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Nov 28, 2005

11 Reasons Why The Iraqi Army Has Been Going Nowhere (Featuring More Images From Photographer Alan Chin)


Five months ago, photographer Alan Chin made available to BAGnewsNotes a series of photos he took while embedded on a raid in Mahmudiya, Iraq, a town south of Baghdad.

The raid was conducted by an Iraqi army unit consisting of around 85 soldiers backed up by a five or six man American advisor team.  The Americans planned the operation and the Iraqis carried it out.


Upon receipt of the images, The BAG felt they might provide clues as to the state of readiness of the Iraqi personnel (or lack thereof).  Chin, however, thought otherwise.  In his mind, there was really no way to tell how effectively the Iraqis were performing.

Today, with the public and Congress losing patience with the war, the question of Iraq's military and security capability has become a crucial point of interest.  Before delving into a debate on the issue, however, the public would do well to consider whether the question has that much merit.


As Frank Rich points out in his column this week (Dishonest, Reprehensible, Corrupt ... - link), Iraqi troop readiness has been routinely exaggerated by George Bush and Dick Cheney. Given the continuous pattern of White House falsehood and deception, however, Rich suggests the preparedness issue is merely the next great topic for Administration dissembling.


Beyond the propaganda, James Fallows' cover story (Why Iraq Has No Army -- summary version) in December's The Atlantic asserts that a viable Iraqi army is plainly not realistic anytime soon. The piece is as good an analysis as I've read on the war. Besides chronicling the history of U.S. ineptitude over the course of the adventure and drawing out the neglect of the actual (versus political) war by the Administration, Fallows offers an in-depth study of why the effort to train the Iraqis is doomed to failure.

As a crib sheet, here are some of the factors he covers:

1.   Low U.S. respect for the task of training
2.   Overwhelming language barrier
3.   Rotation policy impedes creation of trust and development of longer term relationship with Iraqi counterparts
4.   Iraqi's more loyal to family, village and sect (in that order) than to country
5.   More advanced equipment withheld from Iraqis
6.   Training of individual Iraqi troops far different than building ongoing unit cohesion
7. No plan to supplement Iraqi forces with air support, logistics, vehicles and equipment, medical capability and communication networks
8.   Military stability fundamentally tied to political stability
9.   Iraq's most effective units often tied to specific factions (such as Kurdish peshmurga or different Shiite militias)
10. U.S. law restricts the training of police forces in other countries
11. Problem has failed to attract detailed White House attention


Although his comment seemed frustratingly inconclusive at the time, Mr. Chin's summation about what he could make of the Iraqi troops that day in Mahmudiya now seems almost illuminating.

Regarding what light, if any, my photos shed on stories on the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the Iraqi military, let me comment that I don't think they can that much, really, because you should never judge an army by how it looks.


Meanwhile, as criticism grows over training assumptions, arguments break out over the criteria for our Iraqi military presence, and dissension rises from the ranks of conservative hawks, one might ask: "What else is new?" Consider this article, for example, that appeared in the NYT Week In Review last June 19th entitled "Choose: More Troops in Iraq Will (Help) (Hurt)."  In contrast to the media's characterization that Congressman Murtha's call for a pullout was fundamentally unique, well, the NYT article lends this context:

Last week, even as opinion polls showed continuing erosion in support for the war, a conservative from a state heavy with military bases who has been a staunch supporter of the war, Representative Walter B. Jones of North Carolina, joined with another Republican and two Democrats in calling on President Bush to begin drawing down the troops in Iraq by Oct. 1, 2006.


And if the new noises coming out of the White House seem at all remarkable, there was also this passage at the end of The Times piece, revealing the political clairvoyance of one military voice:

"I think the drawdown will occur next year, whether the Iraqi security forces are ready or not," a senior Marine officer in Washington said last week. "Look for covering phrases like 'We need to start letting the Iraqis stand on their own feet, and that isn't going to happen until we start drawing down'. "

(All images courtesy of Alan Chin/Gamma.  Baghdad, Iraq.  June 2005.  Posted by permission. For more on Alan Chin, see: Portfolio. Kosovo Diary as well as  And Then I Saw TheseContact:


Just talking off the top of my head here, but isn't training Iraqis to be LIKE AMERICAN soldiers sort of like training an elephant to stand on its hind legs? I am NOT equating human beings with animals, however intelligent they (the animals) are, so read on for my imperfect analogy.

An elephant is not an animal that rises up on two legs naturally or voluntarily ( I assume from the fact that doing this in the circus is a big deal and we're all supposed to clap when it happens). Taking an ordinary Iraqi whose loyalties are different from an American's and attemtping to instill in them an alien mindset in a short amount of time with not great follow up or instruction in the first place makes it look like we are trying to force a natural existence into an unnatural display. The Bush Malministration is most surprised by the fact that we are not entertained by their circus, especially since their clowns ran out of good material a long time ago.

Looking at the pictures, I wonder how those Iraqi soldiers feel about handcuffing, blindfolding and arresting their own people? Are they resolute about the "mission" or is there an element running through their hearts and minds that says "I can't believe I'm doing this"?

Huh, after googling "elephant standing on hind legs" I came up with articles about cruelty to animals and how bulls copulate with females. Seems sort of appropriate that this entire Iraqi freedom thing is similar to an elephant screwing....

Maybe Alan Chin is right that we can't judge the Army's effectiveness by how it looks, but we can see how they're equipped and compare that to the U.S. soldiers. They're driving around in the open backs of pickup trucks (no armored vehicles), and they have guns and bulletproof vests, but don't seem to have much of that other high-tech stuff.

I wonder, though, why all the reports seem to assume that the U.S troops have to start from scratch in training these guys. There was an Army before (supposedly one that we all had to fear), and they had experienced combat, so there must be some trained soldiers. (Except that many were kicked out for having ties to the Baath party, I guess.)

And many of the U.S. soldiers come to Iraq with a few months of training and no experience, don't they? So why are they considered ready for combat and so much more capable than Iraqis?

Maybe the problem isn't actually getting them trained, but getting the different militias to consider themselves as part of the same team. And that the U.S. probably isn't eager to give them the equipment they need, for fear that it will be turned against them. Which suggests that this a political problem and not purely a matter of military training.

I just finished reading today's>Slate and I also visited Juan Cole's site,>Informed Comment and it lent an interesting background for these photos.

It seems that the Shiite militias have infiltrated the police force so deeply, that they are simply carrying out their agenda, instead of acting as police. Part of this agenda is the killing of Sunni insurgents - an an "extrajudicial" exercise. Death squads, for short. Does this explain the masks worn by many of the armed men in the photos? If up to 90% of a given police squad is made up of millitiamen, what about the other 10% ? If you were an Iraqi and wanted to be on the side of "Good" -- what the hell would you do??

Who knows who these captives are in the photos.. but they look like normal folk. The armed forces seem like the ones to be weary of - but who can tell? The situation is so muddy. Bush has never supplied us with any clear direction regarding Iraq - ever - but I don't think a swami with a crystal ball could see the solution at this point.

Pull out or send more troops? Support the Shiites (via the police and army), or is that just giving weapons and training to the faction aligned with Iran? Work for the hearts and minds, or bomb them into the stone age?

Zero clear strategies on the ground. The 'we broke it, we fix it' concept is impossible to see through.

Thanks, Bush, et al. Nice work. I hope you look forward to your face to face with Jesus at the pearly gates, you evil murderous greedy liar.

momly &; "I can't believe I'm doing this"? I know someone who could answer that question:
"Grub first, then ethics". Bertolt Brecht
love the humour you definitely made my day.

I've been ruminating about this post since this morning, but I can't seem to get enough traction on it to comment sagely. But I was reading it while listening to NPR's Morning Edition, and as if on cue, Renee Montagne's interview with Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey (the officer in charge of "equipping and training Iraqi security forces") queued up! If you missed the rosey progress report (unambiguously titled "Military Official: Training of Iraqis Is On Track"), you can go to Morning Edition's website to listen to it. Here's the audio link:

Ever since Bob Edwards was canned, I've noticed ME (along with other NPR news programs) provides an unthinking, unblinking regurgitation of the headline news I can get online from the Associated Press myself. ME reported only the administration's bullshit leading up to the Iraq war, they reported the nonexistent raping and pillaging by gangs in New Orleans, and they are now obssessively quoting Bush's, Rumsfeld's, and Rice's opinion(s) about the drawdown. They seem to have been lobotomized, like all other American "reporters," including John F. Burns, the NYT reporter whose story is linked above (and who is also featured in The BAG's "Pottery Barn" post from 11/27). If it weren't for the random Daniel Schorr piece, I would not listen anymore.

I can't get much traction with these photographs because I can't tell who is who. Who are the good guys, really? Who are the bad guys? They are all Iraqis. And perhaps that's what The BAG and Alan Chin intended to show us. So, the Iraqis are being trained to hold their guns "at ease," to handcuff, blindfold, and transport people in trucks, to stand guard over captives (some of whom are women??). It occurs to me that if I can't tell the good guys from the bad guys, how will the Iraqi trainees know? I mean, what about getting training in "intelligence gathering" (which we Americans are so good at) BEFORE the guns come out? I keep wondering how the Iraqis will know whom to raid. I'm not making a judgment about Alan Chin's photos or the Iraqis being trained when I say this, but rather, I'm commenting on what we (embedded photographers included) are being shown by the military (aka, the gov't). Progress or no progress with the training, are we just seeing pictures of "America's Most Wanted" set in Iraq?

P.S. Dear The BAG: Do you realize how much homework you are giving us lately?! I don't want to complain because I love the challenges you pose, but um, it's sometimes hard to keep up with you!

This whole situation is beginning to remind me of those old movies wherein the savvy, civilized, oh-so-suave westerner (Peter O'Toole? Sean O'Connery?) from (pick a country) somehow lands in the midst of a lushly overgrown country in Asia, Africa or some exotic tropical island. Said Westerner proceeds to lord it over the native population. Meanwhile, the natives (aside from being restless) proceed to go about their business and in the process totally undo everything the Westerner is and does.

Sound familiar?

Compare the square-on immediacy of Chin's photographs with the dancing evasions of the CIC and you have the problem in a nutshell.

Remember 9/11? Does Bush? He went after OSB (supposedly) and missed so he lost interest and, famously, announced that he didn't spend any time at all thinking about him any more.

Now he's missed in Iraq. And where is he? I'd be willing to bet he's not looking at Chin's photographs.

......And, yes, it is hard to keep up with the BAG.


Thanks for the notice about the pace. The BAG has the type of personality where there's always a worry about not giving enough. Thinking about it, it seems that taking the three days off for Thanksgiving might have resulted in a little too much press on the accelerator.

One thing not mentioned about training Iraqis is that they really don't care for Americans nor the American 'mission' whatever it may be. Thus, why, as a US soldier, would I want to train my potential enemy thouroughly or quickly? It's very much a who do you trust situation like we experienced in Vietnam. How do the troops know what lies in the hearts of men who's fathers, brothers, uncles and sons have been walloped by the American military not once but twice? Do the US personnel training the Iraqis imagine that all of them are free from some sort of tragic, collateral damage during this occupation? And how do you train men when they are in the thralls of religious hatred? I mean, you think the language barrier is a problem, just mix those sects together and see how exciting things get.

Nope, we really don't know why we're there but, worst of all, we really don't know how to leave. Soon the American dead will force the issue and America will once again be stuck with trying to find the way out among a host of very bad choices.

Some people never learn.

Here's the thing: in theory it's possible to train almost anybody to be a good soldier, or at least a good enough soldier. In recent memory, the American military assistance to the Croatian, the Bosnian, the Salvadorean militaries all proved "successful" in that the regimes that these armies served all survived and eventually stabilized those countries. I'm not making any kind of political judgement here, just looking at the practicalities. Even the defeated South Vietnamese Army had some very good units (not enough of them, obviously, at the end.) So the crucial point, to me, is that, what is it about Iraq that makes this so difficult, so impossible, so dangerous?

And you can't just say, "it's cultural" or whatever. Historically, the British trained some excellent Arab armies (the Jordanian) and some poor ones (the Egyptian, the monarchist Iraqi). On the face of it, with all the power and expertise that the US has at its fingertips, it should be possible, almost three years later, to build an effective Iraqi Army.

But all the things that have been pointed out, stand in the way. The equipment, as you can see, is pretty poor. Pick-up trucks rather than armor. No helicopters. No artillery. No engineering, medical, or other essential support units. Still too much dependence on the Americans, especially for planning. Does that mean that the Iraqi soldiers I saw are bad soldiers, or poorly led, or doomed to failure? Not necessarily. But maybe.

And it's that "maybe" that hangs over this whole war, which I got to see a little slice of. "Maybe" isn't good enough. It certainly isn't going to reassure anyone, Iraqi or American, who has lost someone or been wounded or been otherwise impacted.

The pictures you see here I took six months ago. Hopefully I'll get to go to Iraq again to see if there have been any changes for the better. But nothing that I've read or seen since I've been back in the US suggests that this has been the case.

Thank you, Alan, for the words as well as for the images. I'm sure I speak for every BAGnewsNotee when I say that your contributions to the site are always appreciated.

How many photos of US soldiers have you seen where their faces are covered by masks -- as in full-face ski-mask type masks? How many photos have you seen of US soldiers with their faces covered by scarves when they weren't in a hellish dust storm?

Answer for me: none, and none.

Why does the Iraqi "army" feel the need to conceal their identity with full face masks and scarves?

Maybe you can tell something about an Army by its appearance when that Army is seeking to conceal the identity of its soldiers. Maybe that army isn't too popular with the locals. Maybe that army is carrying doing some things it souldn't be doing -- following US policy and torturning prisoners or "detainees"? -- so they feel the need to cover their faces.

You think?

Several ideas -

(a) Mesopotamia has the longest continuous history of organized armies on the globe (excepting China, maybe). This idea that the Iraqis can't get it together because of tribal, clan or religious divisions just seems like bunk to me when they have had it together for millenium.

(b) Maybe part of the problem is simply war weariness. They lost ~600,000 during the 1980s, maybe as many as 100,000 during the Gulf War, who knows how many during the 1990s embargo and who knows how many during the Bush Saddam War and its aftermath. Maybe their lack of martial ardor is not a failng but a reasonable response to their recent history. And all these casualties, as we were famously told, in a country the size of California.

(3) Ask yourself - do Americans really want the Iraqis to be a proud, autonomous people? Or does how we treated the French willingness to stand for their own interets (no matter whether those interests were foolish or not) reveal the true nature of America's view of the world. Isn't what we really want slaves who think they are free but who really work in our interest? Don't you think the average Iraqi is smart enough to get the message each time he/she interacts with Americans?

(4) Armies that fight have a reason for being on the battlefield. The Nazis fought early on for an ideology and later just so that they and their country might survive. The Soviets lost somewhere in the order of 2-3 million soldiers during 1941 but they kept fighting. Some fought out of fear, some out of hate but many fought simply out of patriotism. I recently read that the American colonists ran out of ammunition at Bunker Hill and finished the fight with their musket butts. What do all these armies (people) have in common? They all had something to fight for! What do the Iraqis have to fight for?

(5) The only Iraqis who have something to fight for are the Kurds and the religious groups.

If you were an Iraqi and you knew that you were being trained as human shields to prevent American troops from taking casualties, that the purpose of your life was to achieve American goals and not Iraqi goals and that your values had no power or voice, how hard would you fight?

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