Wall Street Journal
February 29, 2008
Pg. 4 U.S. Army Still Struggles With How to School Iraqi Security Forces
By Yochi J. Dreazen
FORT RILEY, Kansas -- In the political fight over Iraq, there is one piece of common ground: The U.S. Army needs to do a better job training Iraqi security forces.
Presidential candidates John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have said that any large-scale American withdrawal from Iraq is dependent on creating Iraqi forces capable of filling the void. In October, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the effort to train the Iraqi and Afghan security forces was "arguably the most important military component" of the war on terror.
But the Army is struggling to adjust to this mission and is divided over how to carry it out. Some young officers want to revamp the effort and create a permanent "advisory corps" that could help in Iraq and take the lead in future efforts to stand up large foreign militaries. Skeptics, including many senior officers, counter that the U.S. is unlikely to find itself in another Iraq-size nation-building effort anytime soon, and that the Army should focus on killing enemies, not working with foreign soldiers.
"I'm just not convinced that anytime in the near future we're going to decide to build someone else's army from the ground up," said the Army's chief of staff, Gen. George Casey. "And to me, the 'advisory corps' is our Army Special Forces -- that's what they do."
The debate highlights the tensions roiling the military over what lessons to draw from Iraq. The conclusions will affect the future course of the war there and also guide the military's continuing efforts to reconfigure itself after five years of fighting two wars at the same time.
For the moment, the traditionalists appear to be winning. The Army is finalizing a plan to move the program that teaches soldiers to train and advise Iraqi forces from Fort Riley, Kan., to Fort Polk, La., within the next 12 months, according to people familiar with the matter. Lt. Col. John Nagl, who developed the idea of an advisory corps and has helped lead the training effort at Fort Riley, worries that the move could hinder the program's effectiveness. "Any time you pick up and move, there is a reset and a dip in performance," he said.
Senior officials have also ruled out the more far-reaching changes urged by veterans of the training effort, according to the people familiar with the matter.
Soldiers assigned to training teams for Iraq and Afghanistan are watching the bureaucratic struggles closely because their chances for advancement hang in the balance. Many worry that serving as trainers will leave them less likely to be promoted than soldiers with combat command experience.
A widely circulated email written by an officer who worked with military trainers in Afghanistan captures the mood. Written as a mock welcome letter for new trainers, it begins: "You have a pulse and have not been selected for command. Congratulations on your assignment!" The letter goes on to note that "the Army has told you that this assignment won't hurt your career" and, as long as soldiers don't hope for promotion, "you have been told the truth."
Backers of the training concept argue that coming wars will look a lot like Iraq, so there will be an enduring need for soldiers who know how to train foreign counterparts.
"The way you win a counterinsurgency campaign is that you don't -- you help the host nation defeat the insurgency," said Col. Nagl. "We're trying to implant that idea in the culture of the Army. But it's new, and it's unfamiliar, and it's a little alien."
Fort Riley is a storied outpost known as the "Home of the Big Red One" and has been part of the military since the 1850s. Col. Jeffrey Ingram was put in charge of the Fort Riley advisory effort in late 2006. He took over a program that had neither a curriculum nor offices or classrooms. "It was ground zero stuff like, 'hey, we need buildings,' " he said.
Col. Ingram and his staff wrote the manuals themselves and oversaw the construction of a small campus, including dining hall and commissary, for the program. They arranged for Arabic-speaking civilians to be flown in to act as Iraqi officers during role-playing sessions held in drafty trailers.
In late September, a small team of Army officers paid a quiet visit to the sprawling base to evaluate the effort. In a report to their Pentagon superiors, the officers wrote that the wrong soldiers were being chosen for the training teams and that they were being poorly taught.
The shortcomings were "seriously undermining the effectiveness" of the overall training mission and "fundamentally detracting from the U.S. strategy for transition in Iraq," the report concluded.
Senior Army commanders want at least 33% of the instructors and other personnel assigned to the training mission at Fort Riley to be former military advisors with experience in Iraq or Afghanistan. Manpower shortages and bureaucratic misfires have pushed the numbers lower. Of the 825 instructors and other personnel assigned to the training mission here, just 50, or about 6%, have had first-hand experience as advisors.
The uneven quality of the military personnel assigned to staff the advisory teams that are bound for Iraq or Afghanistan means that instructors here are forced to spend more than three-quarters of the 60-day training course going over basic military tasks like marksmanship. That leaves an "inadequate amount of time" for specific instruction in how to "train, advise and assist," the Army report found.
Col. Nagl, who has served as Col. Ingram's deputy since the training program's inception, believes the program has made progress but still needs a considerable amount of work. He won't be sticking around to carry it out. A former Rhodes Scholar and one of the best-known young officers in the Army, he recently announced plans to retire and join the Washington think tank that first published his advisory-corps proposal.