Building Iraq’s Army: Mission Improbable

A front page story in today’s Washington Post by Anthony Shadid and Steve Fainaru paints a pretty grim, if anecdotal, account of the progress training Iraq’s army.

Building Iraq’s Army: Mission Improbable (WaPo, A1) PF

[…] “We can’t tell these guys about a lot of this stuff, because we’re not really sure who’s good and who isn’t,” said Rick McGovern, a tough-talking 37-year-old platoon sergeant from Hershey, Pa., who heads the military training for [the Iraqi army’s] Charlie Company.

The reconstruction of Iraq’s security forces is the prerequisite for an American withdrawal from Iraq. But as the Bush administration extols the continuing progress of the new Iraqi army, the project in Baiji, a desolate oil town at a strategic crossroads in northern Iraq, demonstrates the immense challenges of building an army from scratch in the middle of a bloody insurgency.

Charlie Company disintegrated once after its commander was killed by a car bomb in December. And members of the unit were threatening to quit en masse this week over complaints that ranged from dismal living conditions to insurgent threats. Across a vast cultural divide, language is just one impediment. Young Iraqi soldiers, ill-equipped and drawn from a disenchanted Sunni Arab minority, say they are not even sure what they are fighting for. They complain bitterly that their American mentors don’t respect them.

In fact, the Americans don’t: Frustrated U.S. soldiers question the Iraqis’ courage, discipline and dedication and wonder whether they will ever be able to fight on their own, much less reach the U.S. military’s goal of operating independently by the fall.

“I know the party line. You know, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, five-star generals, four-star generals, President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld: The Iraqis will be ready in whatever time period,” said 1st Lt. Kenrick Cato, 34, of Long Island, N.Y., the executive officer of McGovern’s company, who sold his share in a database firm to join the military full time after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. “But from the ground, I can say with certainty they won’t be ready before I leave. And I know I’ll be back in Iraq, probably in three or four years. And I don’t think they’ll be ready then.”


“Honestly, I don’t think people in America understand how touchy the situation really is right now,” McGovern said. “We have the military power, the military might, but we’re handling everything with kid gloves because we’re hoping the Iraqis are going to step up and start taking things on themselves. But they don’t have a clue how to do it.”

Asked when he thought the Iraqi soldiers might be ready to operate independently, McGovern said: “Honestly, there’s part of me that says never. There’s some cultural issues that I don’t think they’ll ever get through.”

McGovern added that the Iraqis had “come a long way in a very short period of time” and predicted they would ultimately succeed. But he said the effort was still in its infancy. “We like to refer to the Iraqi army as preschoolers with guns,” he said.

Harsh words indeed. Granted, these are the assessments of two company level soldiers whose experience is limited to their observations of one Iraqi unit. Granted too, the lieutenant is old enough to be a major and thinks there are still five star generals in our Army, when the last retired over half a century ago. Still, as Kevin Drum observes, “It’s not a pretty picture.” But is it an accurate one?

John Hawkins argues that this is just another example of media bias.

The whole piece is designed to convince the WAPO’s readers that the Iraqis are hopeless losers who’ll never be able to defend their own country. In order to do this, the reporters coax snarky quips out of a few Iraqi and American soldiers that portray the Iraqis as total, blithering incompetents.

I agree that the report is unbalanced. It may or may not be an accurate portrayal of the majority view among the American soldiers training “Charlie Company” (surely, the Iraqi army has more than one “Charlie” company) although the fact that only two soldiers are quoted is a red flag. How representative the experiences and attitudes of Montgomery and Cato are of company level soldiers across Iraq, though, is decidedly unclear.

Certainly, we’ve seen many anecdotal accounts of American soldiers being frustrated by the incompetence and courage of Iraqi forces. After decades of a largely unprofessional, conscript military ready to lay down its arms at the first signs of a superior foe, it may indeed be hard to instill American military norms in Iraq. Still, there have been story after story–even in the Post–indicating that substantial progress has been made. An anecdotal, small picture piece painting a totally bleak picture is not cause for panic.

Update (1018): A commenter suggests Norville de Atkine’s piece “Why Arabs Lose Wars” from the March 2000 Middle East Review of International Affairs. It is a useful adjunct to some of the “cultural” claims made in the WaPo piece.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    “After decades of a largely unprofessional, conscript military ready to lay down its arms at the first signs of a superior foe….”

    Superior foe or not, they didn’t run during the Iran-Iraq war, the ferocity of which rivaled WWI trench warfare or WWII’s eastern front.

  2. James Joyner says:

    True enough, although they were pretty evenly matched in that one and ultimately won the war.

  3. charlie32 says:

    For a more detailed perspective google on Norman DeAtkine’s article “Why Arab Armies lose wars”. He is a retired South West Asia FAO with decades of experience. The Army has known about the challenges of training an army from that part of the world are for a long time, and has ways of meeting the challenges.
    The WaPo is just pushing the usual leftie mantra of “its hard, lets not even try”. These guys would have surrendered to the Brits at Valley Forge, instead of building the Continantal Army, if they had been there.