Planning and Training for the Post-'Surge'
American troops are learning cultural nuances as they prepare for a bigger role in advising Iraqi soldiers and police
FORT RILEY, KAN.—One of the rare Iraq points on which Washington pundits, Capitol Hill insiders, and Pentagon officials can agree these days is that the much-hyped Iraq report card due to Congress on September 15 will contain no revelations. On the military side, Gen. David Petraeus, who has overseen the "surge" of U.S. forces into Iraq this summer, will note some areas of progress, some causes for concern, and ask Congress for time. That means time for the temporary troop buildup to show more results and for Iraqi pols to forge ahead with political reconciliation—if not at the national level, then locally, where there have been some promising developments.
Despite last week's verbal lashings of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on the heels of a grim national intelligence estimate, Congress may give him that time—for now. But come spring, the military can no longer sustain the troop buildup. Or rather, it can, but it would have to extend troop tours once again, from 15 months to 18 months. Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff, said this month that he found such a prospect unappealing at best. "I don't see going beyond the 15 months. I've been there in Iraq. I've watched the nature of the combat and the stresses and strains that it puts on these soldiers."
In the interim, talk on Capitol Hill turns to what, exactly, the post-surge strategy for Iraq should be. And as military planners sort through their options, there is one common denominator: a greater role for U.S. military advisers who train Iraqi soldiers and police. The Army has been asked by the Pentagon to look into possibilities for a permanent advisory corps—"everything from a skeleton force to a very robust corps," one senior military adviser tells U.S. News.
The emphasis on military transition teams is not an unfamiliar notion. But in a war-torn country rife with sectarian infiltration of security forces, the question for many remains, to what end? Training Iraqi forces (allowing them to stand up as U.S. forces stood down) was America's exit strategy in Iraq this time last year. Then, U.S. transition team members complained that they were arriving in Iraq understaffed and poorly prepared for the tough and complex work they were undertaking.
Plastic fruit. It is not an experience the Army wants to repeat. Today, the center of the U.S. military adviser training effort is a mock forward operating base (or FOB) in the flood plains of Fort Riley, Kan. Here, locals from small towns nearby earn $13 an hour to sell plastic fruit in fake market squares and chant "down with America!" in rowdy mock protests.
The preparation for transition teams has seen substantial changes, says Col. Jeffrey Ingram, who oversees training here as commander of the 1st Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division. One year ago, the teams of 12 to 16 members were often showing up short of personnel. "It was a nightmare," says Ingram. "We weren't picking the right people; we weren't training them correctly."