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."
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."
Permanent force. Given the complex nature of the work, some are pushing to create a permanent Army Advisor Corps. Lt. Col. John Nagl, a counterinsurgency expert who trains transition teams at Fort Riley, recently wrote a widely circulated paper advocating a permanent standing Advisor Corps of 20,000. "Unfortunately, the Army and the nation have rarely given sufficient priority to the advisory teams they embed in host nation forces." What's more, he adds, "the need for well-trained, professional combat advisers is unlikely to diminish in the foreseeable future." Lt. Col. David Seigel commands a tank battalion that was retasked with training advisers. "We're not doing much tanking right now. It may sound like heresy, but I don't mind—this is critical to our exit strategy. Politically, this defines what we're doing. Somebody has to do the advising."
Though that's a common sentiment in the military, many remain wary of institutionalizing such a role—traditionally the realm of Special Forces—within an Army anxious for more interagency support. Creating an adviser corps, too, would mean fewer brigade combat teams in an already overstretched force. "It's a tough debate, and we've got to make some tough decisions on where to put our resources," says Clinton Ancker III, head of the Combined Armed Center Doctrine Directorate at Fort Leavenworth. "When you need advisers generally you need a lot of them because something's gone terribly, terribly wrong," he adds. "Training advisers isn't an ancillary task—it's fundamental." But Ancker grapples with a question increasingly prevalent in the Army: "How," he asks, "do we balance it all?"
This story appears in the September 3, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.