Training Should Be the Primary Mission

A Commentary by Lee H. Hamilton, President and Director of the Woodrow Wilson Center

Apr 18, 2007

Americans have the war in Iraq pretty well figured out. They know that American troops cannot settle Iraq's sectarian conflict, but they also want us to do whatever we can to avoid leaving behind chaos. They want the United States to withdraw responsibly.

To maximize our chances of achieving stability in Iraq, the training of Iraqi security forces should become the primary mission of U.S. forces in Iraq. Whether you support the President's policy or a timeline for troop withdrawals, the training mission should be paramount. Whether our troops leave sooner or leave later, stability requires trained Iraqi security forces to take their place. The more effective the training mission, the sooner U.S. forces can leave -- and the better our chance to leave behind a measure of stability.

Our record on training has not been good. There were many stops and false starts in the first three years of the training mission. Significant problems remain. Nonetheless, through trial-and-error the training mission has improved considerably over the past year. It now requires an intense focus so that reasonably capable Iraqi forces can assume responsibility for the security of their country. No military mission in Iraq is more important, yet training is often overshadowed by combat operations – notably, the current surge of U.S. military forces in Baghdad.

Some 331,000 Iraqi security personnel have completed basic training. What they now need is supervised on-the-job training as they conduct field operations. All observers acknowledge that Iraqi units perform better when U.S. forces are present. On-the-job training is best done by embedding more U.S. military personnel in Iraqi deployed units. This process is occurring in Baghdad and elsewhere and is part of our current strategy, but there is no indication – in official statements, the allocation of resources, or reports from the field – that it is our top priority.

Lasting security requires Iraqi forces in the lead. U.S. forces should be transitioning to a training, supervision, and support role. No surge of U.S. forces can provide anything more than a temporary reduction in violence in a specific area. U.S. forces can clear any neighborhood – but security cannot be sustained over time unless Iraqis take the lead and hold neighborhoods once they are cleared. In Baghdad and beyond, there needs to be a surge of military, political and economic effort by Iraqis to restore and maintain stability. U.S.-led military operations should be the exception, not the norm.

The Iraqi Army still faces major challenges in equipment, personnel, logistics and support. The problems of the Iraqi police are even more daunting, including widespread corruption and militia infiltration. The Army and Police also face questions of leadership and loyalty to the national government. We can make progress on these challenges, but only if the training mission is given priority.

Clear steps should be taken. The most highly qualified U.S. officers and military personnel should be assigned to the training mission, with American teams present with Iraqi units down to the company level. The U.S. military should establish suitable career-enhancing incentives for our officers and personnel, because their mission is now the most important one.

The number of U.S. police trainers and civilian training officers should be expanded. Training teams should cover all levels of the Iraqi Police Service, including local police stations. These trainers should be recruited from experienced civilian police officers around the world, and replace military personnel who lack the requisite expertise. With our assistance, the Ministry of Defense needs to better manage its finances and procurement, so that troops get paid and the necessary equipment flows to Iraqi forces.

There are many tasks on the "to do" list in order to bring some stability to Iraq. They include national reconciliation by Iraq's leaders, comprehensive diplomacy to engage Iraq's neighbors, and building the capacity of Iraqi Ministries to function effectively as a government. All these tasks are necessary, but they are not sufficient unless there is also progress on security. Indeed, if there is one thing the President and the Congress should be able to agree on, it is the central importance of the training mission: this is our best shot at creating lasting security and withdrawing U.S. forces responsibly.

Iraqi soldiers and police are far more numerous than U.S. forces. They know their country. They will be there for the long haul. There is no path to an orderly and responsible transition of U.S. forces out of Iraq unless training becomes our primary mission.

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