Iraq’s advisor gap
OF THE MANY failures that have bedeviled the American military effort in Iraq, few are as inexplicable and costly as the failure to commit more resources to the Iraqi security forces. The only way U.S. troops will be able to go home without having failed in their mission is if Iraqis are capable of establishing order on their own. Yet U.S. efforts to train and equip the Iraqis got off to a laughable start in 2003 and have only slightly improved since.
In the just-ended fiscal year, we spent $93.8 billion on U.S. troops in Iraq and just $3 billion on their indigenous counterparts. Most American troops live on giant bases complete with sprawling PXs and Internet cafes, and they go outside only in convoys of armored vehicles. Iraqi troops, by contrast, usually live in ramshackle quarters, often fail to receive enough ammunition or other essential supplies and have to travel in unarmored pickup trucks that make them easy prey for insurgents.
Many of these shortcomings, of course, are because of the Iraqis’ own inadequacies, particularly in the higher echelons and at the Ministry of Defense. But part of the blame falls on us for not doing more to bring the Iraqis along faster.
It’s not only a matter of money. We have more than 140,000 troops in Iraq, but fewer than 4,000 of them act as advisors. There are barely enough to go around for higher-level Iraqi headquarters; there are no “embeds” available to consistently operate at the company and platoon level, where most of the action occurs. The Iraqi police forces are even more neglected.
What’s more, some of the best and brightest American officers are being steered away from Iraqi units. Everyone in the U.S. armed forces knows that the way to the top is to command American units, not to advise foreign units -- even if the latter task is more difficult and more important.
One Army officer who has served in Iraq and would be well qualified for an advisory role told me recently that he was asked to become an ROTC instructor at home but not an advisor in Iraq. Those he sees being sent to help Iraqis tend to have “marginal career prospects.” “No one is diverted from a school or command,” he told me. “No one is sent after a successful command.”
Another experienced Army officer with a Special Forces background -- exactly the kind of advisor we should be sending -- actually tried to volunteer. He recalls being told by a personnel officer: “Boy, I would hate to waste you with an assignment like that. With your background and file quality, there are so many other billets I could assign you to.”
In a telephone interview from Baghdad, Brig. Gen. Terry Wolff, commander of the Coalition Military Assistance Training Team, defended the advisory program by pointing out that it has become better over time. A school has been established at Ft. Riley, Kansas, where advisory teams receive 60 days of training before being sent to Iraq. This is a big improvement over the days when so-called military training teams would be established on the spot with members who were strangers to one another and had received no specialized training.
But just because the program is better doesn’t mean it’s adequate. There is still a need for many more first-rate U.S. advisors to work with Iraqi army and police units down to the platoon level. T. X. Hammes, a retired Marine colonel, believes that 20,000 to 30,000 advisors are needed and that we should be sending officers who have successfully led American battalions and brigades. “We’re at least an order of magnitude off,” Hammes told me. “If our main effort is advisory, why aren’t our best people going to become advisors?”
Perhaps because this would force a shake-up in the U.S. armed forces, with officers having to be pulled out of plum staff billets and field assignments. That’s a tough change to make, but it may be necessary. A country of 26 million can’t be controlled by 140,000 troops. If we’re not going to send a lot more soldiers, it might make sense to draw down to about 40,000 to 50,000 troops so that we could free up officers and NCOs for advisor duty. Iraq may be too far down the road to civil war for this step to make any difference, but we need to try something different to salvage a situation spinning out of control.