Small Wars Journal

Half Measures Avail Us Nothing In Iraq

Half Measures Avail Us Nothing In Iraq

Greg Kleponis

If there is one thing we should have all learned, especially those of us who spent years there is that half measures when it comes to Iraq avail us nothing. In June the President announced he was sending 450 “troops” to Iraq ostensibly for the purpose of “training” Iraqi forces to combat IS. I use the term IS to mean the Islamic State because using ISIS or ISIL now have become code words for which side of the isle you apparently come from. Nonetheless , IS has taken over about 30% of the country from Mosel to Ramadi in the Sunni Triangle, a city and region we fought our guts out for in 2004/2005.  Ramadi as we all know is about 70 miles from Baghdad which is essentially a one hour drive on the main highway connecting Ramadi with Baghdad.

What does this mean? I mean what does the addition of 450 troops bring to the party? Let me first establish my bona fides. I spent 2 tours in the advising and training role for Iraqi counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency forces. I am well acquainted with not only the materiel and personnel that are required to field these forces but probably and more importantly the extreme challenges in training and deploying them.  The first thing we need to establish is not the “how many” but more importantly the “who” and the “what.”  This simply means who are they going to send and what are they going to do? Since last year, the US has sent approximately 3,000 advisors to Iraq.  In the year to date they have managed to “train, equip and deploy” approximately 1,750 Iraqi combat operators.  On the surface that might not seem too bad. Consider that the IS force they (the Iraqis) have largely failed to deter is about 30,000 or so at last count and their overall army troop strength is allegedly 350,000, suddenly 1,750 doesn’t look too impressive. In fact one wonders what the heck they have been doing over there all of this time.  Let me put it this way. Trainers are force multipliers. That means that you send a certain amount of trainers over and they are supposed to train a LOT more of the trainees and produce combat ready troops than themselves – NOT LESS.  Let’s apply a little ratio analysis here. I know it’s not precise but it is a bit fun and I find does lead me to some generally accurate conclusions and puts things in perspective.  As mentioned there were 3,000 advisers sent to Iraq over the past year.  They have claimed to have trained 1,750. That is 58% of their own force. They managed to train a little over half of their entire trainer strength. That is the same to attending a university lecture and having 30 professors teaching 16 students. Next we have now added 450 advisors so at the present rate of output those 450 will produce an additional 261 Iraqi operators in 6 months  given the present rate of throughput.   I know this is a bit reduction ad absurdum  but what I am trying to illustrate here is the absurd design of this program. Now the numbers I just gave you are just the ones you see on the news or read in the paper.  By my experience at least 10% (tooth to tail ratio) of those deployed will end up on some sort of staff or functional directorate or other support or enabling activity, reducing the number by 300. Perhaps why they added the 450? At any rate, the throughput thus far has been far from impressive in fact if I were in charge of the effort I would characterize it as a total failure thus far and I haven’t even done the financials on this (that is how much for the overall deployment and how much each Iraqi trainee has cost the US taxpayer) and my guess is that you don’t want to see that.

We have briefly talked about the “how many”. Now let’s talk about the “who.” Who are they sending over there?  What experience do they have not only in training, but training Iraqis?  It’s one thing to be able to “know” or “do” something, it is quite something else to be able to train something and quite something else altogether to train it in a non-permissive environment, in another language and another culture where what your training is literally the difference between life and death to those you are training. Can you say difficult and stressful?  I can assure you there are, experiences, skill sets, and areas of expertise you only “get” if you have done it. Sending  general purpose forces, a term we used to describe folks who we could plug into any role because it was assumed they didn’t need any particular specialized training, or even so called Special Forces is not enough.  Even Special Forces  are not the “all fixer elixir”. They have specialized skills that is true but the types of specialized skills, cross cultural competencies in dealing with this particular and discreet culture are absolutely necessary. Do they have them?  Many of us who went through this crucible and had to climb this learning curve 10 years ago think they may not.  Besides there just aren’t enough of them anyway so you are left with general purpose forces. Many of those who do understand these challenges and possess the experience and skill are no longer available. That more or less means they are going to start all over again and re-learn that which we learned the hard way.  Many of us are retired and many more of us left the forces due to the high ops tempo and the attendant family pressures so who is left?

I cannot emphasize enough how difficult this line of work is and how much time it takes to learn it in order to do it properly and not just throw numbers up on briefing slides. I remember in Iraq, those on staff and general officers dismissing the challenges of training because they just didn’t understand all of the nuances of culture, operational and logistical constraints and the rule of unintended consequences that haunted us daily because we just didn’t understand many things unique to the Iraq.  I am reminded of the program with Anthony Mercuri from the program Hotel Impossible. This is a program where he goes into hotels and tells them everything wrong they are doing because they essentially don’t know what they are doing.  He interviews them and asks if they have any background in the hotel and restaurant business and it’s amazing how many don’t.  They just thought it would be cool to own a hotel. He says to them, “This is why I have a job, because people like you think this is easy.”  You would be amazed at how many people – military and government think this is an easy business. I can tell you categorically, it is definitely not.  Some staff thought; “What’s the big deal? Give them some uniforms and teach them how to shoot and manoeuvre!” How about feeding and housing them? How about those who don’t want to work or bunk with those from another sect or tribe? How about the endless religious holidays where not only will they not train, they all pack up to go home? How about the pay that never comes because the internecine government agencies don’t “like” the unit that is training or is the wrong sect or tribe?  How about after they are trained they refuse to deploy to an area not in their home region and are now essentially useless to us?  I could go on but you get the idea.

I was directly responsible for a Special Police (counter-insurgency) training program as part of the Multinational Security Transition Command- Iraq (MNSTC-I) from 2004-2005. The key challenge we faced was that our forces were not trained as trainers. They were good operators – good combat soldiers I am sure, but as mentioned there is a difference between “doing” and “training”.  Additionally many did not possess the basic cross-cultural competencies to adapt to the culture realities that come with training foreign soldiers.  They became frustrated and angry and in one instance, my direct boss, an Army Colonel became so despondent over the set-backs that he took his own life. That is purely my opinion having watched him struggle endlessly with these unforeseen challenges.  I can also point out that many of our training methodologies and the mere way we communicate does not travel well to their military or cultural  structure.  It took us months to discover what worked and didn’t work- some training centers never got there in the end.  The problem I fear is that we have lost that institutional knowledge for two reasons. The first, as I earlier mentioned is that many of us are just no longer there. The other is that much of the actual training was done by contractors both US and foreign and one never knows where we might find them again.  This is a terribly complicated tasking and throwing money and bodies at will not achieve the desired or required outcomes.

We have a tendency not only in the military but I believe in the government as a whole to focus on “input metrics.” What I mean by this is we measure how many soldiers did we deploy? How many millions did we spend? How much concrete did we buy and lay down?  These are known variables. We can cite them quickly because we created them – they are quantitative in nature and not easily disputed. What we don’t seem to focus enough on are “output metrics.”  This is where the so called rubber meets the road.  Output metrics tell us really how well we are doing and what value we are adding for our spent tax dollars. What congress should be asking is “what are the battlefield survival rates?.” “What are the attrition rates?” “How has the Army performed when faced with IS?”  “How well are the manoeuvre elements communicating and coordinating with one-another?”  These are trickier questions and a lot harder to ask and if you have no background, you tend not even to know the right questions to ask so you settle for bean counter questions and answers. 

The real question is – are 3,450 enough? What was the calculus that the Pentagon used to come up with that figure? It makes it even harder if we don’t know the “who” are the 3,000 and “what” is their remit there?  Once again, I will provide a real life example. During our tenure at An Numiniaya Military Training Base in Wasit Province Iraq, we had 2 US military personnel, about 30 Australian contracted former Australian forces and 40 Iraqi trainers.  This total of 72 personnel in training operations managed a throughput of 1500 trainees every 6 weeks.  In other words using our previous ratio analysis, we generated 20 times our number in trainees every 6 weeks. Given the 3,000 personnel training this year, using the same metric – training 1500 personnel every 6 weeks using 72 personnel, this would have provided them  41 teams of 72 personnel.  If using the same throughput (1500 per 72, every 6 weeks) and (4) 6 week periods in this year alone, they should have generated approximately 61,500 trained personnel.  Ok- I know there are probably limitations on training venues available etc, but only 1,750? I would flatly call this an abysmal failure. I don’t know what else to call it? Again, maybe our congress need to ask how much all of this has cost to date?

Clearly one has to really ask the question given the total lack of results; Are you guys really serious about this? As I see it the answer is clearly not.  The drip, drip of solutions while Iraq deteriorates before our eyes, a situation by the way, which is a deep personal insult to those of us who LOST years there and the families who of the maimed and killed there, is neither a strategy nor a policy.  Throwing a few more chips on the table while other powers marshal their political and military forces watching our reluctance to engage will lead to failure.  Political half steps and expediencies will only lead to the eventual failure in the region and the weakening of the US globally. We need to decide on one thing or another. Accept the loss of Iraq as we know it and the resultant geopolitical paradigm that will emerge or get tough with the current Iraqi government to fix the cracks and fissures in their own society and political structure and commit to dealing with IS which strictly means their destruction.  Are we really telling ourselves that 30,000 guys in confiscated Humvees driving around the desert are a force that we as a nation and as a global community cannot defeat?  It appears that our craven government and those of the Europeans are not up to the task. If so, we should either write it off and accept it or do everything that is necessary to defeat IS and stabilize the region. Either way after over 10 years and knowing the curious circumstances that make up  Iraq, I can tell you with certainty obtained by experience-  that half measures will avail us nothing.