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Quality, Not Quantity

It's what Iraq's army needs most.

12:00 AM, Oct 14, 2005 • By CHRISTIAN LOWE
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AS THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION has faced growing pressure to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, the Pentagon has claimed that as greater numbers of Iraqi forces are able to assume the task of defending their own country, American troops will be able to leave.

But U.S. commanders are finally beginning to express caution at the pace of the training, counseling that as the instruction quickens and the number of Iraqi forces in the field swells, the quality of the army standing could be degraded. Rather than training Iraqis as "quickly as we can"--as the president has argued--slow it down, and give the fledgling army a chance to mature and gain experience, the commanders argue.

Quality trumps quantity. And quality does not come quickly.

The United States has the best trained military in the world. The nature of an all-volunteer force means its ranks are populated largely by troopers who want to be there. Though recruiting numbers haven't been meeting some of the services' needs, retention is at an all-time high. The soldiers and Marines fighting the war on terror at boot-level like their job and want to stay.

And that's a good thing, because ask any salty vet--particularly from the Army or Marine Corps, the services doing the bulk of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan--and he'll tell you that the heart of the service is its non-commissioned officer corps. These sergeants, staff sergeants, and gunnery sergeants--or sergeant's first class in the Army--are the wells of experience upon which young, untested troopers must draw as they find their martial footing.

The establishment of a smart, dedicated, and confident Iraqi noncommissioned officer corps is critical to the success of the Iraqi army and will help ensure that U.S. forces don't have to go back to clean things up. These NCOs, led by equally skilled and dedicated officers, are what make a defense force that can actually defend.

In the U.S. military, enlisted leaders are molded by at least four years of training, on-the-job experience, and formal military education. Only after they've made a choice to stay with the military for another four years do the services trust them with leadership of men in combat. The American military is trying to do what it can to substitute what takes the U.S. military nearly a decade and millions of dollars to build, and start an Iraqi NCO corps from scratch in only a few years.

"Quality leadership was previously lacking," wrote Marine Lt. Gen. Jim Conway, head of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in the October issue of Proceedings magazine. Conway led the Marines during the ground war in Iraq and during the first operation to sweep insurgents from the city of Falluja in April 2004. He knows how Iraqi forces can fail. But he sees progress in the strategy of focusing on quality over quantity.

"Our troops see the change. They know well the spirit that competent and aggressive leadership can bring to a combat unit."

And not only is the United States trying to build a well-led and trustworthy Iraqi defense force on a dramatically accelerated schedule, but they're training the fledgling force to fight one of the toughest battle scenarios: a counterinsurgency. There's agreement among military historians that fighting and winning a counterinsurgency can take years even with a well-trained, resilient, professional military.

Trying to do that with a newly-democratized, minimally-trained, culturally-fractious Iraqi army is another matter entirely. With these factors against them, it's amazing that even a single small unit of the Iraqi military is able to operate in combat at all. But while progress has been bumpy and desertions common--especially earlier on--the Iraqi army is beginning to get on its feet and take the fight to the enemy.

"To be sure, few of these units are candidates for the 1st Marine Division or the 101st Airborne right now," said the top U.S. trainer for Iraqi forces, Army Lt. Gen. David Patraeus, at an Oct. 5 Pentagon briefing. "However, they have come a very long way in a relatively short period of time in the face of a brutal enemy who has tried everything to disrupt and derail the reestablishment of Iraqi security forces, reconstruction of their infrastructure, and the delivery of their equipment. And despite taking casualties that are at least twice those of U.S. forces, Iraqis continue to volunteer in droves for the Iraqi security forces."

And if anyone needs more convincing, take a look at Michael Yon's latest dispatch from Mosul, where soldiers took a timid, fearful, and desertion-prone security force and molded the Iraqis into brave and competent defenders.