TAJI BASE: American and allied soldiers are aiming to rapidly train thousands of Iraqi security personnel in the “bare minimum basics” needed to join the fight against militants who swept Baghdad’s troops aside.
The Islamic State (IS) militant group spearheaded a major June offensive that overran much of Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland, and while pro-government forces have since regained some ground, swathes of territory are still outside Baghdad’s control.
The United States, which fought a bloody and costly almost nine-year war in Iraq, is now leading an international coalition carrying out air strikes against IS and training and advising Iraqi forces.
The first round of training is just getting underway at the massive Taji base complex north of Baghdad, one of five planned training sites.
“By mid-February, this first tranche … will have graduated,” Major General Dana Pittard said. “Every six to eight weeks there’ll be 5,000 more.”
The training will focus on “the bare minimum basics that are needed for counter-attacking” against IS, he said. “What’s important is it’ll continue to generate combat power … confident, capable forces.”
Such forces were in short supply in June, folding to IS-led militants and in some cases abandoning vehicles, equipment and uniforms to flee.
Major General Paul Funk put the defeats down to a lack of leadership and training. “I don’t think they had a lot of confidence in the leadership up there in Mosul,” he said, referring to the northern city where the militant drive began.
Iraqi officers will undergo training that will address leadership issues, which will teach the same “decision-making process that we use in the American military,” Funk said.
The US spent billions training and equipping Iraqi forces, but the relationship was significantly scaled back after the American military withdrawal in 2011 and skills were not maintained.
“Right after we left, [the Iraqis]really did become relatively complacent and then flat out just didn’t train, didn’t spend the money to do it, didn’t maintain the systems and so therein lies the problem,” said Funk.
Talks between Baghdad and Washington on a post-2011 US troop presence that would likely have helped head off training lapses broke down over US President Barack Obama’s insistence that the American personnel have legal immunity.
A much smaller contingent under US embassy authority was all that remained. But other major factors, aside from the state of the Iraqi security forces, contributed to the June debacle.
Former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki played a significant role in setting the stage for the rise of IS, pursuing policies that marginalised and angered Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority, making it easier for the brutal militant group to operate and recruit.
‘Make things happen’
Syria’s bloody civil war also served as an incubator for IS, giving it a safe haven to grow across the border from Iraq.
There are currently some 180 US military personnel at Taji base, a number that may rise to 300 or more, officers said, and a total of around 2,000 in the country.
Roughly 15 American trainers will work with a similar number of Iraqis at Taji to instruct each of four battalions of newly-recruited Iraqi soldiers, who have undergone around three months of training since signing up this year.
More experienced troops will later also be rotated back for training. “I wish I had more time with ’em. I wish we could spend months with these guys, get ’em where they need to be,” Command Sergeant Major Robert Keith said.
But they will be able to do what is needed “if they work with coalition forces,” he said. The programme will build from individual training to progressively larger units, said Lieutenant Colonel Scott Allen.
It will cover a wide range of subjects, from weapons use and “tactical movement” to leadership and ethics, soldiers said.
“We know they’re gonna go fight in an urban environment, we know it’s gonna be offensive, and so the things that we’re gonna train these Iraqi soldiers on are gonna be tailored to those tasks,” Allen said.
“They need to take advantage of this opportunity,” Funk said of the Iraqis. “They know that this is close to the end for them in terms of opportunities — it’s time to stand on their own feet, move forward, make things happen.”