The “surge” of American forces in Iraq, coupled with an adherence to classic counterinsurgency principles, has gone a long way toward improving security there. Ultimately, though, success must be handled by the Iraqis themselves. And the key to success — in Afghanistan as well — rests largely with a small group of American military advisers who live and fight alongside foreign forces.
In a speech last fall to the Association of the United States Army, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates argued that the most important military component of what the Pentagon calls the “long war” against radical extremists will not be the fighting we do ourselves but how we “empower our partners to defend and govern their own countries.” This is something we know how to do, though we often move too slowly in shifting the burden of fighting from our own troops to those we are trying to help.
Based on American experiences in Korea, Vietnam, El Salvador and now in Iraq and Afghanistan, an advisory strategy can help the Iraqi Army and security forces beat Al Qaeda and protect their country. (Obviously, these are my personal views, and do not represent those of the Army.) However, doing so will require America’s ground forces to provide at least 20,000 combat advisers for the duration of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — men and women specially equipped and trained to help foreign forces bear a greater share of the combat load.
Unfortunately, America’s military did not have the advisory capacity it should have had after major combat operations ceased. The first attempt to create a new Iraqi Army was farmed out to private contractors. When that effort failed, and it became clear that the assistance needed to help the fledgling Iraqi Army far exceeded the capability of the Army’s Special Forces, regular Army troops were called on to fill the gap. Given their lack of training, these soldiers did remarkably well, but it was always a stopgap measure.
Fortunately, the advisory effort has been improved in the last couple of years. No longer do our troops receive training of varying quality conducted at different Army posts; since 2006, all Army, Navy and Air Force adviser training has been centralized at Fort Riley, Kan., under the Army’s First Infantry Division, where I lead one of the training battalions engaged in this effort.
Graduates deploy in 10- to 16-person teams that embed with Iraqi and Afghan security forces, assist in their training and accompany them into combat. Not only does this give those foreign troops exposure to our military tactics, it also provides a critical link to American artillery, air support and logistics during operations. Still, we have not seen the urgency the mission requires.
Doctrine — a standard enumeration of the purpose of a military organization and how it will accomplish its goals — is still nonexistent for the adviser mission. Organization is inconsistent, for example, with most Afghanistan teams consisting of 16 soldiers with no medic, while most Iraq teams contain 11 soldiers, including a medic. The fact is, both types of teams are too small for the tasks they have been assigned, and many consequently have been augmented on the ground by regular troops on an ad hoc basis.
This is simply because not enough advisers are being produced — just 5,000 per year. We are going to need ever more experienced, trained advisers as the size and complexity of the Iraqi and Afghan police forces and armies grow and as the combat burden increasingly shifts to them.
Part of the problem is institutional. The United States military’s ability in battle is unmatched, but we have a spotty history in terms of helping allies fight for themselves. Advisers who live and fight with a struggling “poor cousin” local army often do their dangerous and sometimes frustrating work out of sight of the brass, and it can be a career-killer for ambitious young officers.
In Vietnam, the advisory effort got off to a slow start and was too often neglected in favor of United States-only operations. Only after Washington committed in 1969 to so-called Vietnamization at the direction of President Richard M. Nixon did advisers get the resources and recognition they deserved, and by then it was too late. In the words of an (anonymous) Army officer who served in that war, “Our military institution seems to be prevented by its own doctrinal rigidity from understanding the nature of this war and from making the necessary modifications to apply its power more intelligently, more economically and, above all, more relevantly.”
Too much of that statement still rings true today. In the long term, we need to institutionalize our ability to field advisers and provide effective military assistance to allies. As it stands now, the troops we train at Fort Riley do their tour and are then moved back into conventional roles, while the embedded training teams are demobilized. This is as senseless as if in World War II we had decided that the First Infantry Division, which had gone ashore in North Africa and Sicily, was to be disbanded and replaced on D-Day with a division that had no experience landing on hostile ground. What we need, even after the Iraq and Afghanistan missions have ended, is a standing advisory corps of about 20,000 troops that can deploy wherever in the world we need to get our allies up to speed.
Ultimately, a successful shift of the combat load from American forces to the Iraqi and Afghan armies depends on four things.
First, United States military and civilian leadership must recognize that resources to support this major shift in strategy have to be re-routed from our regular forces. Left to themselves, the military services will inevitably neglect advisory efforts to sustain conventional forces. It took presidential direction to Vietnamize the war in Southeast Asia, and it will take a similar push to successfully “Iraqify” this war.
Second, shifting the burden from our forces to Iraqi and Afghan troops will call for close coordination between our civilian leadership and commanders in the field. Even as American combat forces draw down in favor of adviser-supported local armies, American combat support in the form of firepower, intelligence and logistics will continue to be crucial, possibly to the tune of tens of thousands of Americans in the combat zone. Politically, that may be a tough sell at home, but the success we’re finally seeing will falter without a continued American presence.
Third, the United States’ success depends on the willingness of the Iraqi and Afghan armies to fight with tenacity and skill. Soldiers of both countries are good fighters when well led. But we’ll let them down if we don’t send more and larger teams to embed with locals.
Finally, the American people must continue to be patient. In the 20th century, the average counterinsurgency campaign took nine years. The campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to run longer, and other commitments loom in this protracted struggle against Al Qaeda and its imitators. Bitter experience has long recognized that only local armies can ultimately prevail in counterinsurgency operations.
For the United States, helping our friends defend themselves will be critical for victory in the long war, and improving our adviser capacity will be the foundation of a long-term strategy.