More Iraqis Bug Out Under Fire
Another Iraqi unit has fled rather than fought, Michael Gordon reports.
A company of Iraqi soldiers abandoned their positions on Tuesday night in Sadr City, defying American soldiers who implored them to hold the line against Shiite militias. The retreat left a crucial stretch of road on the front lines undefended for hours and led to a tense series of exchanges between American soldiers and about 50 Iraqi troops who were fleeing.
Capt. Logan Veath, a company commander in the 25th Infantry Division, pleaded with the Iraqi major who was leading his troops away from the Sadr City fight, urging him to return to the front. “If you turn around and go back up the street those soldiers will follow you,” Captain Veath said. “If you tuck tail and cowardly run away they will follow up that way, too.”
Captain Veath’s pleas failed, and senior American and Iraqi commanders mounted an urgent effort to regain the lost ground. An elite Iraqi unit was rushed in and with the support of the Americans began to fight its way north.
This episode was a blow to the American effort to push the Iraqis into the lead in the struggle to wrest control of parts of Sadr City from the Mahdi Army militia and what Americans and Iraqis say are Iranian-backed groups.
Then again, it’s not terribly surprising. Aside from the Republican Guards and other elite units, the Iraqi military was pathetic even under the iron rule of Saddam. There’s no tradition of courage under fire to build upon and even though five years seems a lot, it’s not nearly long enough to grow a cadre of respected NCOs and field grade officers.
Soldiers continue to fight under the stress of heavy combat because they don’t want to let their leaders down or look weak in the eyes of their comrades-in-arms. That spirit is growing in the Iraqi Army — after all, the ones who don’t bug out outnumber those who do but, alas, aren’t newsworthy — but it hasn’t yet permeated throughout the ranks.
UPDATE: Bernard Finel argues that trying to train Arabs to fight “the American Way of War” is swimming against cultural tides. It could well be, although certainly plenty of officers from that part of the world were trained in Western ways during the colonial era and since at places like Sandhurst, West Point, and the various war colleges.
UPDATE: Bernard e-mails to clarify:
I didn’t claim it was genetic… I suggested cultural. Which is also why you might get small elite units trained up in Western techniques, but may have trouble with a larger organization.
The bigger issue, is why we feel the need to train them in Western style warfare. Saddam’s army didn’t stand and fight — even the Republican Guards demonstrated their discipline mostly by remaining operational in retreat rather than in pitched close combat. Yet, Saddam’s forces maintained order. You don’t need to fight like a U.S. forces to establish stability. We are putting the bar too high — or rather in the wrong place altogether — and likely guaranteeing failure.
Presumably, the reason we’re training them in Western style warfare is because we’re training them and that’s our style of warfare. I’m not sure how you do COIN or stability ops via guerrilla-style hit and run tactics but it may be possible. But we’re certainly not the ones to teach how to do it.