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Training Iraqi forces

Author: Michael Moran
December 8, 2005

Introduction

For weeks now—at least since Iraqis overwhelmingly approved a new constitution in late October—United States policy in Iraq increasingly has come to depend on the ability of American and allied forces to "stand up" Iraqi army and security forces before American public support for the Iraq deployment collapses. The new premium placed on creating Iraqi forces that "control their own battle space," in Pentagon jargon, is on prominent display in recent public statements from the president, senior national security officials and military commanders, as well as in the 35-page "Strategy for Victory in Iraq" plan released in early December. The effort to train a new Iraqi army has been underway since shortly after Saddam's fall in April 2003. Yet today, more than at any point since U.S. forces breached the first defenses along the Kuwaiti-Iraqi border in March 2003, the future of Iraq is in the hands of Iraqis rather than Americans. Yet the details of how this training is proceeding, and how U.S. and other trainers are judging individual Iraqi units to be "battle-ready," have been obscure and plagued with miscommunication and confusion. Here is a look at some of the issues behind the effort.

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Who is training the Iraqis?

Iraqi forces are being trained primarily by the U.S. military with help from civilian trainers. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), plus several other nations individually, are training Iraqi soldiers and police officers inside Iraq. Others, including Canada, Germany, Jordan, and the Netherlands, are training Iraqi police officers outside the country. Other nations are involved in efforts to train Iraq's naval patrol forces. The lead agency for this training is the U.S. Central Command's Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq (MNSTCI). The MNSTCI is led by U.S. Major General Martin Dempsey, and his senior staff includes generals from Britain, Australia, and Denmark.

What is the status of the training effort?

There is considerable controversy—and has been for some time—about the status of the Iraqi forces being trained by the military. But in early December, 2005, in a speech at the U.S. Naval Academy, President Bush said some forty-five Iraqi battalions—each with 750 men—are able to lead combat operations on their own. All told, that suggests that some 33,500 Iraqi troops have reached the point where they can "own their own battle space," as the president put it. Gen. Dempsey, who runs the training effort, says the United States' goal is an Iraqi army of 160,000, with 25,000 "elite" police commandos, 135,000 police officers, 6,000 highway patrolmen and about 27,000 border troops. All told, the goal is a trained Iraqi security force of 400,000. Dempsey told CNN on November 23 that about 212,000 total recruits have joined so far, suggesting that a vast majority of them remain unprepared for duty.

Adding to the confusion, critics of the administration say, were earlier claims that proved to be wildly optimistic.

Why are the numbers so controversial?

Some of the confusion surrounding the number of trained troops is the result of a lack of coordination by military and political officials when describing the progress publicly. For instance, Bush's assertion in early December that some 33,500 Iraqis own their own battle space conflicts with Dempsey's remarks a week earlier, when he told CNN that about 23,000 are battle-ready. That number only accounts for thirty out of a total 130 battalions. Either fifteen extra battalions graduated during Thanksgiving week, or there are different standards implied by Dempsey and Bush. In a Washington Post op-ed, Senator Biden writes that Rice insisted there were about 125,000 trained Iraqi security forces, while he maintained the real number was between 4,000 and 18,000.

Adding to the confusion, critics of the administration say, were earlier claims that proved to be wildly optimistic. For instance, in February 2004, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in an interview: "Today, in February of 2004, there are over 210,000 Iraqis serving in the security forces." Yet he and other officials, including Dempsey, were citing exactly the same number in November, 2005. Again, the discrepancy could be explained with more specifics about what "serving in the security forces" implies, but the confusion has contributed to an impression that the military is being too optimistic in its public assessments.

How are new Iraqi forces judged?

Military trainers are applying a four-stage assessment system to Iraqi forces. The most effective units are rated Level 1 (fully effective) and Level 2 (largely effective) status. In plainer terms, these are units which, after an eight-week training course and subsequent training in the field, can be left in charge of provincial headquarters facilities and effectively direct security and anti-insurgency operations with laborious U.S. backup. Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, who led the U.S. training effort until late September, says a Level 1 unit is virtually interoperable with an American unit. That is no small thing: Within NATO, only some units of the British military are regarded as interoperable. But that is not the same thing as being "fully effective." Interoperability refers to the ability of the two armies to recognize each other on the battlefield, to communicate, and to share logistics. Being "fully effective" is another matter. The U.S. Army has given various answers to the question of how many Level 1 battalions exist in the Iraqi army, but the spread is pretty tight, between 1 and 3.

Is “Level 1” the standard that must be met for U.S. forces to start withdrawing?

There is no easy way for the Army, or the American public for that matter, to judge progress...

That is a complicated question. First of all, no solid criteria have been announced for such a withdrawal. Indeed, most plans mentioned in published reports suggest the first stage would be to pull U.S. forces back to more remote so-called base camps within Iraq, making them less vulnerable to terrorist attack but still able to react quickly in support of Iraqi forces. (This same approach was used in Saudi Arabia after the bombing of the Khobar Towers barracks in 1996, the idea being to reduce U.S. visibility and vulnerability. Most U.S. forces left Saudi soil in 2002).

For practical purposes, military trainers say, the goal is for most units to attain Level 2 or "largely effective" status. But Petraeus, who has been speaking in public since returning from three years in Iraq last autumn, notes troops at Level 3 ("partly effective") are fighting, too, and that on-the-job training is part of the plan for developing in them an independent command capability. It is mostly Level 3 troops, for instance, who have taken over and largely quieted the once-murderous Baghdad airport road. But Petraeus and others add that there is a long way ahead. He warns there is no easy way for the Army, or the American public for that matter, to judge progress: "There is no arithmetic relationship or mechanistic formula that I can give you," he told reporters in October.

What specific skills and traits are trainers looking for?

The military and civilian trainers handling the task of bringing Iraq's forces up to standards are applying a dizzying array of measurements to their charges. For instance, the chart used for assessing the status of a so-called provincial headquarters unit grades these forces on categories like leadership, training, station effectiveness, force protection, equipment, and infrastructure. Inside the category "equipment," for instance, are subcategories for vehicles, vehicle radios, pistols, body armor, rifles, and handcuffs. A former civilian training official who was in Iraq in 2003-04 and visited again in November says keeping track of weapons has been a major issue. "We've probably issued four rifles for every Iraqi soldier in uniform," he says. "There just wasn't any kind of inventory system at first, and most of them just disappeared." Petraeus, briefing reporters upon his return from Iraq, acknowledged the problem. "It's just a very, very complex endeavor," he said. "And again, it was a very conscious choice to focus first the major effort on getting forces out in the field that could fight, knowing that we would have to provide the logistics and sustain that support for some period of time."

Did the United States abolish Saddam’s Iraqi Army?

Yes, by order of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) on May 23, 2003, the former Iraqi Army was disbanded. The move was controversial from the start, with supporters saying Saddam's forces were desperately compromised by the atrocities they had committed over the years and the dominance of Sunni Arabs loyal to the regime. The CPA's former administrator, J. Paul Bremer, defended his decision as "the most important decision I ever made" as recently as April in a symposium at Stanford University.

Others, however, including many former generals and senior policy figures, predicted that a failure to keep paying Saddam's army would result in an inability to control Iraq's population and would, in effect, disgorge a large, armed and angry group of unemployed males into Iraqi society at precisely the wrong moment. As early as the summer of 2003, several former generals, including retired Maj. Gen. Barry McCaffrey, complained: "Now, elements of this army are attacking us with truck bombs, mortars, RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades], remote-controlled mines—all stuff in the Iraqi Army arsenal."

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