The Corner

An Officer Corps Isn’t Built in a Day — Part III

Two great emails:

I served as a security advisor to the Iraqi Minister of Interior in 2004-05, focusing specifically on border patrol development, but sitting side by side with other advisors trying to bring about the development of the Iraqi police, and to a somewhat lesser extent, their army counterparts.  I met frequently with LTG Petraeus, who of course was the top officer responsible for their development.

Almost no one in the ranks of the Iraqi forces today is willing to make a decision, in part because for most of their existence such decisionmakers were often punished in not very pleasant ways.  We are all familiar with stories of Iraqi military units standing paralyzed during the 2003 invasion because their communications had been cut off and no one would do anything without an order.  That mindset is still widespread throughout the units today. True leadership was actively squelched for 30 years; that’s pretty hard to reverse engineer.  The average US Army Captain has more decisionmaking discretion and authority than any Iraqi officer, up to and including the general officers.  And officers continue the long-standing tradition of treating their enlisted men like crap.  There is almost no NCO development going on today, not because MNSTC-I isn’t trying, but because Iraq’s general officers are terrified to give flexibility to even officers below them, much less NCOs.  They remember when the enlisted men were mostly conscripts, and they still treat them as such.  Even most NCOs function as little more than personal servants to the officers above them.

This is a cultural mentality that must be broken, and changed.  But it’s not going to be easy.  If only we could truly start over with truly tabula rasa recruits, we’d have a much easier time.  But we can’t do that; we have to fight the military culture of the Middle East that does not reward independent thinking.

To be sure, there are some amazing general officers and even NCOs sprinkled throughout the ranks.  And their units perform admirably and efficiently.  That gives me great hope.  But there are far too few of them right now.  It will take time to break that mentality.

[Me] As many readers have pointed out, one thing that is likely to break that mentality fast is the adapting to real combat — which we may have to be push them into much more forcefully from now on.  But in another way, we never totally break that mentality if our objective is to achieve American performance standards in the Iraqi Security Forces.  As another reader points out in this excellent email:

A small preexisting officer corps built the massive WWII army from a superior resource – Americans. They showed up for training with modern education, exposure to a free press and a realistic view of how the world works, a tradition of reasonable trust in their fellow Americans across ethnic (if not yet racial) lines, and a loyalty to their nation and government that they thought worth defending for reasons of honor and the personal advancement of themselves, their families, and a society they believed in.

Iraq and Iraqis have none of these advantages. Yes, it took the WWII-era Army a few years to make an outstanding force. But it first took at least eighteen years to produce the outstanding citizens who made up its raw material. No such citizens are currently available to Iraq. Even if were capable of producing them, which I doubt, it would surely take longer than a single generation. And even one is far more time than they have. Let us hope that a lesser solution will prove sufficient.

[Me] It was Rommel I think who said, upon encountering green American forces in North Africa for the first time, that he had never met any soldiers who knew so little – or who learned so quickly.  Democracy only works if its people are good citizens, people who believe in self-reliance, compromise, and the rule of law.  The Iraqis are going to have to learn that lesson fast — and under fire, else the fire will continue. 

Mario Loyola — Contributing editor Mario Loyola is senior fellow and Director of the Center for Competitive Federalism at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. He began his career in corporate ...

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