By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Nov. 4, 2009 - The first new "advise and assist" brigades already in Iraq and others slated to arrive soon have a big leg up on their new mission, thanks to the groundwork laid by the "Highlander" brigade, which provided a test bed for the new concept. The 1st Armored Division's 4th Brigade has been on the ground in Iraq since April, conducting the initial advise and assist operations to pass on to the first officially designated AAB, explained Army Col. Peter Newell, the brigade commander.
The Defense Department announced in July plans to send four of the new brigades to Iraq beginning this fall to train and mentor Iraqi security forces.
The brigades will focus less on traditional combat operations and more on advising, assisting and developing capabilities within the Iraqi security forces, Newell said. They also will conduct coordinated counterterrorism missions and support the State Department's provincial reconstruction teams and other U.S. interagency partners in Iraq.
The first units assigned the mission are the 3rd Infantry Division's 1st and 2nd Brigade Combat Teams based at Fort Stewart Ga., and its 3rd BCT at Fort Benning, Ga.; and the 4th Infantry Division's 3rd BCT at Fort Carson, Colo. In addition, the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade, which recently arrived in Iraq, has taken on the AAB mission.
Newell's job has been to help the new brigades determine what specific skills to train for and how to organize themselves to better conduct their new mission, he told American Forces Press Service by phone from Iraq.
To prepare themselves, his soldiers went through a standard National Training Center rotation focused on counterinsurgency operations, but also sought out additional training in subjects ranging from civil affairs to Iraqi law.
Once they arrived in Iraq, they provided the inbound AABs regular feedback about their activities and the conditions they encountered. They also shared insights into what training benefitted them the most, and what they might have eliminated.
"I am merely providing the insight of the guy who has been tagged with the advise-and-assist proof of principle, and talking to them about changes we have taken on internally, and how they have worked for us," Newell said.
There's no cookie-cutter formula that will work for every such brigade in every Iraqi province, he said. Each must be tailored to the specific environment, based on regular assessments of the local Iraqi security forces' capacity, the maturity of the local provincial government, and the politics within that province, he said.
"What I will tell you is that no two AABs are going to look alike," Newell said. "They have to fine-tune to fit the environment they are in. But if we provide them the right people, the right training and the right training at the right time before they deploy, as long as it is focused on the environment they are going to, they will do well."
"Doing well" for an advise and assist brigade involves a lot more than traditional counterinsurgency operations. Much of the 4th Brigade's work, for example, involves teaching forensics and the evidentiary and judiciary processes to Iraqi police. In another major shift, the brigade's artillery battalion is focused on civil capacity and directly supporting provincial reconstruction teams.
"That is radically different from kicking in doors and how to do a raid and other things," Newell said.
The different focus requires a new mindset for the brigade's soldiers, he said, and a major emphasis on building and maintaining relationships with their Iraqi counterparts.
"Relationships are paramount," Newell said. "When you are in an advise and assist and enable role, it is incumbent on you to work with your counterpart, to couch the training in terms that they can use ... and inculcate it, and in a timeline and capacity that they can actually work with it."
That's not how traditional combat elements have operated in the past, he acknowledged.
It's "a lot different than us coming in and saying, 'Hey, we think you need to do the following three things, and this is how you do it,'" Newell said. "Now, it is a case of sitting down with your counterparts and working with them to understand what it is they need to be doing, and how they want to proceed with the training."
It also entails explaining to the Iraqi security forces what enablers the U.S. troops can provide, if required, to help them do their job.
Toward this end, Newell and his staff spend much of their time with their counterparts within the 10th Iraqi Army Division as well as local provincial police and border enforcement brigade. They also work hand in hand with U.S. interagency partners assigned to the provincial reconstruction teams or otherwise supporting reconstruction and development efforts.
"That permeates so much of what we do," Newell said, noting that the myriad meetings, discussions and other engagements his staff participates in can be "intellectually exhausting."
"But the output of those discussions is so much more productive, because [the Iraqis] are coming to the table and saying, 'This is exactly what I need. I need more of this; I need less of this.'" Newell said. "And when you do that, they show up ready to go, wanting to take the material, and then you see them go out in the field and do it."
At no time was the strength of that relationship-building process more evident than on June 30, as U.S. combat troops left the Iraqi cities, but Newell's soldiers were in more demand than ever.
"I have more soldiers today operating in Iraqi cities than I had prior to the 30th of June. The difference is, they are there because they were invited there, and the Iraqis insist on having them with them," Newell said. "So the [value of] the relationships is a huge lesson learned."
These relationships are growing increasingly strong, because the 4th Brigade soldiers embed directly with the Iraqi partners they work with. "We embed, we don't commute," Newell said of his soldiers. "So if you have an Iraqi brigade that you are working with, the transition team and the company that are partnering with that brigade go live with that brigade, not on a [forward operating base] someplace.
"And their partnerships are so much better for it," he said. "They work together, they live together, they eat together, they play together. They truly are partners out there."
Newell conceded that some of his more junior soldiers, who thought they were going off to war when they deployed, may be less excited about the advise and assist mission than those who've already been in combat.
"In many cases, some of the younger guys will tell you they would rather be in Afghanistan than here doing this," he acknowledged. "But the more senior guys who have been here for awhile, and have been at this for a couple times, will tell you that this is, in many cases, much more emotionally rewarding than their previous experiences here."
The soldiers recognize, Newell said, that they're helping the Iraqis take on new responsibilities that will be critical as the United States scales down its forces in Iraq. "They are seeing success in the Iraqis, and they are seeing themselves drawn into the Iraqi operations by invitation," he said. "And that is a huge difference, if you have been at this for awhile."