Forces: November 9, 2004

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Even before Baghdad fell in April, 2003, plans were being made for rebuilding the Iraqi armed forces. It was understood that this would be quite a chore. The Iraqis had long possessed the sorriest record for military competence in the Arab world. And Arabs in general have a dismal reputation for military professionalism and competence. One plan, however, was to use the experience Germany had in integrating the communist East German army into the West German (now just German) armed forces. East Germany and Iraqi armed forces had many similarities. Both nations had been police states for many decades, and both had armed forces that placed more importance on political reliability than military skill. The Germans developed a system, in the early 1990s, for selecting those East German officers and NCOs that could perform effectively in the army of a democratic nation. Eventually, most of the East German career troops were dismissed because they were unable to make the switch from serving a dictatorship, to serving a democracy. The screening process eliminated over 80 percent of the communist era officers and NCOs. Many left voluntarily, but it was those who wanted to stay that were really in need of screening. 

It was thought that the German screening process, with some adaptation to Arab cultural differences, would work. But there were two key differences between the German and Iraqi situation that made this difficult. First, there was the unique situation in Germany, where there were West German officers and NCOs who, at least, shared a language and cultural customs with the East German troops they were working with. In Iraq, no Arab government wanted to get involved, as most Arab nations did not want to see Shia Arabs running  Iraq. Most Arab leaders would have preferred for Saddam Hussein to stay in power, or be replaced by another, kinder and gentler, Sunni Arab dictator. With the exception of a handful of Arab military professionals willing to work under contract, and some U.S. Army Special Forces troops fluent in Arabic and Arab culture, there were far fewer people available, compared to the German situation, to guide the transition.

The second major difference was that, while East German officers and NCOs came from all over East Germany, most of the Iraqi ones were recruited from the Sunni Arab minority (20 percent of the population), and were under tremendous (and sometimes fatal) pressure from the Sunni Arab community to avoid helping from a new army or police force. As a result, there were only a few thousand experienced officers and NCOs available for the new Iraqi army. That was a big problem. The new Iraqi armed forces were to be about 150,000 strong, and 24,000 of those would be officers and senior NCOs. It was understood that a lot of new officers and NCOs would have to be recruited and trained, but only the worst case scenario had such a small number of competent and trustworthy coming over from the old Iraqi army to begin with. During the Saddam era there were over 150,000 officers and senior NCOs.

Saddams officers  were largely loyal and experienced, but also turned out to lack many useful military combat skills. But in general, Saddams army was a pretty poorly trained and disciplined lot. Part of this was cultural.  Doing the job right was not a widely accepted attitude in Iraq. Just getting by was more fashionable. While that might work if you were running a farm, or even an electrical generation plant, it was often fatal on the battlefield. Another big problem was the Iraqi use of the Russian system of military leadership. This involved not developing a lot of professional NCOs, but depending on junior officers to supervise troops. This created lots of problems, because the junior officers didnt have the experience or rapport necessary to get the most out of the troops. In both the Russian and Iraqi army, the enlisted troops were basically terrorized by their officers, and what NCOs did exist were more like prison trustees than military leaders. Western armed forces have long recognized how valuable professional NCOs are, and the lack of these NCOs in Iraq is a major reason for the failure of so many Iraqi soldiers. Unfortunately, it takes years to develop good senior NCOs, although many competent junior NCOs can be developed, in wartime, in less than a year. 

Iraq is slowly developing competent and reliable NCOs, but theres no way to really rush the process. Its actually easier to select and train good junior officers. But without effective NCOs, these junior officers are of limited use. Theres no easy way out of this mess. For the next year or two, Iraqi police and army units will be fragile (lots of desertions, poor combat performance.) But eventually, there will be enough trained and experienced NCOs and officers to staff the planned 150,000 man army (24 mechanized infantry brigades, two paratrooper brigades, one commando brigade.) It will be a far more effective army that Iraq has ever had in the past. Arabs have shown an ability to perform well in combat if they have good officers and NCOs. The Jordanian Arab Legion, trained to British standards before World War II, demonstrated this. The Jordanian retained those British customs, still have excellent NCOs, and are recognized as, man-for-man, the best troops in the Arab world. If the Iraqi troops persevere, they will have the same quality force. As an important bonus, such professional armed forces tend to be much less likely to overthrow the government they serve. In the past, the Iraq armed forces has been a source of oppression and tyranny for the Iraqi people. A Western style army would stick to its job of defending the country, and stay away from acting as the enforcers for another Saddam.

 


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