By Andrew Tilghman, Staff writer 9:02 a.m. EDT November 15, 2015
Stonewalling in Iraq
The DoD inspector general recently shed new light on the details of U.S. train-and-equip efforts in
Iraq and Afghanistan. The IG, an independent watchdog, has launched a series of reports spotlighting
the effectiveness of security cooperation efforts, and on Oct. 22 announced a new investigation into
the Pentagon’s effort to train, advise and equip Kurdish security forces.
Another recent report focused on the current mission in Iraq, where nearly 3,500 American troops are
trying to arm, train, advise and assist Iraqi security forces in their fight against Islamic State
The report outlined what American troops found recently upon returning to a boots-on-the-ground
training mission: only limited evidence of the previous U.S. training effort in Iraq that ended in
In the few years since, the Iraqi force had reverted to a manual, paper-based system for tracking
supplies and equipment.
Iraqi troops were living in squalor: At Al Asad Air Base, there was no running water and the troops
were using slit-trench latrines. There was no mess hall; soldiers were responsible for procuring
their own food. And housing was overcrowded, with up to 14 Iraqi soldiers squeezed into individual
“containerized housing units,” where typically two or three U.S. troops would live.
Even basic trust and good will were in short supply, as Iraqi officers refused to grant their
Americans advisers access to most weapons storage facilities, making it impossible for the U.S.
personnel to assess what was on hand and what more might be needed.
That stonewalling and lack of cooperation posed a serious threat to the mission, the IG said.
The Iraqi army’s “inability or refusal to conduct complete inventories of its equipment and supplies
on hand, or to allow U.S. advisors access to supply warehouses,” threatens to impede the U.S.
training-and-equipping mission, as well as the Iraqi army’s ability to sustain combat operations,
the IG bluntly reported.
A team of national security experts told lawmakers on Capitol Hill that these train-and-equip
missions are inherently fraught with challenges, and military and civilian leaders should avoid high
“One of the findings of our research is that you can’t want it more than they do,” Christopher Paul,
a researcher with the Rand Corp., told the House committee in that Oct. 21 hearing.
“Willingness to fight, this is an incredibly difficult thing to assess,” Paul said. “It’s incredibly
difficult to know how willing to fight a force is until they are battle tested. … Lack of
willingness can disrupt security cooperation at many different levels, any of which can result in
delay, diminished success, or outright failure.”
Even when the host-nation military is extraordinarily motivated, such missions still can fail if the
government is ineffective or unpopular.
“Unless there is a legitimate, semi-stable political authority that can control a border and
actually run a government, efforts to reinforce another country’s military are going to have limited
success,” said Derek Reveron, a national security professor at the U.S. Naval War College.
Some shortcomings within the U.S. military itself also have contributed to some of the failures in
recent years, experts said.
Several experts told lawmakers that a “rotational culture” hampers efforts to forge strong
relationships with foreign militaries and follow through on new programs needed to support them.
Many U.S. troops also lack a solid “understanding of whatever culture and whatever military we’re
working with,” said retired Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, who testified at the hearing.
“I just don’t think we’re very good at that,” Fraser said. “We tend to mirror-image our perspective
on other governments and other cultures, and we need to do a better job of understanding what’s
important within that culture.”
Reveron agreed, saying the U.S. military’s personnel system “is not producing sufficient talent to
support these missions. American forces no longer operate in isolation and need an appreciation of
the historical, cultural and political context of where they operate.”
In some situations in Afghanistan, U.S. advisers “lacked skill because Coalition leadership had not
adequately identified the qualifications and experience necessary” for those personnel,” according
to an IG report released in March.
In addition, the IG noted, the U.S. military’s promotion system continues to value traditional
operational assignments with combat units over assignments advising and assisting foreign
militaries. “There were few personnel incentives to attract more highly skilled and experienced
candidates as advisors,” the report stated.
Corruption often is cited as a key problem in the governments and defense ministries of nations in
which the U.S. is engaged in train-and-assist missions. Yet the IG said U.S. officials may not be
focusing on that issue to the degree warranted.
“Efficient and accountable resource management by these ministries was not an advisory priority
emphasized in the early stages of U.S. and Coalition involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the
Underlying many of the stalled train-and-equip programs is simple illiteracy. And U.S. forces often
fail to fully appreciate how limited the education levels are in places like Afghanistan.
The result is foreign militaries filled out with units that might be able to run fire-and-maneuver
drills but cannot maintain a larger command-and-control system or the technological infrastructure
that an American-style command requires.
“Low literacy rates, inadequate generation and distribution of electricity, and lack of information
networking capacity were command and control limitations inherent to Afghanistan,” the IG’s March
Many military experts worry that these multibillion-dollar security cooperation programs are
creating “free riders” — allies who come to rely too heavily on the U.S.
While American officials often are eager to assure allies that the U.S. is not leaving anytime soon,
that sparks concerns that “other countries will rely on the U.S. to subsidize their own defense
budgets, creating a free rider problem,” Reveron said at the Oct. 21 hearing.
Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., noted that in some respects, “security cooperation is almost a host-
country stimulus program.”
“We don’t want the partner country to think that U.S. assistance is going to be there no matter
what, because then they will fail to develop the capacity and capabilities that are necessary for
them to be able to take on their challenges without U.S. aid in the future,” O’Rourke added.
“When do we draw the line and say … yes, I know we want to get this government up and running, but
maybe they’re not ready yet to do it with our dollars?” said Rep. Richard Nugent, R-Fla.. “Do we
ever … turn off the tap and say, ‘Hold on a second, you’re not meeting the goals?’ ”
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., agreed. “How do we put in place some sort of governance of these
efforts so that when they are failing, we just fess up to it and pull that plug?” she said.