Leadership: More Time For Sergeants

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September 21, 2007: The key problem in creating effective Iraqi security forces is the creation of loyal and professional leadership. In particular, there remains a need for more professional NCOs (non-commissioned officers, or sergeants). This has long been a problem in this part of the world. When the Turks ruled the area (from 1500s until 1918), Turkish officers held key positions in military units stationed in the region. Arabs could join the Turkish army, but they were sent to another part of the empire. Thus Iraqi Arabs who choose soldiering as a profession spent nearly all their time away from Iraq, and often never came back. In the late 19th century, the Turks adopted Western methods for recruiting (by examination) and training (in special schools) officers. More non-Turks were allowed to become officers. When the empire collapsed in 1918, there were about a thousand army officers from what is now Iraq. Only about half of them were available to help form the first Iraqi army in the 1920s. Most of these officers were from the wealthiest two dozen Sunni Arab families, that had long dominated the region. This was not an unusual arrangement in the Middle East, or many other parts of the world. But those families quickly came to consider the army as their own thing. Attempts to reform the army, and make it something other than a security force for the wealthy families, failed. While the army went through the motions of being modern (snappy uniforms, modern weapons, lots of medals for the officers), it wasn't. In fact, the Iraqis soon acquired the well deserved reputation for being the most ineffective troops in the region. To prove the point, Britain re-conquered Iraq in 1941 with three divisions, and took Baghdad in less than three weeks. A very similar performance to what happened in 2003. But in 1941, the British went in because Iraq had declared itself an ally of Nazi Germany. The Brits simply changed the government, by installing a pro-British Sunni Arab strong man.

This defeat did not inspire any desire to reform the army, because the most important thing was that the army remain loyal to the rich families. Loyalty was more important than military competence. This was again demonstrated during the Arab-Israeli wars. When ever an Iraqi contingent showed up, it did poorly. Same thing during the 1980s war with Iran. The 1990 invasion of Kuwait was a mess, and a success only because of overwhelming numbers. Those who had paid attention to history, were not surprised that the Iraqis quickly fell apart in 1991 and were defeated in three weeks in 2003.

But the Iraqis could fight, but mainly as irregulars. Tribal and warlord militias had a much longer history in the region, and these are still in evidence. Here, the leaders are kinsmen or business associates (as in gangs or similar commercial undertakings). But traditional military leadership, with carefully selected officers and NCOs, was a novel concept for Iraq. In the last four years, much effort has been put into selecting and training suitable men to be professional military leaders. But this has to be done under fire, and many officers and NCOs are doing jobs that normally require a decade or two of experience. It is possible to put together a force in a few years. The United States, and many other nations, did it during the World Wars, and the American Civil War. But in all these examples, there was a large cadre of professional, or reserve, officers and NCOs. These provided a model, and trainers, for the civilians who were rapidly turned into competent professionals. The Iraqis were starting from scratch.

In Iraq, the foreign, particularly American, troops provide the example of how it's done. But the Iraqis came with bad military experience, and had to unlearn a lot of bad habits, before they could absorb useful stuff. This has all been a messy experience. After four years, there are thousands of competent officers and NCOs, but there are nearly as many military leaders who went over to the dark side of corruption, crime or sectarian loyalties. The big families still have their hooks in a lot of officers, even though most of the new military leaders are Shia or Kurds.

The Iraqis are making a lot of progress, but it's all in spite of the historical baggage they have to deal with while doing it. The corruption and tribal loyalties are proving to be a major problem even among the new generation of technically competent officers and NCOs. But that's another problem.

 


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