Training Iraqis for Security Easier Said than Done

Most generals, politicians and defense analysts talk of increased training for Iraqi forces as the highest priority, and the best shot possible for U.S. success in Iraq.

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Here's a look at one way that Americans hope to change the situation in Iraq: boosting the number of U.S. military advisers who train the Iraqi army.

NPR National Security Correspondent Jackie Northam examines the promises and challenges of this option.

JACKIE NORTHAM: Most generals, politicians, and defense analysts talk of increased training for Iraqi forces as the highest priority and the best shot possible for U.S. success in Iraq. Retired Army Major General William Nash, now a senior fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations, says adding to the number of military advisers is a very reasonable approach, but…

Major General WILLIAM NASH (Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations): It takes a long time. I mean, in fact, it does take a decade to train a battalion commander, and that's going fast. The American Army takes about 15 years. So it is a long-term process, because you have the professional maturation process takes place.

NORTHAM: Nash says it's only been in the past two years that the U.S. military started getting serious about training Iraqi soldiers. Now there's a concerted effort to prepare U.S. officers at Fort Riley, Kansas and then get them over to Iraq. There are about 5,000 U.S. advisers already there, and there's talk about increasing that number at least four-fold. The idea is that U.S. officers and non-commissioned officers embed with Iraqi units.

Andrew Krepinevich, the Executive Director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, says the U.S. advisers can help the Iraqis improve their military skills.

Mr. ANDREW KREPINEVICH (Executive Director, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments): The downside, though, is it's not clear at all that the Iraqi security forces will be loyal to the government. And there are concerns that they have been so penetrated, that the sectarian violence has grown so widespread, that there may be no credible or legitimate government to be loyal to. And in that case you wonder, what are we training these forces to do, and what are they going to do with the capabilities that we enable them to develop?

NORTHAM: That's why it's important to have an overall strategy for the American trainers and a clear-cut objective, rather than simply flooding all Iraqi units with U.S. military advisers, according to Anthony Cordesman, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Mr. ANTHONY CORDESMAN (Center for Strategic and International Studies): We have to pick the units out that can actually fight, that will act. And this is an almost battalion-by-battalion analysis, which is very different from throwing thousands of Americans into a total advisory effort.

NORTHAM: And, Cordesman says, the U.S. needs to ensure that sectarian enmity does not overwhelm the new Iraqi army. Cordesman says right now, about 70 percent of the army is Shiite, and the remainder are mostly Kurds and Sunnis.

Mr. CORDESMAN: The Sunnis are not only underrepresented, but in spite of recruiting efforts to bring Sunnis back in, in many cases they are either marginalized, or if they have higher ranks, there is still pressure to push them out.

NORTHAM: Still, this past weekend, Iraq's Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki invited former officers with Saddam Hussein's military to return to duty in the new Iraqi army. It's unclear if or how many will rejoin, and whether they will work alongside U.S. officers. Andrew Krepinevich says the U.S. advisers have to focus on building strong relations with young Iraqi officers.

Mr. KREPINEVICH: These young Iraqi officers - ten years, fifteen years from now - will be the senior officers in Iraq and the personal relationships and bonds that they form with these American advisers can help us maintain enduring, strong, positive relations with the Iraq that emerges out of this war -presuming that we're successful.

NORTHAM: And presuming enough U.S. military officers agree to becoming advisers. Krepinevich says there's been a reluctance among some of the best young officers to become advisers because promotion boards look at how well they served with American units, not Iraqi units. The Army has introduced new incentives to lure U.S. officers into advisory roles, including the officer's choice for his next assignment after one year teaching young Iraqi soldiers.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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