ticking when it decided to spend $300 million to rebuild the sprawling military base here in Taji, Iraq, as a logistical center for the new Iraqi army. This was to be the soldier s version of nation-building – maintenance depots, orderly barracks and professional schools for Iraqi officers and NCOs.
But the political clock in Washington is running on a different speed. Congress is impatient with the slow work of building a modern army – especially in a country where sectarian violence is destroying any semblance of normal life outside the confines of well-guarded compounds such as this one.
Taji illustrates the mismatch between the Bush administration s ambitious goals for Iraq and the fragile political base on which its policy rests – in Iraq and back home. The vast logistical effort is also a reminder that an American withdrawal from Iraq wouldn t be like turning off a light switch. It would take many months to remove the thousands of tanks, trucks and other vehicles and equipment parked in these dusty palm groves north of Baghdad.
Taji sits today as a magnificent but vulnerable white elephant. Flying over the base with Adm. William Fallon, the commander of Centcom, you get a sense of the scope of the American training and supply effort. The Black Hawk helicopter churns over acre after acre of newly refurbished barracks and motor pools. Vehicles are assembled in orderly lines that seem to stretch for miles. There is an army in embryo here, waiting to be claimed by a functioning country.
We pass a squadron of Iraqi soldiers who have just been issued M-16 rifles to replace their old Saddam-era AK-47s. They hoist the American-made weapons and let out what sounds like a spontaneous cheer. “The M-16s are telling them there s a change, says Capt. Matthew Sparks. In procuring US weapons for these soldiers, the idea was that America would be around for many years to help train and supply a friendly Iraqi military. You don t give combat rifles, after all, to potential adversaries.
America s military genius has always been in logistics – the ability to organize the supply lines of fuel, ammunition and spare parts that keep an army running after its first bold foray into enemy territory. Those are the skills that US officers have been trying to teach the Iraqis.
In a shed, an Iraqi NCO is leading a class in basic motor maintenance. He lectures to soldiers in overalls about the proper care and feeding of a drive shaft. Then he moves to a test engine and presses the ignition, producing a sputter and then an ear-splitting roar. The depot s Iraq commander, Col. Abdul-Kareem Rafaat, says his soldiers know how to maintain the parts. But US advisers say the Iraqis still need help on the larger tasks of organizing the flows of fuel and supplies so that everything is in place when it s needed.
Out among the palm groves, a group of Iraqi Army chefs are completing a field cooking course. They are lined up in their white aprons, presenting their graduation meal of chicken, rice and soup to American visitors. It s quite tasty, actually; if all this army needed was food, it would already have secured the countryside.
The training mission at Taji involved a cultural transformation, which America took on without fully understanding it. Iraqi logistics were a mess under Saddam Hussein because nobody trusted anyone else. When spare parts were received, they were hoarded and sometimes sold on the black market. The Iraqi time horizon was short, and people didn t have confidence that if they played by the rules, they would get their fair share. The Americans meant to change that. We were going to build reliable systems that would reward patience and trust.
But in recent months, the Washington time horizon has grown as short and unpredictable as that of an Iraqi private. The military s plan still envisions a gradual and orderly buildup: The maintenance depot here, for example, won t be finished until July 2008, according to Brig Gen. Terry Wolff, who commands the training effort at Taji. And after that the US military plans to station trainers and advisers to help the Iraqis master the logistical challenges.
This US training mission in Iraq was the heart of the Baker-Hamilton report s recommendation last December. And it still seems to me the right way forward. American troops cannot stop a civil war in Iraq; but they can teach soldiers how to fix drive shafts, maintain engines and order spare parts. That s a basic mission that Congress should reaffirm, even as it questions the surge of more US troops into Baghdad. Time is the strategic resource now; Congress and the administration need to agree on ways to add some minutes to the clock.
Syndicated columnistDavid Ignatius is published regularly by THE DAILY STAR