U.S. Turns More Attention to Training Iraqi Forces

Lt. Col. John Nagl is in charge of the Army's program to train American military advisers for Iraq. Deborah Amos talks to Nagle about the possibility of scaling back the number of American combat forces, while increasing U.S. help with the training of Iraqi forces.

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

In all the plans for redefining strategy in Iraq, there's one thing everyone agrees on: pumping up the number of U.S. combat advisors training Iraqi Security Forces. Even with talk of withdrawing American troops, the U.S. Army is moving ahead on a plan that could add thousands of more trainers.

For our series of conversations this week about Iraq and the U.S. military, we've reached Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl at Fort Riley, Kansas. His book on guerilla warfare is required reading in the U.S. military. Now, Lieutenant Colonel Nagl is in charge of the new Army program to train the trainers.

Lieutenant Colonel JOHN NAGL (U.S. Army; Author, “How to Eat Soup with a Knife”): It attempts to be a balance between individual soldier survival skills, combat related sort of skills from firing your weapon, firing heavy weapons. I've got some of my soldiers today are out on a mounted combat patrol, where they'll react to simulated improvised explosive devices. They'll react to a sniper, and they will engage targets with a 50-caliber machine gun. So real good Army combat training.

But then the other half of the training is teaching them and helping them understand the society and the culture they're working in, cultural awareness and cultural competency in Iraq. And also helping them learn how to be advisors, which is a little bit different than knowing how to do the combat yourself.

AMOS: If I was on the ground with these U.S. soldiers, what would I have see now that I wouldn't have seen six months ago?

Lt. Col. NAGL: I think what you're going to see is a higher-caliber soldier leading his teams, a higher-caliber non-commissioned officer in this team. Increasingly, our folks have already served one combat tour, so they've practiced counter-insurgency as an American and they are thus better able to advise Iraqi Security Forces on how to do it themselves. You need to have your very best in that mission, and increasingly, we're doing that.

AMOS: And do the very best get rewarded for taking this assignment?

Lt. Col. NAGL: That really remains to be seen. We, as an army, have really just started putting the focus on this mission in a lot of ways over the course of the last year. Promotion boards are being instructed to regard this mission as very, very important. It is certainly my hope and my belief that the Army will reward those who do this most dangerous, and what I believe to be the most important mission in the Army in the nation right now.

AMOS: This training is being ramped up. President Bush has been saying as the Iraqis stand up we will stand down for at least the last two years. So why has it taken so long to standardize, to ramp up this training?

Lt. Col. NAGL: That's a hard question for me to answer. What I can say is that over the course of the past year, we're putting an awful lot of resources into this now. We are recognizing the absolute priority that this mission has for the Army and the nation, and we're going at it gangbusters.

AMOS: In the early days of this training program, the caliber of the officers were different. It was, you know, who can I spare to send off to these training programs? That appears to have changed. But why did it take this long for that idea to be put in to practice in the training program?

Lt. Col. NAGL: The Army, has for its entire history, I think, focused on conventional combat operations and putting its most talented leaders in charge of leading America's sons and daughters into war. And it's taken a while for the Army's personnel system, the Army's officer corps to really understand how fundamental this shift is, that the key to success is no longer exclusively American combat units well trained and well led, but is now increasingly Iraqi Security Forces well trained and well led.

AMOS: You're training about 5,000 advisors, but there are hundreds of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and police out there. Do you have enough people to embed down to that kind of level to make the Iraqi army work?

Lt. Col. NAGL: The advisory teams we're training here go out and serve in Iraq and Afghanistan in groups of from three to 45. But most of the teams are about 10 or 11 folks, and that's the size of an Army Special Forces team. And that was the model we originally built this on. An 11-man team can advise, really, at the battalion level, at brigade level, at the division level, but is designed really to help the senior leader in an organization, the senior commander in an organization and his immediate staff.

With a larger team, we could embed advisors down to a lower level, which would allow us to help train Iraqi Security Forces more rapidly. Currently, we are not able, in most cases, to push advisors down to the company level. And the kind of war we're fighting today is a company commander's war, a platoon leader's war for Iraqi Security Forces, as well as for American forces.

AMOS: Who's filling in behind these officers? What happens when you pull them away from combat? Does that strain U.S. forces on the ground?

Lt. Col. NAGL: The Army is not manned, is not organized, designed, trained, or equipped to provide these 5,000 soldiers who are - have been pulled out of Army units in order to fill this advisory role. And these are senior folks. These are sergeants first class, majors, lieutenant colonels, folks with 10 to 20 years of service in the Army. So when you pull that kind of leadership out of conventional Army units, it absolutely hurts. And the rest of the Army is really tightening its belt a little bit as a result.

AMOS: You know, the Army teaches, and maybe even preaches, that it takes seven to eight years to make a good sergeant. What kind of timeline are we talking about here? How long does it take to make an Iraqi sergeant a good one?

Lt. Col. NAGL: Well, these are long, hard wars. My favorite quotation is from Lawrence of Arabia: “making war on insurgents is messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife.” This is a long, hard process. Historically, defeating an insurgency has taken eight, nine, 10, 11, 12 years, about the same length of time you suggested it takes to train actually a senior sergeant.

My baby brother, Sergeant Mark Nagl, has been in for three years and was back on mid-tour leave in July. And I can tell you that after three years, he is hard as woodpecker lips and doing a great job. He's also out in al-Anbar, which doesn't make my mom happy.

So you can train a good sergeant in a year or two. A senior non-commissioned officer, senior commissioned officers take longer. The good news there is we're drawing largely upon a lot of the officers of the Iraqi army or Iraqi police force are veterans of Saddam's army. So we don't have to teach them military tactics, or weapons maintenance, or any of those sorts of things. They know how to do that. What they don't know yet is being responsible to a democratically elected government, understanding and implementing good accord for human rights.

AMOS: Thank you very much Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, author of “How to Eat Soup with a Knife,” talking to us from Fort Riley, Kansas.

Lt. Col. NAGL: Thank you, Deborah.

AMOS: Tomorrow, the price tag of repairing an army at war.

Unidentified Man: What they've had to do to provide better protection to the soldiers are to put armored plates on the sides of these Humvees. Well, imagine putting armored plates on the side of your car. You know, what does that do to your tires? What does that do to your transmission? What does that do to your gas mileage? And what you see is this equipment wearing out in an accelerated rate.

(Soundbite of music)

AMOS: This is NPR News.

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