Logistics: The Mess In Iraq

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May 6, 2014: Islamic terrorist groups in Iraq have grown more powerful since U.S. troops left in 2011 and the reason why is rather too embarrassing for politicians or the media to touch. Meanwhile by 2013 Iraq was asking the U.S. for help. The U.S. sent some ammo and intel on the Islamic terrorists, as well as some advisors to report back on what had gone wrong since the Americans left. The problems were easy to find and came down to the fact that without the Americans to do the work Iraqis have been unable to operate the logistical (supply and maintenance) system required to keep most military equipment functional. As a result Iraqi security forces became much less effective.  

The problem in Iraq is not unique and is common in all the Arab states that have enjoyed oil wealth over the last sixty years. All this money has changed the lifestyles and aspirations of the Gulf Arabs. Most citizens of the Arab oil states prefer a government job, where the work is easy, the pay is good, the title is flattering, and life is boring. In the non-government sector of the economy, most (sometimes up to 99 percent) of the jobs are held by foreigners. The owners are often citizens, but the workers are almost always imported foreigners. The unemployment rate among citizens is often over twenty percent, but only a tenth of those are actually looking for a job. Surveys indicate that most of the unemployed are idle by choice. The unemployment benefits are generous, so no one has any incentive to do something crazy, like taking any of the well-paying jobs now handled by foreigners.

This odd situation was best explained back in 2012 by the Saudi Arabian labor minister who remarked that 86 percent of the jobs done by the eight million foreign workers in the country were not suitable for Saudis. This included many sanitation and personal service jobs. But that’s six million jobs and expatriates, especially those from the West, commented (among themselves, not to Saudis) that most of these jobs were done in the West by Westerners. Some of the expats noted that Westerners doing their own dirty work were usually well paid for it but in some countries legal or illegal migrants were let in to do the unpleasant jobs for lower wages. This is what the Saudis do and they then take some of the money saved to pay for the generous unemployment benefits for Saudis who cannot find suitable work. The resulting high unemployment rate worries government officials, especially in the case of the foreigners doing highly technical jobs in the oil industry, defense, or handling finances. This led to the Saudization program in the early 1980s. This program has had little success for several reasons. First, businesses are allowed to pay foreigners less than what Saudis will work for. Second, there are a lot of “dirty” jobs that Saudis will not or cannot (because they are women) take. Third, not a lot of Saudis are qualified for the high-skill jobs where the government is particularly anxious to replace foreigners with Saudis. The lack of skills has to do with the education system, which is largely controlled by Islamic conservatives. Technical subjects are downplayed and religious studies emphasized. Young Saudis are encouraged to concentrate in religious studies in college. Many students go along with this, in part because it’s a lot easier than majoring in science or engineering.

Iraq also has more people and less oil income than Saudi Arabia, so there is more incentive for Iraqis to take any job. But that’s not enough. Iraq has less of a problem with the education system but Iraqis with skills tend to flee the country because of the corruption and high crime rate. Not enough educated Iraqis, who occupy most of the management jobs are willing or able to address the damage done by rampant corruption. Too many people are willing to gut an essential logistical or maintenance task in order to steal some money meant to get that task done. This is especially true in the government bureaucracies, and that includes the military. Some Iraqis understand how this works, but the officials who are more interested in stealing than getting things done are not interested in the proposed solution, like (stop stealing money for essential support functions. There’s a popular realization that the corruption is a key problem but so far there have not been enough senior government leaders willing to risk assassination to move decisively against the corruption.  

Then there’s the work ethic, which is not nearly as good as seen in foreigners. This is in part a self-inflicted problem. Since most of the oil states in Arabia are monarchies or dictatorships, the rulers quickly found that the most effective way to remain in power was to keep their subjects pampered and happy. In other words, spread the oil money around and pay attention to public opinion. Most of the public backs the use of foreigners and the continued use of oil money to make life easy for the locals. This only works if the corruption is organized so that it does not cripple essential functions. Iraq, unfortunately, has yet to relearn that. Saddam Hussein understood that, but the Shia who replaced him had been out of power for centuries are only slowly realizing this important catch. There’s an attitude of “it’s our turn now (to plunder the oil wealth)” and never mind what damage it is doing to the country. More and more Iraqis are calling for some bold moves to break this impasse and even the declining capabilities of the security forces have not been sufficient to make that happen.

It’s not just the Gulf Arabs that are having these problems. In 2011, in the wake of the rebellion that overthrew the Kaddafi dictatorship, a lot of Libyans found themselves out of work. The unemployment rate was believed to be about 30 percent. Yet there are over a million foreign workers in Libya and a million government employees. The foreigners comprise 20 percent of the population and nearly half the workforce. There are plenty of jobs for Libyans but most of the jobs require work most Libyans will not do. As a result most of the jobs are held by foreigners, often illegal immigrants from Egypt and other African nations to the south. The revolution and its chaotic aftermath have not changed this.

Most leaders of the Gulf Arab oil states realize that the oil will eventually run out and if there are no other economic activities providing jobs it will be a social and political disaster. Some governments are trying to change attitudes and change education policy but are running into a lot of resistance from Islamic conservatives and indolent young men who do not want to give up the good life for hard work and responsibility. Many women would like to take some of those job opportunities but local customs still prohibit women from working outside the home. Before the oil wealth became a factor 60 years ago, women were very active in the economy. Even the early growth of Islam was financed by a wealthy female merchant, who was also the wife of the prophet Mohammed. Despite all that, the conservative clergy insist that the women stay home.

Meanwhile Iraq, with over 400,000 security personnel (army, police and security guards) on duty, has growing problems keeping them supplied. This became more obvious after U.S. logistical and maintenance troops left at the end of 2011 and took with them the logistics support they provided to Iraqi troops they worked with. This is not a new problem for Iraq, or Middle Eastern armies in general. Creating an efficient logistics and administrative system for the Iraqi armed forces is proving to be the most difficult task the coalition had to face while creating new armed forces for Iraq. The U.S. worked on this for over three years and found that the corruption and bad habits made it difficult to keep the Iraqi troops supplied with essential items. There seems to be a curse at work here, preventing the Iraqis from getting their logistics act together.

Military logistics has been deficient in Iraq, and the entire region, for some very practical reasons. First of all, it's expensive. Even with all that oil money, no one wants to spend a lot of cash on providing logistics capabilities needed for troops in combat during a war that might never come. Historically, nations in the region saw their armed forces as more of an internal security force. If invaded, the army could just grab whatever they needed from the civilian economy. Another important angle was preventing the troops from joining a rebellion. Only a few units had access to lots of ammo and fuel, and these were the most loyal troops, who were thus in a better position to defend the government from rebellious soldiers.

The two times Saddam used the military to invade neighbors these logistical deficiencies were very obvious. In 1980, when he invaded Iran, his troops were only supplied sufficiently, and just barely, to take the oil rich areas just across the border. Iraqi troops failed in this, partly because of logistical shortcomings. The 1990 invasion of Kuwait was successful but witnesses noted that the invading Iraqi troops promptly began living off the Kuwaitis because there was so little logistical support from Iraq. When the coalition attacked into Kuwait in 1991, they found the defending Iraqi troops poorly supplied and demoralized because of it.

While there are plenty of Iraqis with military experience, there are few of them with any knowledge, or experience, in military logistics. Coalition trainers had to start from scratch to build a modern logistical system for the post-Saddam Iraqi security forces. In the meantime, coalition logistical organizations kept the Iraqis supplied, as best they could. Even with the coalition help, there are few capable logistical troops with the operational units, to receive, store and disperse the supplies.

And then there's corruption. Another reason for Middle Eastern nations to avoid investing in logistics, a service which includes stockpiling supplies for military operations, is the likelihood that the stockpiles will be plundered. This stuff is all-too-easily stolen, and there are surviving records explaining how this was done in the Middle East thousands of years ago. Rulers in this part of the world have learned their lesson, and have another reason to avoid investing in logistics.

Iraq is still at war with Saddam's supporters, and Islamic terrorists. Those security personnel need food, fuel, ammo, medical supplies, batteries and much more, if they are to stay in action. When the Americans departed at the end of 2011 the logistical system they left behind began to fall apart from corruption and mismanagement. Now the Iraqis want American help to repair this.

Related to the logistics is administrative and medical support. Getting the troops paid on time, and accurately, is still a problem. The lack of a nationwide banking system long meant many troops got up to a week off a month, so they could take their pay back to their families. The corruption problem (which even Saddam had to struggle with) meant making sure commanders don't steal all or part of their troops pay, or create phantom soldiers and grab more money. U.S. troops got into the habit of asking troops, after payday, if they go paid. If not, the problem was kicked up the chain-of-command, in the hope that, at some level, Iraqi officials would kick some ass and get the problem fixed. Getting the problem solved is a rather more long term issue and is worse now that there are fewer Americans around to ask embarrassing questions.

U.S. and NATO military schools accepted a lot of Iraqi officers for logistics courses. The early graduates found themselves speaking a technical language most Iraqis didn’t understand when they tried to implement what they had learned. That became less of a problem year by year, but even when the Americans left in 2011 it was believed that it would be another 5-10 years before the entire Iraqi officers corps accepted logistics as an essential military skill. Meanwhile, schools inside Iraq turned out thousands of NCOs and troops with logistics skills. It's not enough to have officers educated, then need supply sergeants and warehouse clerks who can make logistics happen on a daily basis. Unfortunately corruption at the top gave these new logistics specialists less and less to do after 2011.

 

 


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