Why Bush's Push Will Fail: The Incompetent Iraqi Army

[ Posted Friday, January 12th, 2007 – 17:45 UTC ]

Much attention has been paid to President Bush's speech on Wednesday, and the fact that the escalation's chances for success rest on the willingness of Prime Minister Maliki and the Iraq government to take on the sectarian violence in an evenhanded way (i.e., going after the Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias).

But even if Maliki did everything Bush wanted him to, his plan is still going to fail, because it relies heavily on the Iraqi Army to pacify Baghdad. And the Iraqi Army is a joke.

The last time an escalation of troops in Baghdad was tried, it didn't work. The US commander in Baghdad, Maj. Gen. James Thurman requested 3,000 additional Iraqi Army troops, and they didn't show up. This is because Iraqi Army troops are allowed to refuse duty outside the district where they signed up. This is an army? So what makes anyone think that Kurdish members of the Iraq Army are going to want to redeploy to the killing zone of Baghdad, as Maliki is currently promising?

I have written about this subject before, but only as a bullet point in a much longer series of articles. But since everyone else in the media and the blogosphere is ignoring this aspect of the debate, I feel I have to shine a spotlight on it.

Walter Pincus wrote an article in the Washington Post last November that is worth quoting here:

Yesterday's criticisms were expanded upon in the latest study by Anthony H. Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. A Pentagon official in the Reagan administration and a specialist in Middle East intelligence and military matters, Cordesman just returned from Iraq, where he received briefings from military and civilian officials.One of Cordesman's central issues is that public statements by the Defense Department "severely distorted the true nature of Iraqi force development in ways that grossly exaggerate Iraqi readiness and capability to assume security tasks and replace U.S. forces." He also writes that "U.S. official reporting is so misleading that there is no way to determine just how serious the problem is and what resources will be required."

Cordesman says the Pentagon's Aug. 31 status report, which was sent to Congress, lists 312,400 men "trained and equipped" among the Iraqi army and national and regular police. But it adds that "no one knows how many . . . are actually still in service." At the same time, he writes, "all unclassified reporting on unit effectiveness has been cancelled."

This article was a follow-up to an earlier article by Pincus, which is even more sobering. Pincus reviews an article published "in Military Review, the bimonthly publication of the U.S. Army's Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan." by Lt. Col. Carl D. Grunow.

That's right -- the most damning evidence of the Iraqi Army's incompetence comes from the US military itself. Lt. Col. Grunow wrote the article titled "Advising the Iraqis: Building the Iraq Army" after completing a year as a senior Iraq Army training officer. In other words, this is a first-hand view of the Iraq Army's capabilities by one of the key men responsible for training them. He writes the article as advice for other trainers heading to Iraq.

[Note: quotes below are from the Military Review article, which is extensive and absolutely damning. See note at bottom for the steps to download this article. I apologize, but a link to it just wasn't possible. While I encourage everyone interested to read Grunow's full article, if you don't have enough time, you can read Pincus' review of it at the above link.]

In Grunow's own words:

By disbanding the old IA [Iraqi Army], the United States accepted responsibility for replacing an institution that was both respected and feared throughout Iraq. Saddam could count on his army to maintain control against internal dissent, as evidenced by the effective suppression of large-scale rebellions in the north and south during the 1990s. Iron discipline was the norm under Saddam. The lowliest lieutenant could expect instant obedience and extreme deference from his soldiers. Today's army is very different. Unlike Saddam's, the new army serves the cause of freedom, and officers and soldiers alike are a bit confused about what this means.Recruiting, retaining and accountability. One of the most critical tasks for the army is recruiting and retaining soldiers. Soldiers are under no effective contract, and they always have the option to leave the service. As of this writing, the only power holding them is the promise of a paycheck (not always delivered) and a sense of duty. Good soldiers leave after receiving terrorist threats against their families. Less dutiful soldiers fail to show up for training if they think it will be too hard. In areas where the duty is difficult and deadly, unit AWOL rates approach 40 percent. The old IA executed deserters unhesitatingly; the new army watches powerlessly as soldiers walk away from their posts, knowing full well that the army has no real means to punish them.

. . .

The Iraqis are horrendous at keeping track of their soldiers. There are no routine accountability formations, and units typically have to wait until payday to get a semi-accurate picture of who is assigned to the unit. Because Iraqi status reports are almost always wrong, American advisers have taken to counting soldiers at checkpoints to get a sense of where combat power is distributed.

. . .

In one instance, Coalition partners and advisers to 2d Brigade observed with alarm that a 550-man infantry battalion could only put about 150 soldiers in the battlespace at any given time.

. . .

Iraqi soldiers tend to react under fire as though they are in a large-scale attack. They must learn fire discipline and careful target selection in a battlefield filled with noncombatants. Unfortunately, the Iraqi "death blossom" is a common tactic witnessed by nearly every U.S. soldier who has spent any time outside the wire. Any enemy attack on the IA, whether mortar, sniper, or an improvised explosive device, provokes the average Iraqi soldier to empty his 30 round magazine and fire whatever belt of ammunition happens to be in his machine-gun. Ninety percent of the time, there is no target, and the soldiers always agree that this is extremely dangerous, in addition to being a grievous waste of ammunition. But they continue to do it.

A similar phenomenon occurs when Iraqis react to the death of a comrade on the battlefield. The reaction is very dramatic. I once observed over-wrought Iraqi soldiers start to rampage through a civilian community, an event that could have been tragic if an adviser had not stepped in to stop it.

. . .

Iraqis value relationships more than results. They will interrupt a conversation, no matter how important, to pleasantly greet someone who has entered a meeting room late or unannounced. Their reputation for not wanting to recognize misconduct or failure is well earned. (Advisers have found that photographic evidence is essential to achieve a constructive after-action review.)

. . .

Disparity of capability. The great disparity in capability between U.S. and IA units also works against the IA training effort. It takes a 2,000-man Iraqi brigade to take over an AO [area of operations] formerly controlled by a 600-strong U.S. battalion, and even then there is a drop in capability. There are many reasons for this delta:

The U.S. work ethic is second to none--especially when soldiers are deployed far from home and can focus 100 percent on getting the job done. Arab culture, on the other hand, is much less focused on the clock; it takes the long view that everything will happen in due time, "in shah-allah" ("God willing").

The IA is not rotating units into the AO; rotation off the line consists of a liberal leave schedule that reduces the force by 20 to 30 percent at any given time.

. . .

Finally, for those who think more troops are the answer (paging Senator Lieberman!), I end with a quote from history which Grunow included in his article:

"Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are here to help them, not win it for them. Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is. It might take longer, and it might not be as good as you think, but if it is theirs it will be better."
--T.E. Lawrence, "Twenty-seven Articles," Arab Bulletin, 20 August 1917


[There is no direct link to the text of Grunow's article, sorry. The Military Review website is kind of clunky to use. Here are the steps to take to view a PDF file of this article:

Start here. On the left-hand menu on the page, click "Past Editions" button. This takes you to a page with a file structure that you have to click down through (click the icon or the +/– to the left of each item to expand the outline list). Now click down through all of the following items (the first three will likely already be open for you):

Center for Army Lessons Learned Public Archives
Military Review English Edition
VOL LXXXVI, NO. 04 - July - August 2006

You should now see a PDF icon on the left of your screen. Click the icon, and the PDF file will download. Sorry for the complex link instructions, but after all, this is the military's website, so what do you expect?]


[See the original Huffington Post article, complete with comments.]

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