Winning: August 9, 2005

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One of the most important campaigns in Iraq gets little coverage. This is the struggle to train new Iraqi police and military forces. After Saddam was overthrown, his police force and army were disbanded. This attracted a lot of criticism from people who did not know how things worked in Saddams Iraq. There, the police and military were recruited on the basis of loyalty to Saddam. The higher up you went in the ranks, the more thorough the background investigation. You could not afford to keep such organizations around once Saddam was gone, you had to start from scratch. The United States thought it was well prepared for this sort of thing. American troops had been training foreigners, including Arabs, for generations. The U.S. Army Special Forces, in particular, were very good at this. But the Special Forces were much in demand for counter-terrorism chores. So the Department of Defense had to improvise. This resulted in younger, and less experienced, troops being assigned to training duties. Civilians (usually former or retired military) were also brought in. Experienced trainers were put in charge, and a training program for the trainers was put together for all those assigned to work with Iraqis. The purpose of the trainer training was to avoid cultural insensitivity issues (things that would offend Iraqis because of cultural differences.) This program worked, as far as it went. But it turned out that the trainer training, and selection, missed some important items. 

-- Many of the personnel selected as trainers were not among the best troops available. Some of them had not themselves been properly trained to teach combat and police skills. As a result, training sessions are sometimes one-way activities, with the trainees never being asked to display their skills. Even though the American military had adopted a highly effective "show me how you do it" training program, this very useful technique was often skipped with the Iraqis (who really needed it.)

-- The common use of profanity is a particular problem, and trainers have often "lost" a class because they used terms like "Mother Focker!" This was one aspect of the cultural sensitivity training that did not catch on as well as it should.

-- A lot of the trainees, especially officers and NCOs, were veterans of Saddam's Army. Some U.S. trainers would openly  denigrate the skills of their Iraqi trainees. Worse, trainers sometimes fail to accord Iraqis the respect due their rank, causing them to lose face. This was poor training practices, not just cultural insensitivity.


-- Because of a lack of language skills, many training classes are conducted in English, with a hired translator providing running translation. While some of the translators had a military background (e.g., retired Egyptian officers, etc.), most did not. Moreover, some of the translators didn't actually speak the Iraqi dialect.  Egyptian Arabic, for example, sounds to Iraqis much like an upper class  British accent would to an American. So the troops often don't get things because of the use of strange pronunciation and terms. The common solution they have is to ask their buddy, so there's often a lot of side conversations going on during a training session. Hence the "Mother Focker!" from the trainer who perceives a lack of discipline.


-- In many bases the US personnel and the Iraqi personnel are pretty much living in segregated environments. Some observers have commented that the training appears to be most effective when there's a relatively high degree of integration among the troops and their trainers. A few small bases with combined mess halls, for example, reportedly have a much higher success rate and the Iraqis have much higher morale, than at larger bases where the two sides are pretty much never in contact. Living conditions are also a factor here. U.S. personnel almost always have much better quarters, bathing facilities, etc.

-- Too many trainers are no older than the Iraqi troops whom they're training. This is a cultural thing, reflecting respect for age. One commentator observed that the two most effective trainers at one base were a very senior Army Warrant and a former Egyptian colonel, both of whom were in their 40s or more, and had gray hair. 

While things like this are not the norm, they occur often enough to cause problems, which are at least partially at the root of the very uneven performance of Iraqi units when they're committed to action.  Overall, however, the training program seems to be headed in the right direction. Efforts are being made to root out the bad apples. Over all, U.S. training is much better than that provided by the old Army under Saddam. For example, the troops actually get to the firing range regularly. One veteran of eight years service for Saddam had never been to the firing range! A further problem is that the Iraqi Ministry of Defense is very inept. A lot of money just disappears. Even basic supplies, like soap, are hard to come by. Pay is often in arrears, and is still distributed through unit commanders, so skimming is a problem.

 


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