The Utility of Advisors in COIN

Or, How not to Confuse 300 Deployed Personnel with having a Strategy

The Obama administration has responded to the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham’s (ISIS) offensive by authorizing the deployment of 750 troops so far, a number that includes advisors, Apache helicopter gunships, and security personnel, but somehow does not equate to “boots on the ground.”

This move, frankly, seems to be another case of foreign policy through improvisation rather than a strategy.  The idea that a hastily-assembled group of advisors in particular will sway event in Iraq is laughable, given the recent history the United States has had with advisor operations.

Clearly Iraqi Security Forces must improve their performance in order to defeat ISIS.  ISF have either lost to or refused to close with and engage the Islamic insurgents during many episodes in the past year.  Yasir Abbas and Dan Trombly, analysts from Caerus Associates, present a strong argument for why the 2d Iraqi division collapsed during the recent fighting.  I feel their analysis gives evidence for four points that should serve as principles for understanding the success or failure of any military force that is being propped up by outside forces, these principles are:

  1. The home team ultimately needs to want victory, and fight it out
  2. Leadership trumps equipment
  3. Training is perishable; collective and individual skills all deteriorate
  4. Equipment breaks down and must be maintained

Number 1 should be intuitive to anyone who has touched COIN operations in the past decade.  2-4 are likewise not that hard to grasp, and should be face-palm obvious to anyone who has served in a military leadership position, especially in ground forces.  In the face of the last offensive ISF showed poor martial spirit.  There are probably several reasons for this, but it is a safe assumption that ISF’s failure to follow principles 2-4 contributed to their ability to follow through on principle 1: showing up to the battlefield with a force that is ready to do battle.  In the face of this, the United States is now sending in troops and basing aircraft overhead, with the presumption that this will stiffen the resolve of the remaining Iraqi forces.  I’d like to detail why we should not expect immediate results from such an effort.

We invested years of effort and billions of dollars building up the ISF, 17 billion by one count.  Thousands of troops participated in the training, both those from the Multi-National Security Transition Command- Iraq (MNSTC-I) and those “taken out of hide” from deployed units.  Some of this training was slap dash and poorly conceived (not unlike some home station training in the United States, it is important to note), but much of it was pretty good.  The training effort I participated in leveraged both active duty NCOs and officers as well as contractors with former military experience.  We controlled our curriculum, we taught individual and collective tasks, and evaluated them in field training exercises after

MNSTC-I established training facilities for occupational specialities including infantry, engineers, and first aid.  The effort, and the expense, was prodigious.  When trained Iraqi soldiers returned to their units, Military Transition Teams (MiTTs) and a host of other acronym advisors were assigned to continue the teaching, coaching, and mentoring.  Additionally, as is often pointed out, these teams took on first hand tasks like coordination for ISR, MEDEVAC, and logistics.

These MiTTs also represented a significant investment.  If fully manned, an Iraqi battalion had a dozen or more NCOs and officers assigned to it.  MiTTs were larger at higher echelons (brigade and division), and were occasionally augmented by extra security forces.  The Army developed a significant infrastructure for preparing these MiTTs.  Fort Riley served as the center for training these MiTTs, as they had their own curriculum on topics like communications, survival, and use of interpreter.  The grandiosely-named “Phoenix Academy”, based in Camp Taji, Iraq, provided finalized in-country training on advising and COIN.   A few of us performing institutional training (that is, training Iraqis) chafed at the Phoenix Academy’s budget and priority for construction assets and personnel. At the time, the plan was for the Iraqi Army to have 10 divisions plus some supporting units, including Special Operations Forces.

None of this, of course, saved the ISF this spring, as Abbas and Trombly pointed out in their piece. Clearly training had eroded over time.  This is understandable even if the Iraqi Army were well-run.  We departed Iraq (officially) in December of 2011, leaving Marine Security Guards (who serve everywhere we have a major diplomatic presence) and a military advisor group to help the Iraqis receive American weapons.  The best organizations can experience a lot of turnover in three years just from soldiers leaving via promotion or transfer.  The Iraqi Army, beset by corruption and sectarian intrigue, is hardly the best of institutions.

It is likely that many Iraqi units caved and ran under ISIS assaults (or even proximity) due to poor leadership and poor logistics.  CJ Chivers, a New York Times correspondent, detailed how one brigade’s contract supply system completely broke down when it left garrison, forcing them at one point to conduct an 11 hour convoy without food or water .  However, even if the ISF can fix these problems, it will have to fix other ones like marksmanship, small unit tactics, and even land navigation (Chivers reported the convoy got lost on the road march as well).

The idea that 300 advisors are going to fix this mess is laughable.  At best they can do an assessment, and the result of the assessment will be that Iraqi Security Forces need “more.”  More training, more mentorship for leaders, more focus on ethics, so that commanders do not embezzle unit funds and frustrated soldiers do not videotape the beating of alleged ISIS detainees. More logistics for units that have had their combat supply capabilities kept deliberately lean, first through reliance on US assets, and second through a contract support system.  Finally, they will ask for more ISR and more air assets.  Even if the current administration authorized the return of a MNSTC-I-sized effort, it would not change the intractably divisive political calculi of the political leaders claiming to represent Iraq’s Shia, Sunni, and Kurds.

The arguments for air strikes, ISR, and the creation of a Joint Operations Center, where US and ISF can fuse intelligence on ISIS operations, all have their own problems that deserve considerate definition, analysis, and critique.  But it is particularly galling to start this latest round of involvement with Iraq by suggesting that advisors will be the fix, both for what it says about previous advising efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan’s likelihood for success upon the withdrawal of US combat forces there.

If we’re going to develop a strategy, then let us develop a strategy and execute it.  But we cannot pull 300 soldiers away from their units and families to have them draw TDY and combat pay just to simply say  . . .the Iraqis are still broke.  It is not fair to use the military as a piece of “foreign policy theater” just so the United States can seen to be doing something in the face of losing Iraq.  As a military, our war fighters deserve more thoughtful employment than Vietnam-era mission creep, and as citizens we deserve a better policy for a foreign policy problem like Iraq.