Originally published in MilitaryWeek.com, 29 March 05
W. Thomas Smith Jr.
Iraqi combat capability on the upswing
"It's going to be tougher than anything you've ever experienced," a U.S. Marine recruiter warns a young leatherneck hopeful. "You'll face down your fears, overcome terrifying obstacles, and at times function on little food and no sleep."
Sounds severe, but everything is relative.
Recruits hoping to earn the title, "Marine," expect training to be demanding. They also take for granted the enormous efforts made to ensure their safety during dangerous training, and – despite accidents and the occasional "bad seed" drill-instructor – no one has any malevolent designs on disrupting that training or harming any recruits or their families. And nearly all recruits will be permitted to spend post-training leave with family members before further training and possible overseas deployment.
Recruits for the Iraqi security forces, on the other hand, don't enjoy such luxuries. They must meet nearly all of the same challenges faced by their American counterparts during boot camp. But unlike American recruits, almost all Iraqi basic trainees – for regular army, police, and special units – know they will be participating in offensive combat operations very soon after completion of training, and in many cases, almost immediately. That's fine with them. It is their raison d'être in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.
What Iraqi recruits don't bargain for – but which is nevertheless part of the equation – is that the insurgents operating throughout the country continue to threaten their lives and those of their families just because they signed the enlistment papers.
It's worse for policemen than soldiers. Following training, soldiers operate in sizeable units and are usually quartered in relatively secure army camps. Whereas, policemen are stationed at remote posts, in very small units, and they reside at home, often traveling isolated roads between work and their own neighborhoods.
Yet they sign-up – as many as 10,000 men (though only half were accepted) in one day in February after a concerted recruiting drive – and if the current trend continues, they will continue signing up in increasing numbers. But according to U.S. military commanders, developing a capable, independent security force will require additional time and patience on the part of the American people who, for the most part, are used to instant – at least marginally expeditious – gratification.
Speaking from his vacation home on the South Carolina coast, Lt. Gen. John Bruce Blount (U.S. Army, ret.) says that aside from the difficulties associated with training any recruit, Americans take for granted that no one is shooting at their sons and daughters while they are training to become soldiers. "Not so with Iraqis," he says, who live with the insurgency tugging at them every day.
Still, Blount says, the Iraqis will continue to develop their army, and they (along with coalition support) will eventually overcome the insurgency.
Blount, the former chief of staff for Allied Forces Southern Europe who also served as commanding general of Fort Jackson, S.C. (the world's largest U.S. Army basic training base), points to the character of the Iraqi people as a key factor in the continued positive development of the Iraqi Security forces.
"Iraqis are courageous, clever people," he says. "We see that in their recruits. They are certainly capable of learning everything we throw at them."
The downside of building and maintaining a cohesive Iraqi combat force, he contends, is their ethnic diversity. "It is a problem that they have not yet solved," says Blount, adding that diversity within the Iraqi population is nothing like the positives associated with diversity in our own country. "The Kurds, the Sunnis, and the Shiites create a three-legged stool, and one of the legs could easily be jerked out."
On the upside, Blount adds, "They're learning to shoot, maneuver, communicate with one another, and develop the values they need to be good soldiers and policemen. Their leadership is getting stronger, and they're getting better NCOs from the old Republican Guard who are now declaring an allegiance to the new democracy."
U.S. Marine Col. Roderic Navarre agrees, but with a qualifier. "A challenge they are working on overcoming is that they haven't yet developed a depth in their leadership that enables junior officers and staff non-commissioned officers to make decisions in the absence of senior officers," he says. "That is something that will develop over time and will make them a very credible and capable force. The lack of depth is a holdover from the days of Saddam Hussein when initiative was discouraged as it was a threat to the regime."
As director of Iraqi Security Forces for the I Marine Expeditionary Force, Navarre has been involved in all aspects of the training and operational deployment of Iraqi forces. "A critical strength is the commitment these men demonstrate to fighting terror and fighting for a safe Iraq," he says from his office at Camp Fallujah, Iraq. "Their commitment is unquestionable."
For the most part, Navarre believes the Iraqi troops are performing well, perhaps slightly better than expected at this point in time. "They are not yet ready to perform totally independently of U.S. forces, but are improving [that specific capability] the longer they work with our units," he says. "Just like any military force, their performance varies according to their level of training and leadership. Some units are just learning to execute basic military skills, while other units are showing a remarkable amount of cohesion and ability to execute more demanding missions."
One such unit is the crack Al Hillah SWAT (special weapons and tactics) Team. Trained by a U.S. Marine Force Reconnaissance Platoon, the 500-plus-man SWAT Team has been the force of choice in a number of daring raids against guerilla strongholds located throughout Iraq's Triangle of Death (a dangerous sector south of the better-known Sunni Triangle).
In recent months, the team has collected and developed its own intelligence, planned and launched many successful raids, killed or captured hundreds of insurgents, and netted huge weapons caches, all with minimal input by overseeing U.S. officers. The team's operations have been characterized as "lightning fast:" White pickup trucks, emblazoned with black scorpions, racing toward the objective. The trucks, often with little or no armor plating, are loaded with young commandos wearing khaki jump suits and face-concealing balaclavas. The commandos carry everything from grenades to assault rifles to 12-gauge shotguns loaded with buckshot.
The team is almost always supported by observing U.S. helicopters, and nearby U.S. infantry and armored forces are always pre-positioned and ready to move-in should the mission go south.
Similar raiding units have been trained throughout the country, and similar direct-action, paramilitary training has been added to the basic school curricula of even the nascent Iraqi Highway Patrol. In fact, all Iraqi police and security units receive some level of urban-warfare or counter-guerrilla training that most might associate with army units or special police response teams.
So just how effective are the Iraqis in battle? It depends on how they are measured. Standing toe-to-toe with a Navy SEAL or an Army Special Forces soldier, they wouldn't pass muster. But Iraqis have their own gifts and talents: For instance, they have a natural flair for aggressiveness that U.S. officers agree is effective in assaults against enemy strongpoints. Such actions focus less on precision room-clearing techniques, and emphasize the value of "shock." Additionally, the Iraqis have a unique ability to recognize and gather raw information for future finished-intelligence because they know their country. They also can instantly spot outsiders or foreigners inside an Iraqi community, and it is far easier for Iraqi troops – than it is for American troops – to gain trust from locals and instill national pride in the same.
But it's not just training, patience, personal commitment, and a grasp of the country that lead to success in combat. It's equipment, and being equipped to adapt to all situations. Iraqis are currently developing a small air force (transport and reconnaissance aircraft) and a coastal defense force (riverine and coastal patrol boats). Which brings us to the question of armor and armored forces.
During the recent battle for Fallujah, attacking U.S. forces were backed by tanks and other armored vehicles, as well as precision air and some artillery support. And with the ongoing problem of roadside bombs, sniper attacks, and the need for tank-support during attacks on hardened targets, the question often arises as to how the Iraqis can expect to maintain their own security without adequate armor-plated vehicles, much less tanks, once coalition forces are withdrawn from that country.
Armored Hummers would be an improvement (some Iraqi units currently have them). South African-built Casspir trucks or RG-31's – both "mine protected vehicles" – would be even better (The U.S. Army has only begun test-deploying the latter). The reality is, many Iraqi soldiers and policemen will continue to mount assaults from thin-skinned or marginally armored pickup trucks, at least for the next several months.
Tanks and armored fighting vehicles are another consideration. Currently the Iraqis are developing a mechanized brigade, but U.S. military leaders argue convincingly that tanks simply are not needed.
"At this point they would only need tanks to defend themselves from an invasion," says Col. Jeff Bearor, chief of staff of the Marine Corps Training and Education Command in Quantico, Virginia. "Who is going to invade? Not Turkey, they are restrained by ties to both NATO and the US. Not Syria, they know that we would whack them good. Certainly not Jordan, Saudi Arabia, or Kuwait. That leaves Iran."
According to Bearor, the leadership in Iran is facing its own demographic problems and internal dissent issues. "They also have to know that an active invasion of Iraq would open the door for us to finish the current regime off for good," he says. "In my opinion, I doubt they are that stupid."
The training and equipment being provided to the Iraqi security forces is meant to secure Iraq so that the new government can function and ordinary Iraqis can prosper. Though proving to be indispensable during anti-guerilla operations in urban environs, tanks and other fighting-vehicles simply don't figure into that security equation.
"Right now, it's just not a high priority for [Lt. Gen. David] Patreaus," says Blount. "We've got our own armor there now. When the insurgency is eliminated, the Iraqis are not going to need any real armor capability."
And the U.S. is not going to leave until the insurgency has been quashed.
"By the time we are gone, they will be fully capable of supporting themselves, without having the capacity to threaten their neighbors," Bearor adds.
Though estimates vary, U.S. Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey announced on March 23 that U.S. and coalition forces have now trained and equipped some 145,000 Iraqi security force personnel. That number, markedly higher than estimates earlier in the year, is based on the current strength of 96 battalions, including 52 army battalions (Ministry of Defense) and 44 police battalions (Ministry of Interior). Additionally, the leadership within each of those battalions includes at least one special U.S. or coalition officer or senior staff NCO.
Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has previously stated that approximately 40,000 of the overall 145,000 troops are actually capable of combating "any threat" anywhere in Iraq. The goal, of course, is to increase both figures and bring Mr. Harvey's total number to a force of a quarter-million strong, perhaps by 2006.
Even so, Americans continue asking, "when will Iraqis be ready to assume the security of their own country?" and "when might our troops come home?"
When I mentioned to Col. Bearor that U.S. troops are always a block or two, around the corner from operationally deployed Iraqi combat forces, he said, "We will be 'a block or two away,' as you put it, for some time to come. How long? I don't know. The President and the Secretary of Defense say, 'as long as it takes.'"
According to Gen. Blount, that easily could be "three or four years."
No real surprises there, and the tide is indeed turning in favor of U.S. forces and their allies deployed in the region. Iraqi combat capability is improving daily, and coalition drill instructors are cranking out newly minted Iraqi soldiers and policemen faster than the insurgents can replace their own dead and wounded.
— W. Thomas Smith Jr., a former U.S. Marine infantry leader, parachutist, and shipboard counterterrorism instructor, writes about military/defense issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans and on the West Bank. He is an award-winning author of four books, the co-author of two, and his articles have appeared in USA Today, George, U.S. News & World Report, BusinessWeek, National Review Online, CBS News, The Washington Times, and many others.
W. Thomas Smith Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2005 W. Thomas Smith Jr.