Training Iraqi Army Leaders Hits Cultural Wall

Training officers and sergeants to lead the Iraqi army is proving much more difficult than training rank-and-file soldiers.

Training a New Army From the Top Down — U.S. Military Advisers Struggle to ‘Build Leaders’ (WaPo, A19)

U.S. Army Capt. Brian Dugan was already smoking mad. When he first arrived at this Iraqi army post in central Baghdad on a crisp October morning, he discovered that the gunner at the main entrance was missing from his truck-mounted weapon. Another 50 feet in, an Iraqi army guard, his helmet off, was sacked out on a pile of sandbags. A second guard was chatting with three buddies who were just hanging out at the checkpoint. And now this. “That latrine is locked,” Dugan said, glancing over at a bank of portable toilets. “I know exactly what this is. This is for the officers.”

Dugan was angry that the Iraqi commanders had staked out a private latrine for themselves instead of making their soldiers keep all the portable toilets clean. It was just another privilege they demanded, without accepting responsibility for their troops, he said. “Take the lock off, or I’ll cut it off,” Dugan told an Iraqi officer walking by.


In testimony in September before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. John P. Abizaid, who leads the U.S. Central Command, said that a single Iraqi battalion was at “Level 1” combat readiness, meaning it was capable of taking the lead in combat without support from coalition forces. Gen. George W. Casey Jr., who oversees U.S. forces in Iraq said the number of Level 1 battalions had dropped from three to one since June.

Americans troops in Iraq say the reason is simple: The Iraqi forces are only as good as their commanders, and when those commanders are inadequate, transfer, quit or get killed in action, their units often fall apart. “You try to build leaders,” said Lt. Col. Robert M. Roth, commander of Task Force 4-64. “You’re trying to build officers. But you have to understand if you go in and say, ‘Duty, honor, country’ — no, it’s American. You can’t do that. The only thing they understand, for the most part, is money and authority.”

Although many of the Iraqi army commanders are veterans of former president Saddam Hussein’s disbanded military, they have no experience in leading a volunteer army of men in defense of a nation, the Americans said. “Privilege is a big thing with them, but we have to stress that with privilege comes responsibility,” Roth said. “We have to tell them that they’re expected to suffer the same environmental conditions as their soldiers. We tell them that you have to relate to that soldier because you may have to say to that soldier, ‘Go take that hill,’ and that soldier may die. We have to drill that into the commanders every day.”

Later in the longish article, we learn that Roth and company are having a difficult time teaching the leaders to be leaders, too. It seems to be the worst of both worlds: Not only do they demand aristocratic privilege but they are unwilling to issue unpopular orders. Usually, at least aristocrats are accustomed to giving orders and expecting them to be obeyed.

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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. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Major K. has also mentioned another problem in training officers and non-coms: literacy. There aren’t enough Iraqis in the ING or Army who are literate enough to make it a modern army.