By Tim Kilbride
Special to American Forces Press Service
May 7, 2007 – Coalition experts have identified trouble areas in the training regimen for the Iraqi security forces but see cumulative progress overall, the top U.S. training official in Iraq said. The Iraqi police and army are short of functioning effectively as independent institutions, Army Lt. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the commander of Multinational Security Transition Command Iraq, told online journalists and "bloggers" in a conference call May 4.
However, the Iraqi forces improve tactically from month to month, he said.
"We've got some things that are going pretty well at the tactical level; we've got some things that are going pretty well at the institutional level; and the challenge now is to kind of pull it together and plug it in" so that the system performs fluidly from top to bottom, Dempsey said.
"We're not there yet. There's still some holes in the system," he said. "We've got them, I think, pretty well identified and are moving toward it."
In both institutions, Dempsey said, the most encouraging signs so far have come from individual units.
There are always some poor performers, the general explained, though, "in every case we've got a group of units and leaders who are essentially acknowledging their responsibilities and their accountability in a way that simply we didn't see a year ago."
That sense of responsibility dissipates to an extent up the chain of command and into the logistics, communications and intelligence support areas, Dempsey said. He blamed the problem on a legacy of poor leadership tracing back to the government of Saddam Hussein.
"The higher up you run in the echelons of command, the more the vulnerabilities of leadership tend to become evident," Dempsey said.
Most of the senior leaders of the Iraqi army and police are from the old regime, he noted, and "old habits die hard."
One reason for hope, the general explained, is that the Iraqi ministers of defense and interior are keen to overcome such problems.
In addition, Dempsey said, experience on the battlefield has imparted quick lessons. He said operational planning has improved rapidly in recent months.
Before "there was a tendency to dramatically oversimplify things when they would conceive of a mission," Dempsey said of the Iraqi leadership. "There wasn't much attention to detail. Now they appreciate the intricacies," he said.
The benefits of that experience are paying out in the current Baghdad surge, Dempsey said. He explained that even six months ago it would have been impossible to bring 5,300 Iraqi soldiers into Baghdad from other parts of the country, but now the Iraqi army is already in its second rotation.
That the Iraqis are performing so well is exceptional considering they are graduating from their training academies into a war, Dempsey noted, but the fact that the security situation is so fluid means the needs of the force must be continuously reassessed, he said.
After studying the results of a 2006 review, Dempsey said, U.S. officials worked with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in determining the need to transition away from a short-war strategy.
"We made some assumptions in the early days about declining levels of violence and a short war," Dempsey said. "I think that together last year we came to the kind of mutual conclusion that it could very well be that the levels of violence will be sustained and that this terror threat, this insurgent threat and the threat of sectarian violence could last in Iraq for some time."
The challenge now before the Iraqi army, Dempsey explained, is to determine the necessary size of the force in relation to the threat.
Balancing the necessary training requirements to properly build the force against the demands of war has been difficult, Dempsey said, particularly in regard to developing an appropriately sized noncommissioned officer corps.
Despite a range of military academies around Iraq, he said, "they are having a very tough time taking their aspiring or their rising leaders out of the fight." As a result, Dempsey said, the Iraqis "find themselves to be stretched rather thin to do all the things they feel that they need to do to control their battle space.
"We know how many NCOs we need for this army; we've got the system in place; we've got the courses in place; they've got a good cadre in place; it's a good curriculum; but they can't unplug from the fight as they would like to do, and so we're coming up a bit short there," he said.
Fortunately, overall recruitment numbers remain high, Dempsey said. He pointed to Anbar province, in particular, as an example of success in growing the force. Police ranks there have grown from 8,000 to over 11,000 officers in the past six months.
Numbers remain strong elsewhere around the country too, Dempsey said, despite a perception in the United States that many Iraqi police and soldiers either abandon their posts or fail to show up to work.
"The army loses about 18,000 (soldiers) a year," Dempsey said. The Iraqi police lose around 25,000 officers per year. Those attrition rates match with "other similar conflicts around the world historically," he said.
The majority of the Iraqi attrition rate is due to soldiers and police being killed or wounded in action or declared missing in action, Dempsey noted, rather than from them going absent without leave.
Accurate numbers are difficult to come by, however, because tracking is done manually. And in some cases, the general said, soldiers and police actually return to duty after leaving, at the urging of Iraqi leaders.
Another factor in readiness, Dempsey said, is that Iraq remains dependent on a cash-based payroll system. Rather than accessing funds electronically, army soldiers receive about seven days each month to travel to their homes and distribute their pay to their families.
The United States is helping to install an electronic banking system in Iraq, but the system is likely more than five years off.
There is also a gap in the Iraqis' current logistics capability vs. their long-term need, Dempsey said. U.S. contractors are supporting the difference while the Iraqis come up to speed, he explained.
"I would describe the growth of the logistics architecture as kind of 'evolutionary,' certainly not 'revolutionary,'" Dempsey said.
Continued training will make up that gap, Dempsey said.
If anything, Dempsey said, the proximity of U.S. troops brought in for the Baghdad surge operation will enhance the skills the Iraqis picked up in training and help segue the transition of security responsibility to Iraqi hands.
"The coalition forces that are coming in actually provide the opportunity to partner more closely with the Iraqi security forces and in some cases provide them some additional transition assistance," Dempsey said.
"I think there was a calculation that we were transitioning at a pace that the Iraqis may not have been able to absorb, may not have been able to control, and that security, and notably the protection of the population, was suffering."
Still, there are drawbacks to shepherding the Iraqi security forces so closely, Dempsey admitted.
"I do think that post-surge there will probably be some places where, because we kept doing things for our counterparts, they may have become used to it," he said. "We may have to break that umbilical cord a little more forcefully than we did the first time."
The Iraqis' progress is exceptional though, Dempsey noted, considered in the context of pervasive violence.
"There hasn't been many times in history where we have built a military and police force in the middle of a war," he said.
With commitment to building effectiveness at the institutional level and developing ministries capable of supporting the forces in the field, the Iraqis can emerge as an independent force in time, Dempsey said.
"It's not an army that is yet introspective. It doesn't look at itself and discover its own problems, so we're still in the process of doing some of that for them," Dempsey said. "But that all gets better every time you do it."
(Tim Kilbride is assigned to New Media, American Forces Information Service.)
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