By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 25, 2007
FORT RILEY, Kan., Oct. 24 -- The United States' exit from Iraq and Afghanistan depends on stepping up U.S. advising of those nations' security forces, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday as he visited military training teams preparing to deploy.
"It's the way out, no question, in both countries," Mullen told Lt. Col. Geoffrey D. Ellerson, whose 11-man training team will leave in three weeks for a year-long tour in a volatile region of Iraq east of Baghdad. "I can't overstate the importance" of the teams, he said.
The military is planning to expand the advisory teams and expects to have a decision by spring on the numbers and composition of additional U.S. forces needed for the effort, said Maj. Gen. Robert Durbin, who oversees the training. Durbin said he could easily double the number of troops going through the 72-day training program. In all, about 4,800 team members have been trained over the past year.
The teams are critical to the U.S. military strategy in Iraq, where they include about 1,500 military personnel, and in Afghanistan, where they have about 600 members. In Iraq, the teams live and work alongside Iraqi army and police units, teaching them basic tactics and planning, providing them with intelligence, air power and other support, as well as monitoring their operations for signs of sectarian activity and other abuses.
One challenge to expanding the advisory effort, however, is attracting highly qualified Army officers to leave traditional career paths to join the teams, which some see as hurting their chances for promotion, according to several officers interviewed this week.
The teams are composed of mid-grade officers and enlisted personnel who are also in demand for combat duties.
"It's not a dead end, but it slows down your career," said Capt. Richard Turvey, 35, of Muncie, Ind. About half of the captains such as Turvey who attend field artillery school at Fort Sill, Okla., are being assigned to the training teams.
"I became an officer to be a commander; now I'm going to have to wait longer," agreed Capt. Mark Johnstone, 33, of Denver. "The teams are taking us from our traditional roles as artillerymen."
Changing military promotion policies to reward officers to serve on the teams is vital, according to Mullen and other officers.
"Individuals have to see this as meaningful in their career, and the services have to recognize this and start promoting" those who serve on the teams, said Mullen, adding that he plans to raise the issue with Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff.
So far, officers remain skeptical.
"We have to have certain jobs to be competitive." said Maj. Jason Jones, one of a group of Army majors attending school at Fort Leavenworth who voiced reluctance to join the training teams. "That takes me out of the cycle. In essence, it sort of hurts you," Jones said.
Promotion prospects for those who serve on the teams remain uncertain, said Maj. Kealii T. Morris. "The jury is still out" on how promotion boards will treat officers who serve on the teams, he said.
Another way to expand the training effort is to create the U.S. teams out of entire units, rather than individuals, Durbin said.
He said that in addition to training the small teams of about a dozen individual soldiers, he seeks to give the Army the option of training entire units such as battalions with several hundred soldiers.
The advantages of training a battalion is that a battalion is already a cohesive unit and would fit smoothly into military rotational cycles, Durbin said. In the future, he anticipates training small teams and units, which would in turn be broken into small teams to partner with Iraqi and Afghan units.