Leadership: Scarce Iraqi Sergeants Urgently Sought

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October 12, 2007: The biggest leadership problem the Iraqi military has is with NCOs (noncommissioned officers, or sergeants). In the Saddam era force, the Soviet style of leadership was used. That is, sergeants had much less authority and responsibility than they do in Western forces. The Soviet style of military leadership stressed the use of officers for everything, including supervisory tasks performed by sergeants in the West. To take the place of Western sergeants "keeping in touch with what the troops were thinking", each Soviet company sized (100-200 troops) unit had a political officer (Zampolit) who recruited informers among the troops, and reported directly to the secret police, not the company commander. Saddam also had a system of spies and informers in the ranks, and troops that said the wrong thing were either beaten up, or disappeared, never to be seen again.

The new Iraqi army was built on the Western model, and for that to work, NCOs were needed. During World War II, as Western armies expanded enormously and rapidly (the U.S. Army went from 150,000 to over nine million in four years). This worked because the United States had employed capable and responsible NCOs for over a century. It was part of the culture. Every kid had at least a vague idea of what sergeants did, and it was not difficult to create several million new corporals and sergeants in four years. Iraq did not have this tradition, so U.S. and NATO trainers had to start from scratch. After four years of effort, only 38 percent of the needed NCOs are on duty. The situation is better for officers, where 65 percent are available.

There are other problems. The quality of NCOs and officers is not as big a problem as is corruption and loyalty. Many military leaders are inclined, or pressured, to act in the interests of a political party, religious group or gang leader. In the West, these divided loyalties are not encouraged, in Iraq they are. While the troops also have these honesty and loyalty problems, the old adage that, "there are no bad troops, only bad officers" applies here. In units where the NCOs and officers are, by Western standards, "professional", the troops are generally rated as competent and effective. Of the 152 combat battalions in the Iraqi army, only 8 percent are considered as well run as Western battalions, and able to operate independently. Another 54 percent are getting there, and tend to perform well only if there are with Western troops nearby. Another 29 percent can get by if they are operating directly with Western troops, The other nine percent are still in training. Units move up the scale as their officers and NCOs get better, or at least more experienced.

The poor leadership leads to the high AWOL (Absent Without Leave) rate of about seven percent. Also, because of the need for troops to take their pay home, often to distant towns, personally (no national banking system), about 25 percent of the troops are on leave at any one time. This was also a carryover from Saddam's time, where the high percentage of troops on leave made it cheaper to run the army. You didn't have to feed the troops who were at home, and all that leave was good for morale. It was hell on readiness and training, however.

The new Iraqi army has made progress, but the permanence of these changes depends on the quality of the senior commanders. American advisors are constantly struggling with Iraqi politicians who want to keep corrupt or incompetent commanders on duty. The politicians want to "own" (control) senior army officers for either political or economic (corruption) reasons. Some politicians are even urging their protégés to improve their performance, so the Americans won't keep making an issue of firing the inept officer. Thus the most dangerous Iraqi officers are the ones who are technically competent, but morally questionable.

One aspect of Iraqi military life that all Iraqis remember is the tendency of the army to take control of the government, and then run it for the benefit of the senior officers.

 


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