June 9, 2009:
Iraq's efforts to build a modern army with good leadership based on the American style are beginning to pay off. Iraq's ultimate goal is to build ground forces equipped, trained, and led like the Americans and the British. But there have been some problems getting rid of old leadership habits. Most of these old habits involve leadership and combat techniques based on the old Soviet playbook. This translates into officers shouldering all the responsibility for training and leading troops in combat, while NCOs and other enlisted men are not allowed to use much initiative.
But one of the biggest problems that the Iraqis seem to have finally overcome is the emphasizing the importance of the non-commissioned officer (NCO), especially sergeants major. Historically, countries whose armies placed a strong emphasis on the development of senior NCOs, like Britain, South Africa, and Rhodesia, have fared the best in combat against guerrillas and other insurgent fighters. Part of this is because the sergeant major is seen as being a regiment's mentor and caretaker in addition to the highest ranking enlisted soldier.
The Iraqis, forced to start from scratch, and stuck with legacy of outdated leadership doctrine, established a Taij Command Sergeants Major (CSM) Council. The Council's purpose was to give senior NCOs the opportunity to discuss and propose solutions to problems and issues confronting the Iraqi Army in building a new corps of sergeants. The establishment of training standards and the importance of professional integrity topped the list of challenges facing them.
The result has been the establishment of an Iraqi Command Sergeants Major Course. The course lasts for nine weeks, approximately the same length of time as standard US Army basic training, and focuses on developing initiative and mastering the basic military skills, like marksmanship and patrolling, that sergeants are required to teach new recruits. Currently, the program is spread across six Region Training Centers, located across the country, instead of one central training facility. The Iraqi Army Regional Training Center has taken responsibility for the training of junior NCOs, instructing platoons sergeants, in subjects such as counseling and property accountability in addition to more familiar roles like combat leadership and training supervision. Property accountability is especially important since, in previous years, corrupt or cash-strapped sergeants have often allowed weapons and gasoline to "disappear" from armories and logistics compounds.
Junior NCOs with Iraqi special operations units are high on the list of personnel being groomed to take the lead for Iraq's next generation of professional soldiers. Recently, 13 hand-picked Special Missions Unit (SMU) sergeants conducted two weeks of enhanced training with US Army Special Forces to take back to their parent units and pass on lessons learned. The training course consisted of instruction in leading combat patrols, treating battle casualties, planning for counterinsurgency missions, and clearing buildings.
The result of all this instruction and rebuilding is that the security forces are in a far stronger position than they were even a year ago, when desertions and defections among the army and police were still at epidemic levels. Most of this progress is largely thanks to a serious effort to build a real NCO corps.
The U.S. is, of course, heavily involved in advising and developing the curriculum for the CSM Course. The hope is that the new Iraqi Army can fare better than most of the other armies in the region with regards to their development and training of NCOs. In the Middle East, only a few countries have managed to put forth the effort to effectively create superb sergeants, the primary ones being Jordan, Turkey, and Israel.
The Jordanian Army draws its traditions and standards from the legacy of the British-trained Arab Legion and operates along UK lines, with its accompanying strong emphasis on the sergeant. Turkey has long possessed a very professional army to accompany its multiple security threats. Other Arab countries haven't fared so well, despite their efforts and cooperation with the US. Egypt, for example, has a ton of sophisticated military equipment from the US, but the Egyptians officer and NCO corps, like other institutions in the country, are often corrupt and incompetent. These problems are often seen as endemic in the police and government bureaucracy, but their infection of the country's military is little talked about since the Egyptians see their forces as a source of national pride. But it exists in epics quantities, especially among the sergeants who are paid even less than regular officers. The wealthy Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia, have come to believe that their cash alone can build competent leaders. Thus, their forces have lots of high-tech toys and their NCOs are well-paid, but make inadequate combat leaders due to lack of proper training.
Syria still suffers from the same problems and the previous Iraqi Army, being wedded to the Soviet style of training and fighting. Military pay in places like Syria, Libya and Egypt are pitiful, which means senior NCOs who should be preoccupied with drilling and taking care of their troops are often instead preoccupied with how they are going to make ends meet next month. This usually translates into selling weapons from bases or taking kickbacks from smugglers in the border areas, especially in Syria and Egypt. These are exactly the problems the Iraqis are trying to suppress, hoping that they can be one of the few military success stories in the Middle East. Despite efforts throughout the Arab world, long standing problems like corruption and poverty often hamper the proper development of high professional standards and sergeants are often perceived as less than desirable role models for their men.