As the U.S. military looks to hand over more security responsibilities to Iraqi forces, there is mounting skepticism and debate among experts as to the quality and capability of these troops. How many troops have been trained? How many units are combat-ready? Military officials, speaking on Capitol Hill September 29, revealed that the number of Level 1 Iraqi battalions-those capable of carrying out counterinsurgency operations without Coalition assistance-had dropped from three units to one over the summer. Yet in a Pentagon news conference the following day, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissed the drop as "irrelevant" and noted that the number of Level 2 units, which are able to lead an offensive with U.S. support, had doubled over the summer.
Colonel Peter Mansoor, former commander of the First Brigade of the First Armored Division in Iraq from July 2003 to June 2005 who served in Iraq for thirteen months, says achieving and maintaining a Level 1 readiness level is no easy feat, given the inherent difficulties and dangers of mobilizing such a large army from scratch. "The hardest thing is the logistical aspect," he says, "which requires a lot of expertise, equipment, supplies, and the kind of infrastructure being developed for the Iraqi army, particularly the bases, which were built from the ground up because everything was looted right after the war."
In an interview with Lionel Beehner, staff writer for cfr.org, Colonel Mansoor explains his time in Iraq training Iraqi forces, including the advantages of training troops abroad, the role of militias, and the difficulties of diversifying Iraq’s armed forces.
How is the training of troops in Iraq going? There seem to be discrepancies over the number of "combat-ready" battalions reportedly in place.
I wouldn’t say discrepancies; it’s an issue of, what are the standards that rate each of these battalions, and how well are those standards known by the media? The military treat these standards as cut and dry; they are not softened for the sake of public relations. To be rated at Level I is a very high standard, and U.S. military units that have been around a long time and have been training continuously work very hard to maintain a Level I readiness level. It is not surprising that more Iraqi battalions have not reached the highest readiness level. They’ve only been at this now for a couple years. It’s going to take some time to get up to the top level, but they will get there. The hardest thing is the logistical aspect, which requires a lot of expertise, equipment, supplies, and the kind of infrastructure being developed for the Iraqi army, particularly the bases, which were built from the ground up because everything was looted right after the war.
I think, as General David Petraeus [who is charged with training Iraqi security forces] said recently at Princeton, if by this time next year we don’t see a significant increase in the number of units ready at Level 1, we should be more concerned. For now, the training of the new Iraqi army appears to be on track.
Explain the breakdown of training between police forces under the Interior Ministry and army forces under the Defense Ministry.
The police training is pretty intensive but focused more on individual training and less on unit training because police operate in very small numbers-a couple guys in a squad car, a group of people at a traffic-control point. Insurgents who are attacking police have rocket-propelled grenades, AK-47 assault rifles, and machine guns. So police in Iraq have to have heavier weapons to respond to these assaults. Some commentators say they’re more like light infantry. I wouldn’t go that far, but they are certainly well-armed and on the level of, say, a SWAT team in the United States in terms of equipment, but not necessarily with the same level of training.
Explain the vetting process of Iraqi recruits.
The vetting has been completely turned over to the Iraqis. We train and equip, and they people the force.
How are Iraqis recruited into the army? Are they offered financial incentives?
We don’t have to convince Iraqis to show up. Jobs are so scarce in Iraq that they show up in droves. This allows some degree of selectivity in choosing recruits. For instance, in the Ready First Combat Team zone we conducted a literacy test and only took those recruits who could read and write in Arabic. We also gave them a medical examination to ensure they were physically capable of doing the job.
Are women allowed in Iraq’s army or police forces? If so, are many signing up?
Yes. There are women signing up but not in great numbers. It was quite a sea change for the men to have to work with them and pretty interesting to see the dynamics, given their cultural biases.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in a recent column that Iraq’s navy is almost all men and all Shiites. How do you diversify Iraq’s armed forces?
The issue with Iraqi forces is they are recruited and live near their homes. Some go home every night. You can’t sequester people forever. They have families. A lot of Iraqis are joining because it’s a job. So to take Kurds from the northern part of the country and Sunnis from the central part of the country and say, "Go down to Basra and become a sailor," there’s just not a lot of interest in doing that. So those who live near the ports, where there’s a navy, happen to be Shiites. I don’t think it’s any kind of grand political design but rather a geographical issue.
Tell me about the training of Iraqi troops abroad-in Jordan, for instance, there’s a police academy-is this a successful experiment and if so, what are the advantages to training Iraqis abroad?
The great advantage is the security is much better. You don’t have to guard the installation to the degree you have to in Iraq. We had a police academy in Baghdad that was constantly attacked. Another advantage is if it’s staffed by foreign officers, they don’t have to come into Iraq and become targets in order to teach. Also, existing facilities can be used that don’t require a lot of renovation or rebuilding, as is the case with many buildings in Iraq.
Has the U.S. military been involved with training any of Iraq’s militia groups?
The official position is that militias have no place in the future of Iraq. As a sovereign country, the state needs to have a monopoly on power. In reality, however, there are militias. They have gone underground to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the part of the country. For instance, the Badr Corps, which was the armed wing of SCIRI [Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq], turned itself into the Badr Organization in 2003 to connote a political bent, as opposed to being just a military organization. [Radical Shiite cleric] Muqtada al-Sadr formed a militia, which he calls the Mahdi Army, which rose up against the Coalition in April 2004. The Kurdish peshmerga [resistance fighters] has been absorbed into the Iraqi army. So militias do exist, but not overtly because everyone is kind of putting their finger in the air to see which way the political winds will blow and whether a democratic government will succeed.
As more and more confidence is placed in the security institutions of the state, then we may have more success in seeing the militias die out. But look at the news and they’re still there, battling each other in Najaf, where Sadr’s army battled the Badr forces. Of course, the Sunnis have a militia. It’s called the insurgency.
There have been experiments [by the U.S. military] with taking in militia forces. The marines allowed the creation of a Sunni militia to police Fallujah after the halt of the first offensive against that city in the spring of 2004, but it turned out to be an abject failure. They could never reconcile the desires of the people of Fallujah with the desires of the U.S. coalition. The unit, in essence, couldn’t do what it was supposed to do, in terms of keeping Fallujah free of jihadis and other insurgents who took over the city. More successful was a battalion we created and used in Baghdad-we called it a Special Forces battalion-which took in soldiers from a variety of organizations, so a little bit of Badr, a little bit of Kurdish peshmerga, and others who worked together under the tutelage of U.S. Special Forces advisers. It actually was a very successful experiment but was not adopted as a model on a larger scale.
Why wasn’t this model adopted?
I think the decision was to create a national army and to do so from the bottom up, start with raw recruits, and go from there. Maybe it was seen as not being able to be adopted on a wider scale because we would have had to acknowledge that militias existed when the official policy was for militias to disband.
Which countries are involved with the training of Iraqi forces?
Of course, the United States and other Coalition forces, but this is an international effort as well. NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] has a training mission in Iraq, and as I mentioned earlier, there is training ongoing in Jordan as well. This is an area where the international community could help even if they don’t want to get involved in active military operations in Iraq.