- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
Iraq’s cooperation with U.S. forces is seen as crucial to building an Iraqi security force capable of operating independently. Yet funding and resource questions remain unanswered. Col. David J. Abramowitz, chief of staff for the Iraq Assistance Group, which coordinates the program to train Iraqi security forces, says he is seeing steady progress among Iraqi units. But he now questions the ability of U.S. trainers to keep pace with the need to instruct growing numbers of Iraqi security forces. He says the training program will likely become more relevant as President Bush moves forward with plans to reduce the number of U.S. combat brigades to fifteen from twenty.
How do U.S. Military Transition Teams (MiTTs) assist the Iraqi security forces?
We teach [Iraqi units] how to do a modified military decision-making process. Our MiTTs are composed of staff elements, so we get with their staff and help train them how to do the mission, how to plan the mission. Let’s say with the [Iraqi] battalion commander, the battalion MiTT chief is right there with him. As he makes decisions as he’s doing things—knocking through doors doing a search mission or doing a snatch mission—they’re physically right there with them watching them do the mission.
These units are getting very good. And we’re now able to give them enablers. What I mean by enablers is, let’s say the Iraqi army is doing a search mission or a patrol, as you would call it, and all of a sudden they get engaged. We have access to Apaches [ U.S. aerial gunships]. We have access to UH-60s [Black Hawk utility helicopters]. We have access to fire support which they don’t have access to. So we also give them enablers and help them out with communications access we have, to be able to augment them, to be able to make the mission perform a little bit better.
How many teams are there?
We have 225 transition teams right now, with ten to fifteen people each. We have everything from military transition teams of about 150, border transition teams that focus on the borders—about twenty-nine of those—and we have national police transition teams, which focus on the national police, of about forty.
Where do you work?
Throughout the country; we are all over Iraq.
Your job on a daily basis is to build up the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces], to help them help themselves. What do you see as the remaining challenges to doing that?
The Iraqis want to fight. Coming here seven months ago I wasn’t sure. At the unit level they are good. They’re getting better, data shows it, and helping the coalition, being here helping them out, they are getting better. The challenge is a couple things: the logistical system still needs some work. The focus is all on the war fighting, on the killing and shooting and doing all of those things, but logistics seem to take a step back. They have good systems, but everything is done manually; everything from ordering a part to having things done with a piece of paper. They have to get many, many signatures in order to get fuel, ammunition, parts and things, whereas in the U.S. system, everything is done digitally. In most of the units below the division level, it’s all done manually on pieces of paper.
I remember a year and a half ago they had no logistical system, so when I look back at what’s happened in the last seven months, it’s great. And most people in America look at it and think, “Gee, why are their logistics so bad?” I believe it’s getting better because it’s still in its infancy stage, and I see what’s going to happen in the next year or two. It will get better.
Do you see evidence of the sectarian divisions that the Jones Report pointed out?
I do see evidence of that, but I’ll tell you right now, the commanding general of the national police, Major General Hussein, has fired most of his brigade commanders and battalion commanders. He’s fired them all because he says we have to change the perception of the national police. Are there sectarian problems in the national police? Yes. But are most of the people in the national police that I deal with good people? Yes. And I believe the national police are needed because their function is needed. Ultimately, when we get this Iraq thing down, we want the Iraqi police to be able to take Baghdad and be able to do the police business. It’s a good program, what they’ve got, but they’ve got to get the security settled in within the country.
What will the relevance be of the transition teams down the road, when the U.S. draws troops down? Will transition teams take on a greater importance training Iraqi security forces?
I can only speak for myself, but I believe the answer is yes. As we go into tactical overwatch to operation overwatch to strategic overwatch—which means if something happens strategically we can get there real quick—I believe the role of the brigade combat teams and the transition teams will be even more important. It’s the way we get our human intelligence. We also have transition teams at the administrative level. Everyone keeps on thinking that we just have transition teams at the brigade, division, and battalion [levels]. We also have them at the higher levels, and a lot of them are civilian transition team members. In fact we have [a scenario] that shows the IAG [Iraqi Assistance Group] will be the last team standing. The last transition team, the last advisor, the last ones to leave—almost like Vietnam.
Are the coalition’s training teams up to it? Can they get the job done, given the enormity of the task?
We in the military are used to accomplishing a mission and then going to the next mission. But you’ll never accomplish a mission here, at least right now. Plus you are on an eleven-man or a fifteen-man team, so you are very close. It’s a very, very small, tight-knit group. So you’re leaving that [after a tour in Iraq] and some people I’ve seen break down; they do not want to leave. We have people who have extended here, believe it or not, they’ll want to extend to stay on another team so they can feel like they are—and they are—making a significant impact.
They feel like they made such a difference in the year they were here. From the day they got there to the day they leave, when you look back and see how much of a significant impact they made, they believe, and I believe, that they’re saving lives. They know they’re training people who are not going to become al-Qaeda, not going to become bad guys. They understand how to do a mission, and in the long run these people won’t come to America and do what happened before.
Are there foreign transition teams?
We were supposed to have some international transition teams. We have some British transition teams who think differently than us when it comes to transition teams. They truly are not embedded with their organization. They believe that you ought to leave the Iraqis alone to do their own thing, then come in and periodically check. We don’t do that. We live with them. There are a couple of other transition teams out there too that are international transition teams, but I don’t know how they do their transition mission. Ninety-nine percent of the transition teams are American.
Has it been difficult finding mid-career officers to fill roles in the transition teams?
That is a big challenge right now. The transition teams are creating a huge load on the personnel system. It’s a lot of people. Captains, senior [non-commissioned officers], majors, lieutenant-colonels—they’re all senior [non-commissioned officers] and officers that are on the transition team. For now, we are not getting any more transition teams. We are not. Do I believe in the future we could get more as the brigade combat teams are downsized and we go from twenty to fifteen, if we go down further? Maybe—I don’t know.
There’s a lot of discussion about where we’re going at my level. I just don’t know that answer. I would expect that we would stay the same with what we’ve got, because the Iraqis are building more armies and more national police and they’re building more borders [checkpoints], so the requirements are going up for transition teams, not down.
The challenge is: How do we go about performing transition duties given that there are more requirements out there than resources? We believe that we’re going to have to start partnering more than embedding. What I mean is that as those units get secure and security is getting better, maybe instead of transitioning with every team, maybe we can have bigger transition team with the brigade and then go out periodically to check on the battalions. I know that discussion’s going on because there are certain areas where you need to have a transition team—Baghdad will probably have a transition team on it every year. But some areas are getting better, so maybe it could be a combination. All those things are getting looked at and we, as the military, try to develop our strategy as to how that should be done.
What have the casualty tolls been like?
We’ve lost forty-two transition members. I would say per capita more people are injured on transition teams than most units.
A sign that the surge is working is that we have not lost one member of the transition team since this July, and that’s the lowest it’s ever been. In almost three months we have not lost a single transition team member. In fact in three months the only injury we really had was a major who was shot in the face—he’s doing okay, he was shot in the chin. At least casualty-wise, the last three months have been the safest it’s ever been with our transition teams.