Much of the testimony today has focused on the issue of the number of Iraqi units assessed as being able to “operate independently,” based on their formal “Operational Readiness Assessments,” or ORAs. A love for statistics is one thing that unites congressmen and military officers, but it can be misleading if we are not clear about what we’re measuring. That is the case with this particular statistic.
ORAs, like the “readiness ratings” by which we measure American combat units, are fundamentally peacetime metrics. They count the percentage of assigned soldiers actually present for duty, the number of vehicles, amount of ammunition, hours of training, and so on. Units in combat frequently see their readiness ratings drop as they take losses in personnel and equipment. As General Petraeus has explained repeatedly, but apparently to little avail judging by the comments of his critics, the fact that Iraqi forces are fighting harder almost ensures that their ORA ratings will drop. But it’s the reality, not the metric, that matters. As Petraeus has testified, every battalion in the Iraqi Army has been engaged in significant combat, Iraqi forces take three-four times as many casualties as Americans, and yet there is no shortage of volunteers not merely to make good these losses but to increase the manning levels of Iraqi units to 120% to enable them to handle combat losses and even to increase the overall size of the Iraqi Army.
The question of ORA ratings is particularly irrelevant in the context within which opponents of the surge most often present it. America’s ability to withdraw our forces from active combat and ultimately to reduce the number of our forces in Iraq is not tied to the ability of Iraqi units to operate without any support, or to meet particular metrics. It depends much more heavily on two things: the local security situation in a given area, and the ability of Iraqi forces to maintain that security without having U.S. forces actively patrolling with them or conducting military operations for them. The purpose of the surge is to bring the security situation to a level at which the growing capability of the Iraqi Security Forces can maintain it. So far, it has succeeded in that aim beyond what anyone could have expected. The next challenge will be to continue to help the Iraqi Security Forces develop their abilities to patrol and conduct combat operations with steadily decreasing (but not vanishing) American support. General Petraeus, Ambassador Crocker, and the report of the Jones Commission have all pointed clearly toward a sound and well thought-out strategy to do precisely this. Congressmen and Senators who dismiss that strategy by simply pointing to ORA ratings and the number of Iraqi units operating “without Coalition support” are inserting a red herring into this discussion.