New Rules for Advisers: Lessons From a Year With the Iraqi Army

A Small Wars Journal and Military Writers Guild Writing Contest Finalist Article

New Rules for Advisers: Lessons From a Year With the Iraqi Army

James King

The Army has a little known core competency, one that very few want to talk about or admit.  That competency is advising host nation forces.  From Generals Collin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf slogging through the jungles with the Republic of Vietnam Army to the Military Transition Teams (MiTT) and Advise and Assist Brigades (AAB) in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has spent a significant amount of time advising foreign troops over the last 50 years but almost no time preparing for the mission. 

Advising has been a large component to recent Army operations and was considered at one point the main effort task in both Iraq and Afghanistan, however there is no Military Occupational Specialty, skill identifier or permanent formal schooling that addresses the role of an advisor. 

Army doctrine is also lacking in its discussion of advisers.  The Counter Insurgency manual, FM 3-24 spends only one small chapter discussing the topic1 and FM 3-22, Army Support to Security Operations, only spends five pages on advisor operations.2

With only these two chapters of doctrine and the possible attendance at a short ad hoc training event to prepare them, many soldiers tasked with becoming an adviser have nowhere to look for guidance.  Many turn to the almost 100 year old lessons of T.E. Lawrence, arguably the most famous combat adviser, and his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  This is the position I found myself during the winter of 2007.

Fresh out of the Military Intelligence Captain’s Career Course, I was assigned to a Military Transition Team as the Intelligence Adviser.  The team was earmarked to deploy to Iraq to advise an Iraqi Army BRT-80 based, Motorized Infantry Battalion.  To prepare us for the mission we spent three short months at the Army’s Military Transition Team school at Fort Riley Kansas.  This school for newly designated advisers had only recently been created by gutting a brigade of the 1st Infantry Division of its junior soldiers and leaving a cadre of Noncommissioned Officers and Offices to run groups of 10 man teams through training to prepare them for their future mission of advising host nation army units in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

After, three months of training and a short stop in Germany for a rotation at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center later, we found ourselves on the Iraqi Army side of Camp Taji Iraq just north of Baghdad.  The Battalion our team was assigned to had only recently been created. The soldiers had all just graduated from basic training and most of the officers had only recently been appointed.  They had conducted no collective training, knew nothing about working as an organized formation, and had never seen or used their hand-me-down from Ukraine BTR-80s before our arrival. 

Our task was to take this group of people that were little more than a mob to start with, and shape them into a force that could leave the relatively friendly confines of Camp Taji and successfully conduct combat operations.  Operations that would eventually take them from Baghdad to Mosul before our year was up. 

From a professional standpoint my year with the Iraqi Army wasn’t easy but in the end I found it to be a very rewarding experience. I learned a lot from both my fellow teammates and the Iraqi soldiers.  Many of those soldiers find themselves fighting still today. 

What follows are a list of rules for modern day advisers based on my year embedded with the Iraqi Army.  While this list is based specifically on what worked in Iraq many of the lessons can be very easily translated to most advising situations.  It was ultimately created to help give future advisers a better starting off point than just six pages of doctrine and a 100 year old book.    

Don’t Mirror Image, They Are Not Like You and Aren’t Motivated the Same Way

The soldiers you train are not Americans and should not be treated the same or more importantly worse then you.  No matter what nationality they are you will find they do not learn the same way you did in basic training or ROTC or West Point.  There were several videos floating around the internet about the time I was working with the Iraqi Army that depicted U.S. soldiers that had been erroneously thrust into the role of adviser.  These soldiers would yell and scream in the faces of young Iraqis as if they were drill sergeants dealing with brand new recruits.  The soldiers around them could be heard laughing as it was happening.  These “advisers” thought it was funny and used it as a way to show their counterparts who was boss. 

In most non-American cultures, this training style is not only ineffective but also extremely counterproductive.  Many cultures, particularly Arab ones, value honor and their reputation over all other things.  These “smoke sessions” or “shark attacks” meant to shame a soldier into compliance may be effective in motivating young Americans but only servers to make your counterparts feel embarrassed and ashamed.  Incidents like these can often lead to soldiers deserting or in extreme cases a reprisal attack, often referred to as a “Green on Blue” incident.  

Regardless of the host nation force’s nationality, advisers must treat their counterparts with respect.  These people are fighting for their country and in many cases their homes.  They may have been doing it long before you got there and they will still be doing it long after you leave.  Show your counterparts the respect they deserve by teaching, coaching, and being a part of their team not an outsider that swoops down, yells and leaves.  

Just-in-Time is Good Enough

Long range logistics planning is not a strong suit for many countries.  Many times there will be a mad scramble by an S4 to get a class of supply to a unit just after they run out.  While it will drive an American logistician crazy many forces don’t think very far into the future when it comes to resupply.  Most will wait until they run out before asking for more or they will be given what they need for the big mission right before the attack is about to start. 

An example of this happened to our Iraqi Battalion.  The Battalion was preparing to conduct their first battalion sized combat operation.  Before this the unit had only sent out small squad size teams with the American brigade they were partnered with.  As preparations for the operation continued we noticed that none of the soldiers had ammunition for their AK-47s, PKMs, or RPG-7s. 

The start time for the operation was fast approaching and still no ammunition in sight.  Then just minutes before they were supposed to roll out we heard a horn from one of the many Chevy pickup trucks our battalion used.  I looked in the direction of the noise to see this truck driving up the column of BTR-80s with its four way flashers on.  Hanging off the side of the truck was the battalion logistics officer who was throwing full magazines of AK-47 ammunition to the soldiers who were milling about waiting to leave.  He looked like someone on a float in the Tournament of Roses Parade tossing candy to kids as they went by.

The mission was ultimately called off, but had they been required to execute the operation they could have given the unorthodox methods of the unit’s logistician. Methods that to us would have been cringe worthy and probably cost someone their job, were effective in getting the Iraqi Army unit ready for the operation, just in the nick of time. 

Give Them Only What They Can Sustain When You Are Gone

The United States military is one of the most technologically advanced armed forces in the world.  We can be, because we have the ability to sustain the technologies we have.  We also have the ability to train on these technologically advanced systems to maintain proficiency.  Most armies that we are called upon to advise would not able to maintain these high tech systems or continue their proficient use.  If given a Command Posts of the Future (CPOF) or a Distributed Common Ground System – Army (DCGS-A) most of these units might be able to use them for a short in its intended configuration but once they forgot how or the system had an issue it would be piled in the corner, turned into a high tech paper weight, or stripped of parts to repair other systems. 

An effective method for countering this phenomenon is to go back to the basics.  Teaching analog systems gives the unit being advised a method they can use not matter what their technology level.  Using analog also ensures the fundamentals of the process are fully understood.  There are no short cuts with using analog products.  And if later on down the road they are able to sustain a more advanced system they will have mastered the basics first.

In working with the Iraqi Battalion Intelligence team I had to set aside all the advanced systems I would have been able to bring to the fight as a U.S. Army Intelligence officer and go back to the basics of detective work.  We helped them build a patrol debrief format that every patrol would fill out as they came back in.  This was then translated into a series of 3”x5” cards.  These cards were cataloged by location and subcategorized by names.  This helped us to build a link diagram of the High Value Targets within the area we were operating in.  If not for this low tech system of card filing there would have been no database of information to guide future missions.

A Trophy for Everyone

At the beginning of the deployment our team found itself teaching classes on urban operations over and over again to the different platoons in the battalion.  We expected that the soldiers would eventually get it but we noticed they were not paying attention to class or would find ways to not attend.  We were at a loss as to how we could get the Iraqi soldiers interested in the training. 

At the same time our partnered unit wanted to give the soldiers who did well in the course credit for completing the class.  They came up with a certificate of completion similar to the course certificates that U.S. soldiers look at once and either file away or throw in the garbage. 

After that first class received their certificates we began to see something different.  Those soldiers would go back to their barracks with their newly minted certificates in hand and instantly become the talk of the unit.  Everyone wanted to know how they could get a certificate.  The ones that had them would tape them to their tent wall or take them home where they would be placed in a position of honor. 

Motivation for training began to shoot through the roof.  Everyone wanted a certificate to show what they had done.  Every class from then on was full of attentive trainees eager to prove they too were worthy of a piece of paper with a U.S. Army Captain’s name on it.

Don’t Do it For Them

The Spanish Philosopher Maimonides said, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”3 This is no truer than in the world of advising.  By giving the unit a fish, doing it for them, you are building an unsustainable system.  You will not be there forever nor will your replacement.  You have to build a system that is sustainable long after you are gone, by teaching them to fish.    

It won’t be easy.  You will be tempted to do things for them because there will be pressure from your leadership for things to be done right and quickly.  Generally, your counterpart will get it done either right or quickly but rarely both at least at first.  Accept this and learn to live within this reality.  You won’t be able to change it right away.  This will take time and it will go against everything that has been drilled into you but patience is key. 

Talk them through it, work with them, and hold their hand, whatever you have to do to get it done.  Just as long as you aren’t the one doing the work. As you see them become more and more self-sufficient the pain it took to get there will be worth it.  

Ego’s Matter

In Arab cultures in particular, being perceived as an important person or having “Wasta” is can make or break that person.  It is important to understand the effect of what you are doing has on the dynamic of the personalities within the organization you are trying to help.  Getting involved too much or creating the impression you are going around someone can make the leader you are working with seem weak.  It may look like he is unable to do his job if you are always doing things for him. 

You also never want to look like you are stepping over the authority of those you are advising.  Give them the opportunity to work the issue.  Also understand that empowering subordinates can be a threat.  Egos can be fragile.  Some leaders can see their subordinates as trying to take their position if they have more training or are perceived to be better at their job.

A good example of the balancing act an advisor needs to walk came up while I was trying to get some of our Iraqi Army Intelligence soldiers training.  We had the good fortune of having the Iraqi Army Intelligence School near to where our unit was stationed.  My NCOIC and I took the initiative to coordinate for some of our more promising soldiers to compete for slots at the school.  After passing the pretest these soldiers were offered slots with the class.  In the U.S. Army this would have been all there was to it, the soldiers would get the training and we would have had a strong feeling of accomplishment.  However things are very different in Iraq. 

The brigade G2 found out that we had gone around him and got our soldiers slotted and was not happy.  He asked to see me and proceeded to cuss me out for going over his head.  Not only were those soldiers not going to be slotted for that course no soldier in our battalion would be slotted as long as he was the G2. 

Come to find out, the real reason he was so angry wasn’t so much that we had gotten slots for our soldiers, it was the fact that he had not gone to the course.  He could not pass the prerequisite test, which I will admit was not an easy test.  Allowing my soldiers to attend would mean that they were better than he was thus significantly reducing his perceived importance.

Had I know this was the case I could have worked with the brigade Intelligence adviser to get the G2 slotted before my soldiers.  That would have allowed him to keep or even improve his level of importance and I could have eventually gotten my soldiers trained.

Relationships Matter More

Being a part of a small adviser team can be a very lonely place.  You will need to get support from everyone you can.  But you can’t go in and demand it.  You don’t want to be perceived as the blood sucking leech drawing resources while providing nothing in return.  Maybe your host nation unit can provide valuable information about the surrounding area.  Maybe they can provide some security for a supply movement.  The more you can help others the more outside help you will muster and the more effective your team will be.

Our team had a good relationship with the brigades that operated in the same area as our Iraqi battalion.  It wasn’t until we moved to a new area that we found how important relationship building really was. 

We had to move our Iraqi battalion to a completely different area of Iraq.  When we got there we found that the previous MiTT teams had completely destroyed their relationship with the American unit.  This resulted in a very cold welcome when we arrived.  The brigade we were supposed to work with refused to provide us the support we needed.  Being new to the area we found it difficult to be effective as a team without the same level of support we had enjoyed in our previous area.

Advisors Need Security

My advising experience was on a ten man MiTT.  These teams were designed to be self-sustaining to include securing themselves during operations.  This meant that we had to go out on every mission as an entire team unless we were partnered with a larger American force.  Going out on every mission would take valuable time away from our primary role of providing coaching to our counterpart staff section. 

Many teams mitigated this by getting security teams from the American unit in the area.  This works if that’s the situation you find yourself in.  However, if that is not the case, a security team whose only duty is to provide security should deploy with the advisers.  This will allow the adviser to focus their time on coaching.

Show Trust But Verify

President Reagan said in regards to the Soviets and the treaty they just signed that we needed to “trust but verify”.4 For an adviser these are words to live by.  To ensure things get done or soldiers are prepared for operations you as an adviser will need to verify tasks are completed and equipment is ready.  The balancing act becomes how you do make your host nation force feel like you trust them while still following up to ensure things get done? 

This is not an easy thing to do.  If you don’t ensure they complete their tasks the mission might fail but if you don’t make them feel trusted the overall advising mission can fail.  Ultimately, by not showing trust the relationship with your host nation counterpart can be lost.  However, you have to choose between trusting and verifying take the risk at breaking trust by verifying the task is complete. 

This became important during training one day.  We noticed that some of the soldiers’ body armor looked a little thin.  After checking we found that one soldier in particular decided to leave his armor plates on his bunk.  He told us it was heavy and hot so he left it back.  After checking several other soldiers we found that a group of soldiers had replaced their body armor plates with cardboard trays from their chow hall to make it look like they had their plates in.  Many of these soldiers were scheduled to participate in a combat mission later that day and would likely have gone into combat without their armor. 

In this situation a little bit of trust was broken, we didn’t believe the leaders of these soldiers had checked their gear.  But after we found armor missing we were able to turn it into a teaching moment on the importance of pre combat checks.  Fortunately, the trust relationship was only bruised and lives were potentially saved.

A Mustache Will Not Make Up For Your Shortcomings as a Leader

During our training at Fort Riley our team was told that Iraqis respect a man with a mustache and people with pistols have the power.  Our team chief latched onto this bit of information and ran with it.  He knew he was going to be assigned an M9 pistol so that box was checked.  Now all he had to do was grow a mustache and the Iraqis would have to respect him. 

Just like with an American soldier who walks into a new unit with a Ranger tab and a Combat Infantryman’s Badge, our team chief had from this first impression some initial credibility until he opened his mouth.  Soon after the Iraqi officers saw right through him.  He had never been in combat and knew nothing about infantry tactics, two points that became clear to our counterparts very quickly. Eventually, his counterpart, the battalion commander refused to listen to him.  This lasted the rest of the deployment.  Our team chief never understood why. He had the mustache and pistol what else did he need?

None of the rest of us went in with him on growing the mustache and we developed good relationships with our counterparts.  What he didn’t understand was a gimmick will not hide your incompetence.  No matter who you are partnered with, if you try to fake it, they will see right through you.

Simple is Better than Perfect

There are many complicated tasks in the military.   For many host nations the complicated nature of how we do things gets in the way of their ability to accomplish the task. Advisers have to strip away that complication and get to the root tasks that need to be done to accomplish the mission. 

We discovered this early on in our time with the Iraqi Army.  Each morning there would be a pile of weapons at the training site.  Soldiers would walk up and randomly grab a weapon to use for the day.  There was no way to account for the weapons and no one knew how many were brought out each day. 

The U.S. Army answer would have been to use a hand receipt that documented the serial number of every item checked out.  This hand receipt would be filled out each time a Soldier removed a weapon from the arms room.  They would get it back once the weapon was returned.  Using this method with the Iraqi Army would have cost countless hours of valuable training time.  Not to mention the fact that many young Iraqi soldiers couldn’t write to fill out the receipt.

Our simple solution was to use a buttstock numbering system.  We worked with the battalion arms room soldiers to paint numbers on each of the weapons.  We then assigned each weapon number to each soldier.  They would come to the 20 foot storage container which was used as the arms room, state their name and number, receive their weapon, and sign the ledger.  Once training was over for the day they would return their weapon and sign the ledger again.  This system not only made issuing weapons faster it made accountability easier as well.  

Understand the Culture and People

As stated in rule number one, host nation security forces do not act the same or think the same as Americans.  The sooner advisers understand this the sooner they can use this knowledge to optimize their coaching.  Learning the nuances of a culture is only the first step.  Studying a culture will only give you generalities.  Advisers need to learn quickly the personalities of the leaders they are advising.  Who are the people that get things done?  Who are the road blocks to accomplishing something?  Whose ego do you need to be careful of injuring? 

Understanding the answers to these questions early will help advisers work the unique dynamics of their counterparts to effectively accomplish the mission.  Giving the wrong leader a task can effect mission accomplishment.  Stepping on a leader’s ego can halt everything and may be something you can’t recover from. 

You Being in Combat With Them is Worth More Than Any Training

An adviser can teach, coach and mentor all day and all night but if he does not go out on combat missions with his host nation all credibility will be lost.  There are two reasons for this.  First and most obvious, depending on the environment being on a mission with your counterparts you bring to the fight an awesome set of enablers.  From indirect fire assets to intelligence collection to close air support.  An adviser brings an impressive set of toys to the fight that most host nation forces would not have access to if you were not there.  Just knowing that firepower is there can be the little shot of courage your counterpart needs.

Second, you being on a combat mission with your counterpart builds credibility.  One of the fastest way to building a relationship is a shared hardship.  Your willingness to be on the ground with your counterpart as they work through the hard problems of combat not only builds your credibility it builds trust and confidence that you are committed to help.  It shows you are truly a part of their team.   

Advisors Need the Right Kind of Experience

Not every soldier’s career path gives them the experiences they need to be an effective adviser.  An adviser should be proficient in the tactical aspects of their career field.  An Army Military Intelligence officer who has spent his entire career working on strategic problems would not be a good fit.  Nor would someone whose career field isn’t one your counterpart unit has. 

As an example the team I was a part of was responsible for advising an infantry battalion.  The only person on our team that had spent any time at the U.S. Army Infantry School was myself and I was there as the intelligence adviser.  Our team chief was an Air Defense Artillery officer who had never deployed to Iraq and had no experience at the tactical level. 

This dynamic made conducting infantry training a difficult task.  The advisers on our team had to research aspects of their course of instruction that someone with the requisite experience would have been able to teach in their sleep.  An infantry battalion adviser team should be led by an infantry officer, a counterpart intelligence section should have an intelligence adviser and so on.

Your Interpreters are Your Best Asset, Take Care of Them and They Will Take Care of You

In most situations an adviser will find himself in a position where he does not speak the language of the people he is advising.  This means in most cases your interpreter will be more important than any weapon system.  Regardless of their skill level these unsung heroes of advising must be treated with respect.  Without them you will be useless.

Your relationship with your interpreters can make or break your time as an adviser.  You need to make them feel like they are a part of the team and not just an outsider.  They need to know that their efforts are an important part of the mission.  Get to know them and involve them in activities outside of your advising mission, anything you can do to show them you care.  Go over what you want to work with your counterpart on a head of time so they can help.  These simple things will go a long way towards building a strong relationship.

The importance of interpreters was one of the first lessons we learned upon arrival in Iraq.  Our team was to work with a new battalion so there was no outgoing team to transition with nor were there any interpreters to fall in on.  This left us with our Intelligence Sergeant who was an Arabic linguist as our sole interpreter.  It was a struggle.  He couldn’t be everywhere at once and he was only trained in Modern Standard Arabic so he had a hard time with the slang filled conversational Arabic most of our counterparts spoke.  A few weeks later our compliment of interpreters arrived and we were rolling.  Not having them taught us right away how valuable they were to us.

The lesson came up again when our battalion was tasked to move half way across Iraq.  We could not force our interpreters to relocate with us.  We could only ask them to continue to help.  The move was far away for those with families which would cause them to have a hard time getting back on their leave.  It’s only because of the relationship we had built were we able to get a few of them to volunteer to move with us.  If it were not for their willingness to help we would have been right back where we started, struggling to communicate like it was day one all over again.

Our year ended not long after that move from Taji.  Our team arrived in Iraq to a mob of people that knew very little about combat operations.  Through our efforts and the lessons we learned along the way, that mob slowly morphed itself into a cohesive fighting unit.  One that the Iraqi army felt confident enough to deploy over 300 KMs from its home station to support operations in a critical area of the country.     

End Notes

1. Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies, FM 3-24, U.S. Army May 2014 Chapter 11

2. Army Support to Security Cooperation, FM 3-22, U.S. Army January 2013, pg 6-6 to 6-11

3. Maimonides. BrainyQuote.com, Xplore Inc, 2016. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/maimonides326751.html, accessed October 24, 2016

4. President Reagan says trust but verify, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=As6y5eI01XE

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Comments

I would say that the weakness of both the Iraqi and Afghan armies is evidence that the US military is not good at building foreign armies. Without US air supremacy each force would have been swept off the battlefield long ago.

Why? Lack of language skills. Too short tours. Training courses for locals should be longer not shorter than the same course for Americans. Fear of disciplining locals. Not being in command.

What happened to this unit when IS appeared? If it fought did it hold it's ground or disintegrate.

Agreed, especially the last point on your list. Despite an undoubted laundry list of hurdles, we should take a long look at seconding like the Brits used to do.