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
Now there is talk of increasing the size of the teams. Once two weeks, training is now two months long and emphasizes the finer points of culture for soldiers who are often on second or even third deployments. Outside the gates of the mock FOB, transition team members enter a tent in preparation for "team leader meetings," where they may practice small talk with an Iraqi-American pretending to be a sheik. When a sheik asks a question about family, the U.S. soldiers learn to ask the same question back—something they often forget to do, trainers say. One recent afternoon, Capt. Craig Straight tells a sheik that he got good news from his wife back home: His baby boy recently rolled over. The sheik expresses concern: "He fell? He is OK, I hope?" Straight reassures him that it's an excellent step on the road to walking. "Then I hope he walks soon," says the sheik.
Today, Ingram says those team leader meetings are "the single best thing we do." Overall, he gives cultural training here a grade of C, but he'd like to improve on that. "I've been poking my eyes out—how do we get it better?" To that end, Ingram constantly incorporates tips from soldiers in the field, who make time to stop by during their home leave to brief the team members who will take their place.
There are some common concerns about the training. Most would like to see more language instruction, which gets mixed reviews. "We hit it real hard, and we get as far as we can," says Ingram. Still, the students recognize that they will not emerge fluent. The question, says Col. Sean Ryan, who heads the Joint Center for International Security Force Assistance at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., becomes "how to best use the limited language skills you have."
It's one of many challenges the advisers face. Chief among them, though, is the strong possibility that adviser teams will get tangled up in the brutal sectarian agendas of the security forces they are advising—or of the government officials who control them. "If you're in a battalion that's mainly Shia, and they are arresting only Sunni guys—it's your job to look into that," Ingram says. To drive home this point, teams might find that some of their prisoners have disappeared during the course of a training scenario, courtesy of militia members operating within the Iraqi Army. "You go out and do a raid, and the Iraqi battalion arrests these guys. You're all heading back," says Ingram. "Then we ask, 'Hey, what happened to your detainees?' As soon as you take your eye off them, well, you've got to go find them."
The exercise, like much of the training, highlights the complexity, and frustration, of being an adviser in Iraq today. It's a precarious role that involves leveraging influence rather than force, says Ryan. "When you're an adviser, you're held accountable for getting specific results," he adds. "But how much authority do you have to go with that responsibility? This is where part of our own professional frustration comes in."