Iraq: Will Over Skill

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Army photo / Spc. Crystal Hudson

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Joshua Moody, second from left, shows an Iraqi soldier basic marksmanship skills last summer near Tikrit.

Army Major David Cutright served twice in Iraq – in 2003-04 with the 3rd Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division, and in 2009-10 with the 1st Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division, when he was in an advise-and-assist role to the nascent Iraq army.

In this recently-posted March interview with the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, he focuses on what he viewed as the key ingredient for success in rebuilding Iraqi military forces. Excerpts:

Pre-deployment focus [before his first deployment], I don’t remember anything focused on anything post major combat operations against the Iraqi divisions. Plus, at that time, there were a lot of random guesses about only being there a few months. No one foresaw a 10-year run…

Across the Iraqi unit [on his second deployment], I think in the end what we all eventually came to agree on was that the blocks to progress were more will-based than skill-based. It was perhaps a lack of will, not a lack of skill.

Some of that is left over from the culture that Saddam insisted on; initiative was always squelched. We took heart with some Iraqis who seemed to be moving past that and had at least one foot in a more positive mindset, taking some initiative and taking ownership of this newfound freedom that we just kind of thrust upon them…

A couple of times I think we would push an idea that on the surface they said, “Yeah, great,” but the moment we weren’t around to babysit it, it would completely die off. About halfway through, we had this realization that we had been measuring the progress of some of our training programs or goals with a red, yellow, green schematic, showing where it sat in terms of granting them a certain skill.

Halfway through we tacked on this second column that was not a gauge of their skill, but a gauge of their will.

I know I’m coming back to that, because it proved to be one of the bigger things for us. We may have a skill of theirs that we know to be red. Very little of them actually have the training for it, for example the maintenance of their vehicles, but what we quickly realized was that before we invested a lot of our time on that red, we had to look at the next color under the will column.

Do they really want to improve in this? If they didn’t, if the will was red also, we just avoided the topic unless through relations we felt we could change that color or change their will.

I’m a philosopher, so through the whole year I spent philosophizing about this stuff. How do you change a person’s will? I think in the end it only comes very indirectly through strong relationships, some sense of trust that they have that you’re out for their well-being. It would be the same thing for your or my will to get changed by someone else. It’s a pretty sketchy thing, and we tend to be pretty stubborn individuals…

Humans of all nationalities can sense when you’re really just there for your own Officer Evaluation Report (OER), your own benefit over that given year, or you’re there their good. I’m utterly convinced that the progress I made in relationships was because I was conveying to them how truly I wanted their success in this new freedom venture that America had handed them…

My advising time was with a Ministry of Interior element. The Ministry of Interior controls the police forces in general and that includes the border guards.

Of those 16 advisors that joined the 1st Brigade of the 82nd Airborne, four of us were allocated to the border police with a security detachment of enlisted personnel. Then there was another piece of the 16 focused on the local police forces, and then another portion focused on the IA [Iraq army].

I guess by the end of the year what I was starting to figure out was that there had been far greater investment on the part of America’s investment in Iraq on the Ministry of Defense. Yet, it seemed like our over-arching political goals were interior security.

I really wonder if, in whatever kind of grand after-action-report (AAR) people attempt to do with Iraq, whether there shouldn’t have been a  greater emphasis on the Ministry of Interior.

Not to say that there were no external threats to Iraq, but it might have been too lopsided towards the Army.

I suspect, and this is purely personal opinion, that some of that lopsidedness is simply because we speak Army, so we naturally gravitated towards the Iraqi elements that we thought we could pass more to.

It might even go back to that focus on conventional ops. We can speak conventional ops, and we totally felt comfortable with training that. I don’t think we should have totally abandoned that, but I think there should have been far more focus on the Ministry of Interior forces, overcoming some of their lack of professionalism, really overcoming a lot of the same things we were trying to overcome in the IA.

It would have had a much more direct effect on the local communities, and I kept hearing from Iraqis themselves and the national-level teams, that Iraqis by and large didn’t want their army doing internal security. They shared this notion that we have in this country of the Army doing external stuff, and civilian police forces doing internal stuff.

I don’t know why we didn’t emphasize that ourselves, with that being maybe one of the few shared assumptions that we actually could capitalize on, when there were so many that aren’t…