BASMAYA, IRAQ – Iraq’s 72nd Brigade was slowly moving through a live-fire exercise recently under the watchful eyes of U.S., Spanish and British coalition trainers when things began to go wrong.
One part of the unit moved forward too quickly across the open field of the military base, putting a team of Iraqi engineers in danger of being hit by friendly fire. A coalition trainer noticed the error, radioed to his counterpart embedded with the formation, and the men were shifted to take the engineers out of harm’s way.
Such battlefield adaptations are difficult to learn and almost impossible to teach with simulations alone, experts say, and that is one of the problems still plaguing the Iraqi army.
Washington and Baghdad have cast the recent victory over Islamic State extremists in Ramadi as proof that training efforts are paying off and that the Iraqi military has improved. But analysts and former U.S. trainers say that despite some significant advances, the battle highlighted the troops’ lingering shortcomings. And they say that December’s success isn’t a model for retaking the much-bigger IS-held city of Mosul.
Just over a year and a half ago, Iraq’s military was in tatters.
As Islamic State militants overran Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, more than a third of Iraqi security forces simply melted away. Another 1,700 soldiers were captured and killed. There was rampant corruption in the ranks, with tens of thousands of “ghost soldiers” — nonexistent troops whose pay was pocketed by senior commanders. And the most formidable fighters in Iraq were the recently rearmed Shiite militias, which took the lead in most of the battles against the IS extremists.
The U.S.-led coalition’s efforts to train the Iraqi military began in December 2014. Since then, more than 18,000 Iraqi troops have completed courses like the one held at the base in Basmaya.
The victory in the western city of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, was the military’s first major success without the involvement of Shiite militias. While pockets of extremists still remain on its northern and eastern edges, the center of the city remains under government control weeks later.
In the wake of Ramadi, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has announced that he wants the coalition to greatly increase the number of trainers in Iraq. The U.S. recently sent 200 additional special operations troops to Iraq, bringing the total number of coalition troops in the country to more than 3,300.
While praising the victory in Ramadi, analysts also sounded notes of caution in the way the battle was waged.
“This was a tremendous success, but at best a partial success,” said Anthony Cordesman, a former adviser to the previous U.S.-led training effort in Iraq and currently a security analyst with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The victories in Ramadi were “dependent on a unit where it is not yet clear you can replicate more of them,” Cordesman said, referring to Iraq’s elite counterterrorism force that took the lead in the fight.
The counterterrorism unit, or CTS, is the product of an older, dramatically different training program than the current effort. Iraq’s counterterrorism troops were chosen after a grueling series of exams and closely trained by U.S. Army Special Forces from 2003 to 2011.
The Iraqi troops and armed Sunni tribesmen fresh from coalition training courses largely brought up the rear in Ramadi, holding the territory that the counterterrorism forces cleared with the help of heavy coalition air support. Many Iraqis who fill the ranks of the conventional security forces often joined for lack of other job opportunities, and some show up with little more training than how to assemble a rifle.
That an elite unit was used to clear a city in combination with heavy air support is a testament to the Iraqi military’s persistent deficiencies, current and former trainers said.
The counterterrorism forces were “used as a conventional battlefield force to take and hold terrain, but that’s not what you do with elite forces,” said David M. Witty, a retired U.S. Army Special Forces colonel who worked in Iraq from 2007-08 and again from 2013-14 as an adviser and trainer for the CTS.
“You don’t take a Ranger battalion and tell them to clear a city; that’s why you have the regular army,” he said.
To bring other military units up to the level of the CTS is not something that can be accomplished in a few weeks or even years, Witty said.
The effectiveness of the CTS is the product in part of a long training program, but also one that extended to the battlefield. Today, close support from the coalition largely ends in the classroom.
The current and former military trainers said the kind of battle fought to dislodge IS militants in Ramadi cannot be applied to a large urban center like Mosul, which coalition officials estimated has more than 1 million civilians.
Iraq’s forces remain heavily dependent on air support to retake territory, and the skills they are learning are not applicable to the kind of combat they probably will face in Mosul, said two of the coalition trainers at the Basmaya exercise. The trainers spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Describing the heavy destruction seen in Ramadi from coalition airstrikes, Witty said it’s not a model that can be used in other parts of Iraq.
“There’s no future in that. You can do it in a few select cases, but not for long,” he said.