Monday, August 17, 2009

Combat Advising: Midwifery

Great article on the Strategy Page entitled "Why Iraqis Still Fight Like Arabs" (H/t: Mudville Gazette) The article highlights the (ofttimes seemingly insurmountable) cultural gap between the US and Iraqi militaries. We (the US military) are hostile and resistant to change; we are pikers compared to the Iraqis, though. The article examines Iraqi military culture through their ineptness at dealing with IEDs, but the traits revealed are true across the spectrum of military endeavors. I find the article reinforces most of my personal findings over the years in dealing with Arabs (and we all know how wonderful it is to find external validation for our preconceived notions). While I find the article is accurate in general, I thought it interesting comparing and contrasting with my current experience with the Federal Police, here and now, specifically:

Islamic schools favor rote memorization, especially of scripture. Most Islamic scholars are hostile to the concept of interpreting the Koran (considered the word of God as given to His prophet Mohammed). This has resulted in looking down on Western troops that will look something up that they don't know. Arabs prefer to fake it, and pretend it's all in their head. Improvisation and innovation is generally discouraged. Arab armies go by the book, Western armies rewrite the book and thus usually win. Despite years of American advice on this matter, many Iraqi police and military personnel stick with the old, less effective, traditions.
Me: This seems pretty accurate. We've found a decent success rate with pre-loading our counterparts with books/manuals, although we'll usually simplify products to the subject at hand down to just a checklist or handout, and distribute and carry ourselves checklists in both English and Arabic. We then, over time, condition our counterparts that on any given topic, they will see the same checklist over and over again. Initially, exposing them to any form to which they will have to commit an answer or fact (in ink, for the love of God!) on paper generates a great deal of stress. After a while though, they get into their comfort zone and can be reasonably relied upon to generate the information required or follow the established checklist sequence--especially if the form/checklist has enabled them to be perceived as "successful" before.


There is no real NCO corps. Officers and enlisted troops are treated like two different social castes and there is no effort to bridge the gap using career NCOs. Enlisted personnel are treated harshly. Training accidents that would end the careers of US officers are commonplace in Arab armies, and nobody cares. This is slowly changing, with the steady growth of a proper NCO corps and better officer attitudes towards their troops. But the old ways often return, with disastrous effects on troop morale and effectiveness.

Me: There is an NCO corps in the IFP, and some of our NCO shurta are actually pretty good. However, the NCOs get paid the same as the privates, so one of our biggest obstacles is getting shurta NCOs to stand up and take charge (and inherit all the headaches inherent in leadership) when there is no remuneration for doing so. When the chips are down, though, the enlisted leadership--both formal and informal--will usually step up and take charge, often on the basis of "because I'm bigger and stronger and I say so." Also, while the unit gets deplorable support from higher, unit leadership evinces strong, genuine concern for the shurtas' health and welfare. This has resulted, at least in the Knights' Raid Brigade, in relatively high unit identification and morale.

Officers are despised by their troops, and this does not bother the officers much at all. Many Arab officers simply cannot understand how treating the troops decently will make them better soldiers. This is another old tradition that dies hard.
Americans are taught leadership and technology; Arab officers are taught only technology. Leadership is given little attention as officers are assumed to know this by virtue of their social status as officers. The new generation of Iraqi officers and NCOs have been taught leadership, but for too many of them, this is an alien concept that they do not understand or really know what to do with.
Me: While the officers definitely have a different relationship to the troops than anything we're used to, I've got to say that my guys understand and value the role of the officer as leader. The Brigade Commander hails from a tribe with strong Beduin roots, so his idea of "leadership" definitely reflects the desert raider mentality (in line with the brigade's name, which literally translated is "the Raid of the Knights"). His leadership style (and expectations of his subordinates) is akin to that of a medieval warlord, who treats his men well but expects absolute loyalty in return. Rather than being "despised by his troops", he has established within the unit a cult of personality--which of course presents its own problems.

While American officers thrive on competition among themselves, Arab officers avoid this as the loser would be humiliated. Better for everyone to fail together than for competition to be allowed, even if it eventually benefits everyone. Still a factor.

Me: My guys are not real big on failure. Instead of "all failing together," they will marginalize weak or incompetent leaders, and while continuing to pay full deference to their rank, keep them out of the decision making/mission execution cycle. There is definitely a preference for "all winning together" over "all failing together." For example, in the operations shop, I have one O6 (full colonel) whose sole job is to take written orders from the "current operations" stack and, upon completion of the mission, bind them into notebooks for historical record keeping. Meanwhile, a young and extremely competent lieutenant colonel runs operations. Because of his proven history of success, he has the latitude to make and implement decisions far above what any O6 in the unit has. Within well-defined limits, of course.

Initiative is considered a dangerous trait. So subordinates prefer to fail rather than make an independent decision. Battles are micromanaged by senior generals, who prefer to suffer defeat rather than lose control of their subordinates. Even worse, an Arab officer will not tell a US ally why he cannot make the decision (or even that he cannot make it), leaving US officers angry and frustrated because the Arabs won't make a decision. The Arab officers simply will not admit that they do not have that authority. The new generation of army commanders and staff officers have been sent to Western staff and command schools, but there's still not a lot of enthusiasm for initiative (which is seen as a decadent and dangerous Western import.)
Me: Absolutely. I have seen division- and corps-level commanders huddled over a map, deciding where each individual vehicle will go in the cordon of a search operation. One of the values of the US Combat Advisory chain of command is that we can often reach up, through US advisors, and influence a more senior Iraqi commander to make a necessary decision and push it down before demanding an answer from a subordinate makes the top of his head explode followed by spontaneous combustion. We've discovered that, for example, if 1st Platoon is searching streets A through F, but has only received orders to search A&B, he will not move until ordered to do so. Even if the platoon leader knows he is going to eventually have to move to C,D,E, and F, he is rooted at the Street B limit of advance until he is ordered forward. This can be ameliorated through comprehensive discussions during rehearsals, but too many branches and sequels (still comprising a pretty basic set of instructions) will lead to confusion, doubt, and ultimately the same inaction we were trying to preclude. The key is knowing the partner unit well enough to know who is capable of making what level of decisions, and ensuring that you know how to reach that guy. It is better to leave a junior leader in place and spend 20 minutes to an hour hunting down the "right guy" for a decision than to try to berate, cajole, or threaten a junior leader into doing his job. If the guy is lower than battalion commander, the less you make him think, the better.

Lack of initiative makes it difficult for Arab armies to maintain modern weapons. Complex modern weapons require on the spot maintenance, and that means delegating authority, information, and tools. Arab armies avoid doing this and prefer to use easier to control central repair shops. This makes the timely maintenance of weapons difficult. Still a problem in Iraq, and throughout the Middle East.
Me: Uh, Federal Police don't have complicated weapons systems. Kalashnikov series weapons are about as high speed as they get (barring ad hoc weapons). Where we bump into maintenance issues is primarily with vehicles. Especially the Humvees. Especially the Humvees that we told them not to buy. Especially the Humvees that we told them not to buy because they don't have the parts on hand or logistics to maintain them. However, the Humvees considerably increase the survivability of the average shurta, so I can understand their ardour for the vehicles. Still, since they don't have the system to maintain their vehicles, but we do, then obviously we could square them away if we wanted to (when in fact, we would go to jail). When we don't square them away--i.e., increase their chances of living through the operation--even though we could "if we wanted to," this generates some real resentment. I think they would maintain their fleet better if they had the systems in place to do so, but the question is academic since their logistics apparatus is totally--what's the word? oh yeah--fucked.

There are some good points I didn't touch on in the article. While my experiences here and now are a little different, the article does a great job of describing the difficulties involved in trying to midwife a modern security capability in the Middle East. And just think, the Iraqis are waaaay more modern and sophisticated than the Afghans...

1 comment:

  1. The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 08/18/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.