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Iraq’s Other Embeds: Advisers

Author: Lionel Beehner
December 14, 2006

Introduction

Progress in training, equipping, and “standing up” Iraqi security forces has been slower than advertised. Three years on, Iraq’s police and army remain less than effective and riddled with corruption, mixed loyalties, and equipment shortages. To accelerate the transfer of security responsibility over to the Iraqis, the U.S. military has stepped up efforts to embed more of its advisers with Iraqi security forces. The Iraq Study Group report recommends a fivefold increase from four thousand to twenty thousand U.S. advisers. Yet experts say these training missions will take time and disagree over their effectiveness.  

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What purpose do advisers serve in Iraq?

These advisory groups, or Military Transition Teams, educate Iraqi forces on policing, security, and counterinsurgency operations. About a dozen advisers are embedded in every Iraqi battalion (five hundred troops), which means they live, train, and fight alongside their Iraqi counterparts. Experts say these advisory missions take time. “It’s not a matter of teaching marksmanship, which can be done in days, but more talking about how command relationships work, how logistics work, and ethics—this idea of loyalty to a civil government with central control—that needs to weigh more than loyalties to tribe,” says Kalev Sepp, an assistant professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and a former U.S. Special Forces officer. Advisers coach their Iraqi counterparts on how to effectively carry out counterinsurgency missions. Because Saddam’s army, including its top echelons, was disbanded after the fall of Baghdad, U.S. military officials report a lack of leadership skills among Iraqi officers as well as difficulties screening Iraqi recruits.

What are the advantages of embedding U.S. military advisers?

Proponents say a greater presence of advisory teams would speed up the training of the Iraqi armed forces, improve their quality, and help earn the trust of Iraqi troops. No advisory team has yet been betrayed by Iraqi forces, say Pentagon officials. “Sadly, Iraqi soldiers trust American advisers more than their own government,” writes Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense, in the New York Times. “The advisers demand steady performance, and in exchange extract pay and logistics from recalcitrant ministries in Baghdad.” Moreover, these advisers serve a watchdog role by picking up useful intelligence and identifying which Iraqi military leaders are most competent. They also help prevent uniformed officers from engaging in extrajudicial killings or sectarian-motivated violence or withdrawing from the military.

What are some problems with this plan?

Critics say increasing the number of advisers while decreasing the number of combat forces may endanger remaining U.S. soldiers and create more chaos in Iraq. Andrew Exum of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy calls it a “recipe for disaster” because these trainers would be more vulnerable to attack. Experts estimate it will take at least three to five years, if not longer, to properly train Iraqi forces, based on examples of successful counterinsurgencies in Malaysia and the Philippines. “In the meantime, tiny embed units would be too distributed to be effective as combatants,” writes CFR Senior Fellow in Defense Policy Stephen Biddle, in a Foreign Affairs online roundtable.

Another problem, some experts say, is the poor quality of some advisers. Andrew F. Krepinevich, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, says the Army’s top officers try to avoid serving as advisers. “The reason is simple: The Army is far more likely to promote officers who have served with American units than those who are familiar with a foreign military,” he writes in the New York Times. Many of the advisers are over the age of forty-five, which, given that most officers retire in their early forties, “shows what a secondary effort advising was given by the Department of Defense,” says Sepp. The best advisers, he adds, are “captains and senior sergeants, professional and mature enough to work in difficult advising environments, not nineteen-year-old infantrymen. Troops are wholly useless in advising.”  

Does the U.S. military have a professional cadre of advisers?

Yes, but experts say the most qualified reside within the Army Special Forces. “Because of their foreign language proficiency, cultural awareness and sensitivities, and extensive training, special forces are best suited to so critical a task and the likeliest to produce lasting results,” writes Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism expert and professor at Georgetown University, in the Washington Times. In Vietnam, Rangers, Navy SEALs, and Green Berets all were involved in training South Vietnamese in counterinsurgency operations. Another part of the U.S. military’s advisory mission was the Marine Corps Combined Action Platoons, which Lt. Gen. John A. Nagle, an insurgency expert, calls “one of the most important innovations of that war.” The trouble with Iraq, military officials say, is there are not enough special forces available to train the indigenous forces because the bulk of them are engaged in other operations.

How many advisers are necessary to train indigenous forces?

Counterinsurgency experts say for a battalion of five hundred troops, at least thirty advisers is preferred. The Iraq Study Group called for a fivefold increase in the four thousand American advisers currently in Iraq. Experts say the quality of the trainers is more important than the quantity. “It isn’t numbers, it’s getting the right people, [and] giving them ninety days of Arabic language training,” says Barry McCaffrey, a retired U.S. army general, in an interview with NBC. Military officials say it can take between four to five months to properly train U.S. advisers.

Are efforts underway to address these problems?

Yes. Experts agree the Bush administration has put a renewed emphasis on advisory missions in Iraq, and there is talk of tripling the number of embedded units per battalion. Bing West, writing in the Atlantic Monthly, reports that Army Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli and Lt. Gen. James N. Matthis are bulking up the number and quality of these advisory teams. A plan under development by Chiarelli’s staff would shift half of the U.S. military’s fifteen brigades away from combat functions and into training missions, boosting the number of U.S. advisers per Iraqi brigade from about twelve to as many as forty. The U.S. military is also training more advisers in Fort Riley, Kansas, to be sent over shortly to Iraq. The White House is waiting until January, after new Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has taken office, to announce any major shifts in its Iraq strategy. Gates is expected to recommend a new Iraq commander, and two of the top candidates, Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus and Lt. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, are staunch advocates of advisory missions.

What is the status of training Iraqi forces?

U.S. officials say 85 percent of the training mission is complete and that the military has trained five Iraqi divisions, twenty-five brigades, and eighty-seven army and police battalions capable of leading security operations in select areas, according to the Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index. But Anthony Cordesman, a counterinsurgency expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, writes that “such reports are misleading to the point of being actively dishonest.” The problem, he says, is the U.S. estimates do not accurately reflect the large number of Iraqi soldiers who are trained but then desert the army. Gauging the development of these forces is increasingly difficult because the U.S. Defense Department has stopped declassifying material about Iraqi troop readiness (its previous Level One to Level Four grading system), instead only releasing information on the numbers of units “ready and equipped” and “in the lead.” “These are vague, if not meaningless categories,” Cordesman writes. “‘In the lead’ does not indicate the level of independence from U.S. support, and we do not know how many ‘ready and equipped’ soldiers quit or deserted the force.” Cordesman and other experts say plans by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to turn over security duties to Iraqis by June 2007 look unlikely to be fulfilled.

When will Iraqi forces be ready to take over security responsibilities?

Experts expect it will take at least three to five years, however previous projections by Pentagon officials did not pan out. For instance, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., who oversees U.S. forces in Iraq, told reporters in September 2005 “we have built enough Iraqi capacity where we can begin talking seriously about transitioning this counterinsurgency mission to them.” But more than a year later, the Washington Post reports that of the Iraqi army’s 134,000 men, only about ten battalions are effective—well under ten thousand men. Cordesman expects major U.S. military aid and advisory programs will be in place in Iraq probably until 2015.

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