The MTT Mission; Successes and setbacks with the Iraqi Army
FALLUJAH, IRAQ: While critics of the Iraq Army continue to question the capabilities of the units and soldiers, a real move towards operational independence is occurring within the Iraqi Army. Last year, I embedded with the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines (the Teufelhunden) in Husaybah, as well as the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines (The Raiders) in the Haditha Triad. The 3/6 was working with the 1st Battalion, 1st Brigade, 1st Division of the Iraqi Army, the most seasoned unit in the Army, while the 3/1 worked with the 7th Division, the greenest unit in the Iraqi Army. In western Anbar, a platoon of Marines paired up with a platoon of Iraqi Army soldiers in small outposts called Battle Positions. The Iraqi Army patrolled jointly with the Marines, and were directly dependent on the Marines for food, supplies, ammunition and transport.
The relationship between the Marines and the Iraqi Army has changed over the past year. The 1st Iraqi Army Division is now in the Fallujah region, and the 1st Brigade’s sister unit, the 2nd Brigade, is now operating independently, with embedded Marine Military Transition Teams. Major David McCombs, the executive officer of the 3-2-1 MTT, said their mission is to “advise, assist and mentor the Iraqi Army, and what they do with this is up to them.” There is 1 MTT at the brigade level, and 1 MTT for each of the 3 light infantry battalions in the brigade.
The Marines of the 3rd Recon Military Transition Team (or MTT), advises the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Brigade of the 1st Division (3-2-1). The 3-2-1 MTT is made up of 15 personnel (11 trained MTTs with 4 augment Marines), who are embedded withing an Iraqi battalion (about 500 troops).
The MTT team is modeled after Special Forces teams, as training a foreign military force is a classic Special Forces mission. The team is top heavy with officers and senior non-commissioned officers. The 3-2-1 MTT is made up of 2 majors, 1 captain, 3 1st lieutenants, 2 gunnery sergeants, 1 staff sergeant and 2 sergeants. They live and work side by side with the Iraqi Army. The size of the unit and the unique, specialized mission causes the officers and senior enlisted to take on non-traditional roles such as drivers and gunners for convoys through the city on a daily basis.
The Marine MTTS in Fallujah act more as liaisons to the Iraqis than advisers due to resource constraints and problems within the Iraqi Army and the Ministry of Defense. The MTTs are wearing many hats, which limits their ability to advise at the tactical level. An example is how the MTT members were trained and slotted, and what they do on a daily basis has changed since arriving in Iraq. Major McCombs is billeted at the staff trainer, but does the job as operations and executive officers, among many others. Lt. Cortez is a logistics officer but is embedded at the company level as an adviser. Gunny Martin is billeted as the heavy weapons adviser, but is serving as logistics officer.) They are often forced to deal with the critical daily issues, which mainly is related to logistics.
The MTT officers and NCOs all agree that expanding the size of the team will greatly increase their effectiveness, and will allow them to both advise and train their counterparts. There are plans to beef up the number of MTTs in Iraq. The Associated Pressreports the military is “tripling its number of embedded trainers to about 9,000,” however some estimates place the number of MTTs in Iraq at 5,000. But it is unclear whether the size and composition of the individual teams will be increased. Last week, I asked Lieutenant General James Mattis about increasing the size of the individual MTT teams, and he stated he preferred the teams to remain “lean and agile.”
Shortcomings and Successes
After spending time with the 3-2-1 MTT and the Iraqi Army, and spending time talking to both the Marines and Iraqi soldiers involved in the enterprise, the successes and shortcomings became evident.
Iraqi Army Shortcomings
Logistics. The IA logistical system is broken at the battalion, brigade, division and Ministry of Defense levels. Requests for equipment such as batteries, air conditioners, heaters, vests, helmets, building materials are mostly ignored. Soldiers in some units share helmets or vests to go out on patrol.
The Ministry of Defense. The MoD is a highly centralized decision making organization, which controls the purse strings of the Iraqi Army. Requests for equipment that should be fulfilled at the battalion or brigade level must go up to MoD, and are ignored. “Why should I file requests for equipment when I know [the chain of command] won’t fulfill it?,” is the attitude of the executive officers of one of the Iraqi Army companies, notes Lt. Turner.
Pay. Some soldiers and officers haven’t been paid in over a year. Some soldiers are talking about leaving the Army if they are not paid soon. The lower ranks strongly suspect senior officers are pocketing their pay. Soldiers that have left the military are also kept on the rolls and their paychecks are often pocketed by officers and ministry officials.
Administration. The Iraqi Army and Ministry of Defense does not have centralized system for keeping soldier’s on the books, notes Captain Spells, who deals directly with administrative and pay issues for the Iraqi Army. At graduation, soldiers receive an 8 digit service number, and after they report to their unit, they receive a 12 digit service number. Soldiers often do not receive one or even both numbers, and it is nearly impossible to correct this error. Paymasters at the higher levels do not make the needed changes to correct the problem. Like the issue with supply, sometimes the requests are not made as a sense of fatalism exists that the requests are being ignored.
Leave policy. This is directly related to pay problems, a lack of an enlistment contract, and a non-existent central banking system. As there is no central banking system, soldiers must physically take their paychecks home. They are forced to travel home unarmed (the weapons are needed at the units, and there is fear the soldiers would sell the weapons), and the soldiers become targets for death squads.
Repair and maintenance. This is often related to logistic issues. A lack of parts prevents doing some needed repair and maintenance. Vehicles can go unfixed for months or longer. But some units do not perform preventative maintenance on their vehicles.
Combat Support. There is a lack of engineers, Explosive Ordnance Disposal and maintenance units at the battalion and brigade level. The 3-2-1 does not have any of these units organic to the battalion, and rely exclusively on American support for these services. This can create a delay when executing critical tasks.
Combined arms. The 3-2-1 does not possess heavy weapons such as tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, mortars, artillery and other heavy weapons. Again the battalion depends on the Marines to provide this support. The Iraqi soldiers express frustration over this issue, and feel they are being held back by the Americans and their government. The attitude is “just give us the weapons and we’ll fix this problem.”
Iraqi Army Successes
Tactical Independence. The soldiers are gathering their own intelligence, are planning and executing operations independently. They are able to adjust planning on the fly. An perhaps most importantly, they are independently developing intelligence section at the company level. Counterinsurgency is largely a war of intelligence.
Tactically proficient. The Iraqi Army is executing patrols, ambushes, raids, snap entry control points, manning the Entry Control Points. The soldiers are excellent at identifying IED indicators – the signs IEDs have been planted nearby. “There’s only 3 or 4 times where I made specific recommendations to my company in my 4 ½ months here,” said Lieutenant Turner.
Cultural Awareness. The Iraqi soldier’s ability to speak the language, understand the culture and identify foreigners and other suspicious activities far outweighs any tactical shortcomings when compared to Marines or U.S. soldiers. This advantage cannot be overstated.
Logistical Planning. The Iraqis are good at logistical planning, but it is difficult to acquire materials needed to execute plan.
Brave. The Iraqi soldiers risk their lives to serve their country, and are taking casualties at rate of about four times that of U.S. military. They walk multiple patrols daily in the dangerous city of Fallujah, as well as run convoys, conduct raids, set up checkpoints, live in exposed outposts within the city and other dangerous tasks.
Changing attitudes. The younger officers (majors, captain and lieutenant) are more willing to shed the command driven problems inherent in Arab armies, according to the members of the MTT team. And while I was not able to identify a specific program to promote the leadership and development of NCOs within the battalion, the MTTs stated the NCOs are taking on a greater leadership role within the units, but nowhere near like NCOs within the U.S. military. I personally witnessed Iraqi NCOs take the lead during patrol in Fallujah, directing elements within the patrol while the lieutenant was occupied with other tasks. (Note: the Iraqi Army does have an NCO academy).
Resourceful. Like U.S. Marines, the Iraqi Army is making up for lack of resources with ingenuity. They make modifications to their vehicles and personal gear “They do what they can with what they have,” said Gunnery Sergeant Aaron Martin. Lt. Turner talked in length about a soldier they call the”Super Jundi,” who emulates the Marines by modifying his equipment, tactics. He also takes a keen interest in hunting for IEDs, and is quite proficient. “We are trying to convey a sense of pride in team and unit, and a sense of personal responsibility among the soldiers of the Iraqi Army, and it is working,” said Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Ciccarelli.
Unity. The officers of the 3-2-1 MTT speak highly of the Iraqi Army units they are training. They report the soldiers work well together, and sectarian differences are not a factor. “There is no evidence of infighting between the sects; they view themselves as Muslims and Iraqis first,” said Lt. Turner, who embeds with the Iraqi Army directly at the company level.
The problems facing the MTTs and Iraqi Army are by no means insurmountable. Three recommendations would greatly improve the effectiveness of the MTTs and ensure the Iraqi Army remains in the fight against the insurgency.
Bypass pay and logistic hurdles in the short term. While the push is to make the Iraqi Army independent on the pay/logistical side, this push should not hinder the retention of experienced officers and soldiers, or the fight against al Qaeda and the insurgency. The Ministry of Defense is clearly not fulfilling these vital tasks, and the U.S. must be prepared to step in to stop the hemorrhaging. The Iraqi government risks losing seasoned and motivated soldiers to problems as simple as pay and equipment. The Iraqi Army soldiers are willing to fight, and it would be criminal to lose these troops. While providing pay or equipment may be viewed as a step back and an increase in dependency on the U.S., but this is a small price to pay to maintain the cohesion of the army.
Double size of MTTs. The effectiveness of the MTTs will be improved and allow advisers to focus on their dual task of both advising and training the Iraqi Army. As things are now, the 3-2-1 can only act in an advisory role due to lack of resources.
Increase the number of interpreters. A good interpreter is worth his weight in gold, can be one of the most valuable members of the team, and acts as a bridge between the Iraqis an Americans. The MTT was constantly shuffling its interpreter around the battalion as there is a shortage of interpreters. The MTTs at the company level are often left without an interpreter, which can hinder communications at a critical time. On a patrol in Fallujah, Lt. Cortez thanked his interpreter, and stated he could not have conducted a vital communication without his presence. This communication prevented a potential friendly fire incident.
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