Leadership: Iraq And The Great Sergeant Shortage


September 22, 2010: With American combat units withdrawn from Iraq, all the combat operations there are now the responsibility of the Iraqis. As expected, not all Iraqi troops were up to the task. Fortunately, there are still lots of American combat troops left in Iraq. Most are there to provide training and advice for Iraqi security forces. Thus the U.S. has eleven combat brigades in Iraq. Seven of them are regular combat brigades, reduced (in size) retrained and reorganized for the "training and advice" job. Two of the brigades are reserve infantry units, to provide security for bases. Another two are aviation brigades, to provide transport and attack helicopters as needed for advising and defense. There are also over a thousand Special Forces troops. The seven advisor brigades have most of their regular weapons and equipment, and can be quickly switch to the purely combat role.

Because of this availability of American troops trained and equipped to fight, U.S. soldiers are often brought in to back up Iraqi troops, or, in rare cases, actually join in the fighting. While these situations are humiliating for the Iraqis, it saves their lives, and gives them a vivid example of how it's done.

Meanwhile, the biggest leadership problem the Iraqi military is a lack of competent and reliable NCOs (noncommissioned officers, or sergeants). In the Saddam era force, the Soviet style of leadership was used. That is, sergeants had much less authority and responsibility than they do in Western forces. The Soviet style of military leadership stressed the use of officers for everything, including supervisory tasks performed by sergeants in the West. To take the place of Western sergeants "keeping in touch with what the troops were thinking", each Soviet company sized (100-200 troops) unit had a political officer (Zampolit) who recruited informers among the troops, and reported directly to the secret police, not the company commander. Saddam also had a system of spies and informers in the ranks, and troops that said the wrong thing were either beaten up, or disappeared, never to be seen again.

The new Iraqi army was built on the Western model, and for that to work, NCOs were needed. During World War II, Western armies expanded enormously and rapidly (the U.S. Army went from 150,000 to over nine million in four years). This worked because the United States had employed capable and responsible NCOs for over a century. It was part of the culture. Every kid had at least a vague idea of what sergeants did, and it was not difficult to create over a million new corporals and sergeants in four years. Iraq did not have this tradition, so U.S. and NATO trainers had to start from scratch. By 2007, after four years of effort only 38 percent of the needed NCOs were on duty. The situation was better for officers, where 65 percent were available. The situation has improved in the past three years, with over 50 percent of the needed NCOs now on duty. Most of the needed officers are available as well. But there are other issues. Corruption, long a problem, is common among the officers. But even a corrupt officer is often competent when the shooting starts. The big problem is with the troops. Too many of them are in uniform just because they needed a job. Even good NCOs have a hard time motivating these guys. And you can't just fire these lackadaisical troops, as many paid a bribe to get the job.

There are other problems, like questionable loyalty. Many military leaders are inclined, or pressured, to act in the interests of a political party, religious group or gang leader. In the West, these divided loyalties are not encouraged, in Iraq they are. While the troops also have these honesty and loyalty problems, the old adage that, "there are no bad troops, only bad officers" applies here. In units where the NCOs and officers are, by Western standards, "professional", the troops are generally rated as competent and effective. Of the two hundred or so combat battalions in the Iraqi army, less than twenty percent are considered as well run as Western battalions, and able to operate independently. The rest are either getting there, or, for maybe a third of them, good for little besides guard duty. Units move up the scale as their officers and NCOs get better, or at least more experienced. The poor leadership leads to the high AWOL (Absent Without Leave), which can reach ten percent or more in the worst units. 

The new Iraqi army has made progress, but the permanence of these changes depends on the quality of the senior commanders. American advisors are constantly struggling with Iraqi politicians who want to keep corrupt or incompetent senior commanders on duty. The politicians want to "own" (control) senior army officers for either political or economic (corruption) reasons. Some politicians are even urging their protégés to improve their performance, so the Americans won't keep making an issue of firing them. Thus the most dangerous Iraqi officers are the ones who are technically competent, but morally very questionable. One aspect of Iraqi military life that all Iraqis remember is the tendency of the army to take control of the government, and then run it for the benefit of the senior officers. This tradition of military takeover haunts all Iraqis, thus making loyalty to democracy more important than battlefield competence.





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