Thought I'd put this up here for you military types. It's not new or classified but might it be new for some of you. Enjoy!
When Officers Aren't Gentlemen
NCOs will be the backbone of the new Iraqi army.
BY MARK BOWDEN
Tuesday, February 8, 2005 12:01 a.m. EST
On the 11th anniversary of the Battle of Mogadishu, which I wrote about in "Black Hawk Down," Maj. James Lechner was again fighting an urban battle, this one in Samarra, Iraq.
Maj. Lechner had sustained a terrible gunshot wound to his lower right leg as a lieutenant in Mogadishu. Now he was commanding a unit responsible for training and then leading the 7th Battalion of the new Iraqi army on a mission to retake the northern city, which had been held for some time by insurgent forces.
"There must be something about me and the first week in October," Maj. Lechner wrote me in an e-mail shortly after his forces helped retake the city.
It was the most dramatic moment in Maj. Lechner's most recent six month tour in Iraq, which placed him right in the middle of the effort that will ultimately determine success or failure there. The courageous voter turnout on Jan. 30 was a huge step in the right direction, and has given Iraq the opportunity to forge a fully legitimate government for the first time in the modern age. It marked a major defeat for the Islamist extremists and Saddamites of the insurgency, but no one expects them to go away. Victory will ultimately depend on building an Iraqi army and police capable of securing the peace that millions of Iraqis so evidently desire.
Rebuilding the army has been more difficult than most American leaders imagined. The Pentagon claims to have fully trained 130,000 Iraqi soldiers, which is less than half of its goal. Critics like Sen. Joseph Biden, senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, dispute even that total, estimating the number of "adequately trained" Iraqis at only about 14,000. While there is argument over the pace of that effort, everyone seems to agree that it is the right way to go.
Why has it proved so hard to reconstitute the Iraqi army if, as the elections suggested, the insurgency lacks broad-based popular support? Fear is obviously a big factor. Terror attacks in recent months have subjected police and military recruits to brutal suicide bombings, kidnappings and execution. But beyond the fear factor is something else. Americans working to train the Iraqi army are still battling the ghost of Saddam Hussein.
Maj. Lechner was upbeat after the assault on Samarra: "It was very interesting and a big success," he wrote. "It was the first time an Iraqi Army unit was given its own objective to take and fought side by side with U.S. units (previously in Najaf, infantry assault units came in behind U.S. units). The story details are a combination of modern war and Aladdin."
His force captured a large pharmaceutical complex and the Spiral Tower, a landmark minaret. Maj. Lechner was impressed by the way the Iraqi forces executed relatively complex infantry maneuvers, and more than held their ground when fired upon. They took and successfully held those positions, enduring mortar assaults and attacks by infiltrators over the coming weeks.
"I have never seen a situation change so dramatically," he wrote in mid-October. "When we arrived we [coalition forces] could not even approach the city without taking direct fire, and all of our bases were taking mortar and rocket fire daily. Now, there has not been one incident in weeks and we drive all over the city greeted by smiles and waves. My guys man a checkpoint where people wait in line for four hours and are still happy and smiling. I get frustrated waiting four minutes."
But it had not been easy training the 7th Battalion to perform so well, and the main problem was not with Iraqi soldiers. These he found both in training and battle to be courageous, smart, motivated and willing to endure harsh and difficult conditions to accomplish their missions.
"Given time to rehearse and tape drill, there were almost no tasks or complexity of operations the soldiers could not have performed," Maj. Lechner wrote.
No, his problem was not with foot soldiers, it was with their officers. One of the central problems with training up an Iraqi force is a military culture fostered by Saddam. The problem is not lingering loyalty to the toppled tyrant, but loyalty to the way he ran his army. Maj. Lechner noticed that the Iraqi commanders in his battalion tended to equate rank more with privilege than with responsibility. They were reluctant to stay on duty with their units for any length of time without "special passes or extended leaves," he said. The higher up the chain of command, the worse the problem. Just prior to going into action in Samarra, the Iraqi battalion commander took a leave. He didn't return until the city was secured. Up and down the officer ranks Maj. Lechner found a marked propensity to steal from their units, falsifying records, embezzling funds and even extorting money from their own men.
He also found ethnic loyalties undermining battalion unity. Just prior to the action in Samarra, "nearly 100% of the Kurdish officers deserted the battalion," he wrote, "with deliberate timing, and when leaving most stole weapons and vehicles. While Kurdish enlisted soldiers often performed very effectively, the Kurdish officers made almost no pretense of cooperation or a desire to support a national government outside of Kurdistan."
The old Saddam-era officers were both reluctant to assume responsibility and to share authority, so they resisted American efforts to train competent Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs), the experienced sergeants who are the first line of command in today's military. Strong NCO leadership gives units in battle far greater flexibility to respond to unexpected situations and to demonstrate initiative. Under the Saddam model, authority is jealously guarded and reluctantly exercised. Decisions are passed up the chain of command by field officers unwilling to take risks. Maj. Lechner found that lower-ranking Iraqi officers in his battalion during battle were reluctant even to read a map--they preferred to wait for instructions about which way to go.
It has become generally accepted wisdom that it was a mistake for the Coalition Provisional Authority to disband Saddam's army after American forces took Baghdad two years ago. If Maj. Lechner's experience is typical, then retaining the old force would have just created a whole different set of problems, and might well have further set back efforts to create a flexible, effective Iraqi army. Solving the problem in the 7th Battalion ultimately required rooting out nearly all of those officers who had served under the old regime.
"Even officers from the old army who are trustworthy fail to have the skills necessary to conduct operations effectively and seemed unable to learn or apply instruction given to them," Maj. Lechner wrote. "The majority of the officers of the old army are ineffective at best and a true cancer at worst. The greatest success was achieved by placing proven junior officers in key positions and with officers who had not been members of the old army."
Maj. Lechner found that his unit was capable of training Iraqi soldiers how to go into battle, but lacked the resources or time to train Iraqi officers to lead them. It will take time for relatively young, inexperienced Iraqis promoted to leadership positions to learn the basics of command and control, and to earn the respect of their men. These kind of skills are not acquired quickly. If we want to speed up the process, we ought to be applying more effort to training Iraqis to lead.
Mr. Bowden, national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, is the author, most recently, of "Road Work: Among Tyrants, Beasts, Heroes, and Rogues" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2004) and "Black Hawk Down".
Rule 21. Be polite. Be professional. But have a plan to kill everyone you meet.
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