The Iraqi Army has made great progress in its efforts to organize
and become self-sustaining over the past 2 years. Now its greatest challenge is to develop a logistics program that will support an independent force.
The news today is full of stories about Iraq. Inevitably, those stories generate a great deal of frustration here in the United States and within the Army. As the Nation sails through its fifth year in Iraq, many people wonder: Why can’t that problem just get fixed?
The Iraqi Army has been stood up. Many people question why the United States cannot just pull up stakes and leave Iraq for the Iraqis now that they have an army. I contend that part of the reason why this has not happened is the Iraqi Army’s difficulty with mastering the field of logistics. I say this because I saw that problem up close as a member of a military transition team (MiTT) in Iraq, advising the Iraqi Army’s 4th Motor Transport Regiment (MTR).
The MTR is now one of the few field logistics units within the Iraqi Army. An MTR has four truck companies and one security, or military police, company. The main trucks the unit is equipped with are U.S. 5-ton and Russian 8-ton trucks. The security company is equipped with U.S. high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles (HMMWVs). The regiment normally is commanded by a colonel.
Iraqi Army Growth
A lot has happened in the Iraqi Army in a very short period. The Iraqi government has only gained control of most of its army in the past couple of years. The Ministry of Defense in Baghdad now runs everything connected to Iraqi Army units.
With each passing day, the Iraqis are running more of the show. However, more work must be done to stand up the Iraqi Army fully because it is still heavily dependent on the United States for logistics. It is important, however, to view this situation in the context of Iraq, not the United States.
The “low-hanging fruit” analogy clearly applies to the Iraqi Army. You could think of the low-hanging fruit as the initial work of putting the army together. This includes tasks like purchasing and fielding equipment, recruiting and training the initial cohort of soldiers, and purchasing other equipment. Those tasks are low-hanging fruit because they are finite, short term, and tangible.
Just like in an orchard, the next wave of work is getting the fruit that sits higher on the tree or, for whatever reason, is harder to reach. Now coalition forces must help the Iraqi Army through the next phase. The tasks in this next phase will be more difficult because they involve nontangible tasks, such as applying knowledge or integrating complex activities across a broad spectrum—something the entire Iraqi culture is struggling with. I think these tasks will require more work because insurgent groups are fighting to stop those very things.
Logistics is part of that hard-to-reach high-hanging fruit. To have an effective logistics program, an army needs both the hardware and the software for the program. Software, here, is the knowledge to make the logistics program run effectively. Logistics must be mastered in order to stand up the Iraqi Army and send the U.S. troops home. The dilemma the U.S. Army faces now in Iraq is how to help the Iraqi Army advance to the next stage.
Iraqi Army Logistics
To address what needs to be done next, it is important to review where the Iraqi Army is now. The initial work has been done. The Iraqi Army is fielded, so to say. They have 10 field divisions, with another division to come. These new divisions have anywhere from three to five brigades apiece. Most of these units are equipped along the lines of light infantry. The soldiers in these units have completed 5-week basic training programs at various posts throughout Iraq. This training is a “one size fits all” kind of training. They have no specialized training. The challenge comes in helping the Iraqis master planning, logistics, and other complexities connected to running those units.
Right now, the Iraqi Army has a unique supply system. At face value, it looks like a system set up for peacetime. It certainly is not set up for rapid movement in the field. Units draw their supplies from a garrison supply unit or a regional supply unit. Both of these units are static, not designed to go anywhere. Regional supply units tend to provide equipment, while garrison supply units tend to provide supplies. Larger units have an internal supply platoon. Unlike the U.S. Army, the Iraqi Army has no field supply units to run supplies to tactical units. Internal support platoons have nothing to hook into if their unit is in the field for a long time or out of their usual operating area.
The Iraqi Army is facing a severe maintenance crisis. Since it received all of its equipment at the same time, all of the maintenance services are due at the same time and all of the same parts seem to be wearing out at the same time. Thus, all of the equipment will need to be replaced or fixed simultaneously.
Right now, the Iraqi Army is facing several brewing supply problems. All Iraqi units suffer from a lack of class IX (repair parts) for their U.S. vehicles. Class IX problems once threatened to stop the Iraqi unit I worked with completely. Our unit had an internal security unit within the truck regiment that received all of its trucks at the same time. This company used HMMWVs for gun trucks, and all the HMMWV brake pads started to wear out at the same time. A shortage of HMMWV brake pads almost deadlined the whole company. Several innovative supply steps taken by both the Iraqis and their U.S. trainers averted disaster at the 11th hour.
Another of my unit’s problems was clothing. The uniforms issued at induction 2 or 3 years ago were starting to wear out. However, the Ministry of Defense has yet to act on the issue of new uniforms for the troops. This probably is because other actions have more priority. Inefficiency and corruption within the Iraqi government also could be part of the problem in maintaining equipment and supplies for the Iraqi Army.
Units have the same problem with personnel. They are only getting piecemeal replacements for losses. For key positions, the old patronage system seems to kick in. People with connections come in to fill key jobs. Higher commands, like divisions, might have no say on who fills the key jobs. The Ministry of Defense fills those jobs intermittently. Many units always seem to be under strength.
I know everyone reading this article has ideas about how to change things. I am sure those ideas are very valid, but you must remember that the issue is in Iraq and not in a U.S. unit. Iraq has certain dynamics that complicate things. The Iraqi units are conducting real-world missions while they are getting organized and learning how to operate. And nothing seems to happen quickly in Iraq because of a wide range of cultural, economic, and political conditions.
Iraqi Army Personnel
The composition of Iraqi Army units can be a challenge. Frequently, Iraqi units will have a majority of one ethnic group, like Shia, with some other groups intermingled. Our group at the 4th MTR was primarily Shia, but small pockets of Sunni soldiers could be found mixed in. The main group in the 4th MTR comes from an area of Iraq far from the unit’s location. When they go home for their monthly leave, they have to travel a great distance. It is expensive and hard to move within Iraq because of the violence and poor state of affairs. Cultural issues and family ties still draw the soldiers home. Many will spend half their pay just to get home, which creates a definite morale problem over time. The level of violence everywhere also means troops stand a chance of not coming back. One officer I advised was killed by his Shia neighbors while home on leave. In cases like that, the training often must start over again with the replacement.
The officers are a different issue. Officers over the rank of first lieutenant are primarily “old army.” They sometimes have a problem with the new army’s permissive ways. These officers could have obtained their posts based on either their reputation in the old army or their political connections. Officers at the 4th MTR were primarily Sunni. Some senior leaders came from the old army, while others had political connections. Several Kurdish officers also were in the unit. This creates an interesting dynamic; the ethnic groups that are fighting in the streets now occupy the same unit area.
Overall, the officers try to present a one-Iraq face to operations within the army. This may be the only place in Iraq where you see that. However, armies reflect the culture they come from. The tension on the streets between the ethnic groups at times affected how soldiers interacted with each other. It is impossible to avoid completely the sectarian strife that is tearing up communities. That tension surfaces subtly, through decisions made or not made. Those indirect issues can affect operations in combat and elsewhere.
Now the issue is how to train an Iraqi Army culture that often seems to ignore logistics. The Iraqi Army suffers from a lack of doctrine on logistics and almost every other subject. No manuals are available to the troops for training. Of course, everyone has his past to draw from; that past might have been from the old army or from the anti-Saddam resistance. One officer in one of the shops I advised was a 20-year veteran of the Iraqi Army. Another officer in the same shop had worked 20 years in the Kurdish resistance. They definitely had different perspectives, which led to some interesting challenges.
The Iraqi Army is only just now setting up basic enlisted military occupational specialty schools at training posts throughout Iraq. The war is taking its toll on this training program. Resistance groups, placing improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on roads to shut down transportation, have had a negative effect on basic training. Soldiers must get to the Iraqi basic training site on their own initiative. If a road leading to a base has a lot of IEDs, many people in the next recruiting class at that base will not show up or will show up significantly late. That decline in numbers for a recruiting class will lead, in turn, to a reduction of people showing up at their assigned units.
The average Iraqi soldier often does not seem to embrace classroom instruction. Although Iraqi soldiers attended the classes we set up, our educational methods did not seem to reach them. To overcome that dilemma, many U.S. training teams are using basic rote memorization and set steps to teach the Iraqis. That method of teaching works for basic tasks, but it does not bring about quick proficiency on more complex jobs. A different strategy is needed.
Bridging Cultural Differences
Much has been said about the cultural differences between Iraqi and U.S. Soldiers. Cultural differences are a big factor in operations for both the Iraqis internally and for U.S. elements working with the Iraqis. It is difficult to describe this chasm. Unwritten rules tend to shape everything Iraqis do. We in the United States might say they are bound to the past through these cultural mores. They would say they are respecting the past through those mores.
Some cultural differences are more literal. One example is in definitions. I was the unit security and intelligence adviser. When I talked to the Iraqis about physical security, I got nothing back but blank stares. After 30 more minutes of conversation, I found that they define security in active terms, such as picking up spies, not in more passive terms, such as using locks and chains. I also found out in other circumstances that interpreters did not say quite what I wanted to say. Subtle differences in word choice can make all the difference in the world. I found myself repeating myself on purpose in different ways to ensure I got my point across.
The Iraqi Army is coming to grips with where it is in its development. It is learning the hard way that it needs to acquire more skills. I think any new organization would probably develop this way. Iraqi soldiers seem to prefer learning from experience to learning in a directed learning environment. A good example of what I am talking about is their use of local knowledge. Iraqis can do amazing things with their inside knowledge of culture. They can spot a non-Iraqi instantly through little cues. At other times, this local knowledge holds them back. They will favor their local information and ignore other information if there is a discrepancy. For example, on one occasion the local road report said not to go on a road because of IEDs and other threats. I told the Iraqi soldiers, and they ignored me and traveled on the road anyway because local habits or something else said to go there. They paid the cost for that decision because they were attacked. After that, they quickly learned to apply intelligence information to missions.
Learning the hard way is the surest way to drive home a lesson. We tried to explain the importance of planning missions and making sure their convoys were well-stocked with food, fuel, and other supplies. But the Iraqis continued to plan poorly for their convoys until some of their vehicles ran out of fuel before they could return to base. They did not make that mistake again, and convoys never again ran out of fuel. Another time, a convoy was attacked and reported its location incorrectly. After that attack, the Iraqis realized the importance of knowing where they were on the map, something they had not quite grasped before.
Taking the Next Step
The U.S. Army seems have a dilemma on how best to advise the Iraqi Army. This issue was the subject of intense debate among the team I was on and in other parts of the U.S. Army. Many in the U.S. Army want to jump right in and tell the Iraqis how to do it and then “empower” the Iraqis to do it. Many want to do much of the hard work for them to help move things faster.
We found out that the more you do for the Iraqis, the less they do. Naturally, that is not the best way to get them to stand up by themselves quickly. Part of what causes that situation is cultural. Iraq has always been a centralized authority-driven nation. For the past 30 years, people who showed any initiative were in danger of being lined up against a wall and shot. The authoritarian nature of the Iraqi government also stifled the incentive to do anything more than the minimum requirement. It is hard to overcome those habits in a short period.
The Iraqis should be taught higher-end staff skills. They have to learn better planning skills and how to coordinate internal and external activities. Lacking planning skills is a great inhibitor to more efficient operations. The Iraqis will have to plan and coordinate their own support missions in the future, so those skills will benefit them.
U.S. troops are constantly relearning how to deal with the Iraqis. As the Iraqis grow in their capabilities, we have to reexamine how we deal with them. The cultural differences between Iraq and the United States also must be taken into consideration. One of these differences is the U.S. love affair with technology. Many people in the U.S. Army cannot or will not do anything without a computer. Nowadays, the average U.S. Soldier lives on a computer. However, the average Iraqi is only just now becoming acquainted with computers. We have to avoid computer-dependent solutions.
As more and more Iraqi units are moving around their country and taking on more responsibilities, the U.S. Army has to reexamine how it communicates with the Iraqi Army. In the past, the Army just contacted the U.S. MiTT that was working with that Iraqi unit. Toward the end of my tour, the unit we worked with grew in its capacities. It frequently had several convoys on the road at the same time. The MiTT is not big enough to be with all the convoys at the same time. Iraqi units have very few communications devices, and those they do have do not work with U.S. communications equipment. Those things make it very difficult for the MiTT members to communicate with Iraqi units. Those issues are being worked out daily. At most U.S. bases, Iraqi Army units that come on base are searched and funneled into certain gates that have more security. I think most people can imagine what message would be sent if you invited a friend over and then propped him up against a wall and searched him. I saw this done a few times.
Things in the Iraqi Army are improving, though. I saw some drastic changes in the year I was living with the Iraqis. When I started working with the 4th MTR, the Iraqi Army had no headquarters and no system set up to handle anything on an army-wide basis. When I left, they had a rudimentary staff system set up for all major areas. I saw that change in the course of just 10 months. The Iraqis have set up contractor-run dining facilities at most of their bases, which seem to be working well. They have set up a local purchase program that is meeting some of their needs. The Ministry of Defense is now tackling issues like future equipment acquisition.
People forget that scores of Iraqi units also participated in the big surge in Baghdad and in the Basra area. These units moved in and out of the area from all over Iraq using Iraqi vehicles. They figured out their own ways to support those units. In the beginning of my tour, it was hard for a unit from one part of Iraq to get support in another area. When I left, the Iraqis had figured out ways to support the 4th MTR on missions in Baghdad.
The big issue for the U.S. Army now is how to move the Iraqi Army along. If we do too much, it will shut down their efforts. The U.S. answer may not be the best answer for them. That answer might not be practical for the Iraqis for a variety of reasons. I also think there is a pride factor. They want help but do not want to be seen as beggars. Interactions with them also should be constructed with that in mind.
I don’t have any easy answers for quickly fixing the Iraqis’ logistics problems in a long-term, sustainable way, but something has to be done. If the Iraqi Army is going to move to the next level, it has to master logistics and retool processes to handle more-complex logistics.
Right now, the Iraqi Army is very dependent on the U.S. Army for certain parts of its logistics program. I know the U.S. Army is trying to deal with that. Some plan should be laid out quickly. The past sacrifices of the U.S. Army would be for naught if we do not help the Iraqis master logistics. Any solution must be Iraqi in nature. U.S. responses will have to be general and establish broad program parameters. We will have to let the Iraqis figure out the details if the solution is to last. I acknowledge that will take a lot of time.
Lieutenant Colonel Thomas M. Magee, USAR, is an Intermediate Level Education instructor for the 11th Battalion, 104th Division, in Independence, Missouri. He holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Kansas and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Missouri. He is a graduate of the Military Police Officer Basic and Advanced Courses, the Combined Arms and Services Staff School, and the Army Command and General Staff College.