Leadership: Iraq and Why Tradition Sucks

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September 20, 2005: There are some valid comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam. The most important one is the difficulty training the local armed forces. South Vietnam was a nation split by religious, ethnic, tribal, class and political differences. Same thing in Iraq. It took about ten years, but when American troops left in the early 1970s, the South Vietnamese army was a pretty effective force. It defeated an invasion from the north in 1972, defeated the local communist guerillas, but finally fell to a second North Vietnamese invasion in 1975.

The North Vietnamese were much like the former Baath Party rule in Iraq. Both were police states that preached nationalism, and obeying orders without question (or else). This enabled Saddam Hussein to form a small army (the Republican Guard) that was loyal to him, and diligent in their training and carrying out their duties. The rest of the armed forces were typical of most Arab nations. They were poorly led, ill-trained, and suffered from corrupt and indifferent leadership. Corruption in government has been a problem in the region for thousands of years, and the military were was corrupt as the tax officials or anyone else on the government payroll. This is the cultural mindset American trainers have to deal with when they try to turn Iraqis into competent soldiers.

Actually, the major problem is the officers and NCOs. Battalions led by dedicated, competent and honest officers perform very well. When those qualities are lacking in the officers, the performance of the troops drops accordingly. This sort of thing was often seen during two centuries of European colonization. When local troops were organized in battalions with European officers, the troops performed close to the levels of European troops. After the colonial period ended in the mid-20th century, those areas where the locals adopted the attitudes of European officers, were able to create armed forces that performed in the same league as the  Europeans. But that often did not happen, which is why many former colonies are stuck with corrupt, ineffective armed forces.

Many of the American trainers in Iraq are aware of all this, as are some of the Iraqis. But it's not easy overcoming local customs. Corruption is the biggest problem. Most Iraqis are under tremendous, and very personal, pressure to "do the right thing" for their extended family (and tribe), and, if need be,  screw everyone else. There are very practical reasons for this. With no tradition of honest and effective government in the region, your lifeline is your extended family and tribe. It has been this way for thousands of years, and it works.

But many Iraqis realize that this ancient type of organization is far less effective than more modern ones, as exemplified by the wealthy industrialized nations. Most of these nations had to overcome a long history of tribalism and corruption to get where they are today, and if Iraq does not make the move, or make some serious progress in that direction, the bad old days of tyrants and internal strife will surely return.

This is the war you hear little about, the battle between "traditional Iraq" and "modern Iraq." Coalition trainers are trying to find enough "modern Iraq" officers to run the armed forces, and they are having a rough time of it. When a new battalion goes into action the first few times, it succeeds because of good officers. Failure is almost always the result of poor leadership.

While good officers are important, you also have to worry about local cops who won't, because of potential trouble with family and tribal leaders, enforce many laws. In effect, tribal law supercedes national law. For this reason, the effective army and police battalions operating against unruly Sunni Arab areas are mostly Kurds and Shia Arab. The only exceptions are Sunni Arab battalions from tribes that have agreed to enforce the national law. Actually, this represents an ancient custom, of never stationing troops, or even police, where they come from. Even the Soviet Union followed this policy.

It's often pointed out, quite accurately, that Iraq is an artificial nation, put together by the British in the 1920s, by joining together three quite different provinces of the recently deceased Ottoman Turk empire. While most Iraqis, when polled, say that they feel they are Iraqi, many of those in the police and army will have to step forward and prove it, before Iraq happens.

 


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