By Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 18, 2005
HILLA, Iraq, May 17 -- The Iraqi colonel had just finished telling Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, about the successful raids his brigade had carried out, the suspected insurgents captured and the weapons rounded up.
Then, on a screen at the far end of a narrow, cramped conference room where Casey was sitting, the colonel flashed a slide rating his brigade according to a system just devised by the U.S. military. The slide showed a nearly complete sea of red squares -- red for staffing levels, red for training, red for equipment and so on through several more categories.
Red means poor. It's the worst color to be on a scale that goes from red through orange and yellow to green.
A senior Iraqi general was accompanying Casey on a visit Tuesday to a dusty base on the outskirts of Hilla, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, that serves as headquarters for the 51st Brigade. He asked the colonel how he could have settled on so much red after having listed so many operational achievements.
"Because I want you to give me more help," the colonel said, grinning, his ploy exposed.
Iraqi commanders and their U.S. advisers have begun grading Iraq's military for the first time since the United States started to build a new set of Iraqi security forces from scratch. But as Tuesday's episode showed, the process still has some kinks to work out.
Some Iraqi officers are clearly trying to manipulate the system to the advantage of their units, underplaying their condition in hopes of gaining more assistance. Some U.S. officers in Iraq worry, in turn, that Pentagon authorities and others in the Bush administration will overplay the grades and interpret them in ways that would justify too quick a withdrawal of U.S. troops.
In any case, senior U.S. commanders say they are pleased to finally have a means for trying to measure how well, or how poorly, the fledgling Iraqi military is doing.
"We now have a tool to help us assess the progress of Iraqi forces," Casey said.
With dozens of Iraqi units now engaged daily in patrols and raids, Casey and other U.S. commanders say these forces have made considerable strides since last year, when some Iraqi soldiers and many police officers proved ineffectual in the face of insurgent attacks and intense intimidation. Recruiting has remained strong, they said, despite recurring suicide attacks on recruiting stations, and standards for entry into the military are being raised with the addition of a literacy test.
Academies and training facilities are graduating about 8,000 members of the military and police forces a month. U.S. advisers in 10-man "transition teams" have joined newly formed Iraqi military units across the country, and plans call for more than 2,500 such embedded mentors to be in place by mid-June. A similar program for assigning advisers to provincial police headquarters also is taking shape.
Still, the performance of the forces can vary widely, as evidenced by the new grading system, which was used for the first time last month.
Of 81 Iraqi army battalions assessed, only three were rated green, able to conduct operations independently. Of 26 larger brigade headquarters formed so far, only one earned such a rating, according to officers familiar with the confidential assessment.
Previously, the U.S. military had measured progress by simply reporting how many members of the Iraqi military and police had been "trained and equipped" -- a figure that topped 165,000 last week -- and how many military and special police battalions had become "operational" -- currently 101. With the new approach, statistics are available on the quality of the force.
The leaders of each Iraqi army battalion, brigade and division -- and their foreign advisers -- rate their units in six categories, including manning and equipment levels, training, command and control, leadership and logistics. They also provide predictions on when their units would be ready to operate independently of U.S. and other international forces.
The survey, called the Transition Readiness Assessment, has been run twice, on April 15 and May 1, and is designed to become a monthly event. Many of the results remain classified. But in interviews, several officers reported some trends.
The survey showed that the best Iraqi units are those that have received the most assistance from U.S. forces, with units in Baghdad and north-central Iraq the strongest.
"There is a direct correlation between how much effort coalition units have put into their Iraqi security forces and how effective those forces are," said Col. Chris King, a senior planner at the Multinational Security Transition Command-Iraq, which oversees the development of Iraqi security forces.
Logistics scored poorly in many Iraqi units, which were found to have "significant difficulty" anticipating requirements. Their ability to account for supplies and equipment remains a critical concern, the assessment said in a section titled "general trends."
U.S. officers said the gap in logistics reflects the rush over the past year to create basic infantry units and push them into counterinsurgency operations with U.S. forces. The units have lacked such critical support personnel as truck drivers, engineers, medics and supply clerks. Those services have been performed largely by U.S. troops or private contractors.
Of 75,800 Iraqi army troops listed as trained and equipped, only about 4,000 are identified as performing support functions, according to U.S. figures. By contrast, in the U.S. Army, the proportion of combat forces to support elements -- known in military jargon as the "tooth-to-tail" ratio -- is closer to 50/50.
Building up the Iraqi military's tail is a U.S. priority this year.
"We know we can help the Iraqis train and equip combat battalions and brigades, and they are very much in the fight," said Army Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, who is in charge of the development effort. "We now have to give more emphasis to helping them sustain those forces by assisting them to develop their logistical units."
In coming months, plans call for each Iraqi battalion to have one of its five companies -- about 140 men -- turned into a service support unit. Several separate transportation regiments and an engineering brigade also are taking shape. Additionally, 10 bases are being set up across the country, from Kisik in the north to Umm Qasr in the south, to serve as major hubs for larger maintenance and supply demands.
Among other trends cited in the readiness assessment were "inconsistent" pay for soldiers and shortages in such equipment as vehicles, medium machine guns and communications gear. Although Iraqi troops by and large appear to have little problem conducting small unit patrols or standing guard, the assessment found that they remain in need of training on other "essential tasks."
Intelligence gathered by agents has yielded "some success," but other basic intelligence functions still "need development," the assessment said. Leadership, it also concluded, comes in a "wide range," with the mentoring of junior leaders "almost nonexistent."
As for when specific Iraqi units will be able to assume their own "battle space," estimates in the assessment varied considerably. Several senior officers said they remain wary of the report's predictions because the assessment process is so new and the projections so subjective.
That became evident during another of Casey's stops Tuesday in south-central Iraq. At a briefing in Diwaniyah by a senior officer of the Iraqi army's 8th Division, Casey was shown assessment results that rated a couple of the division's units somewhere between orange and yellow. Yet the division's leadership predicted that both units would be green within two or three months -- an improbably quick leap, as Casey later remarked to several associates.
Nonetheless, by the middle of next month -- after one more assessment is run -- Casey and his staff intend to send a recommendation to the Pentagon on whether to reduce U.S. troop levels and by how much. One proposal gaining favor, according to another general in Iraq involved in the planning, envisions shrinking from 17 U.S. combat brigades to as few as 13 brigades next year, meaning a cut in troops from 138,000 to about 105,000, although the general stressed that this option is far from final.
Exactly how proficient the Iraqi military must be before the United States begins withdrawing its forces has not been spelled out by U.S. authorities. Some senior U.S. officers in Iraq contend that a yellow rating for many Iraqi units would be sufficient to permit a partial pullout, particularly in parts of the country where the threat has diminished.
"What everybody is looking for is the magical formula that will show when the capabilities of Iraqi security forces are good enough to allow us to go home," said King, the senior planner. "That is not something you can figure out mathematically."