Leadership: Missing in the Middle

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March 10,2008: After four years of effort, the new Iraqi Army has about 70 percent of the officers and NCOs it needs. But the distribution is not even. Because the Sunni Arabs monopolized officer jobs during the old government, very few Sunni Arab officers are now serving. Most current officers are Kurds or Shia Arabs that have been selected, trained and in service over the past five years. That means there are sufficient generals and senior colonels (because you need so few of them), and junior officers (lieutenants and captains, as platoon and company commanders). But the middle ranking guys, especially battalion commanders and senior staff officers (majors, lieutenant colonels and junior colonels) are in short supply. These officers normally require about a decade to create, at least in peacetime. In wartime, you can do it in 3-5 years (rapidly promoting the most capable captains). But many Iraqi officers have only gotten into action over the last two or three years. They need another two or three before the hotshots can be identified and bumped up to major and lieutenant colonel. Most Iraqi officers recognize this, as they have seen how the Americans operate, and seen in their own units what a big difference a competent officer makes. The U.S. is trying to persuade the Iraqi government to allow some Saddam era Sunni Arab majors and lieutenant colonels rejoin the army. The Americans say they can help screen applicants for loyalty and ability. But the Shia Arab dominated government is still reluctant to have too many infantry battalions commanded by Sunni Arabs, not matter how competent they are.

It's a different situation with sergeants. Following Russian practice, Iraq did not develop much of an NCO (non commissioned officer) corps. And senior NCOs tended to be Sunni Arabs. So a new NCO corps had to be built from scratch. The result has been a sufficient supply of good squad leaders and platoon sergeants. But there is a big shortage of experienced first sergeants (top guy in a company) and Sergeants Major (top NCO in battalions and larger units). A good soldier can become a first sergeant, in wartime, after a few years of action. But it's really preferable to have an older soldier, with more experience, in these jobs. The senior NCOs play a large role in training, advising and guiding junior NCOs. Their absence in Iraq is sorely missed. There aren't as many Sunni Arabs available, who served as senior NCOs. The new Iraqi army is just going to have to grow its own.

 


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