Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Bad Sell

A few months back, General Casey, the commanding general in Iraq, testified front of the Senate Armed Service Committee. The next day, in most newspapers, the head line said “Only one Iraqi battalion ready for combat” (or something similar to it). The head line, and the story gave the impression that the training of the Iraqi armed forces have not progressed at all. And if the US strategy in Iraq depends upon the readiness of the Iraqis, the situation seems dark and pessimistic. The headline was wrong. I did listen to General Casey, and I did not blame the Press. General Casey did a very poor job of explaining the situation in Iraq – especially concerning the readiness of the Iraqi security forces. It seems that I, a mere non-commission officer, understood the situation with the Iraqi forces better than General Casey.

When Senator McCain asked how many Iraqi army battalion with rating readiness rating of one; General Casey answered one. His answer is correct, that there is only one Iraqi battalion with the readiness status of 1. But he failed utterly to explain that it does not mean that only one battalion is ready for combat. My impression of General Casey from the testimony is that he did not understand the situation with the Iraqi forces. He read from a piece of paper, but did not seem to understand what it means, or what is actually going on with the Iraqi Defense Ministry.

A day later, at the Pentagon Press briefing, general Petraeus spent a couple of hours talking about the Iraqi armed forces. General Petraeus, unlike General Casey, understood the situation, and was able to explain with articulation and expertise. The readiness status of the Iraqi is based on the US system of readiness. To have a readiness rating of one, a battalion has to be completely autonomous and function. That requires autonomous function in logistic, personnel (pay and administration), intelligence, communication, and various other supporting functions. Therefore, having only one single battalion with the readiness rating of one is not a bad sign – in fact it is an encouraging sign to have any unit with a rating of one. There is a stark contrast between General Casey testimony and General Petraeus briefing.

The sign of progress is not in the number of units with category one rating but units with category two rating. Category II units are units that can conduct operation on their own but still depend on the multi-national coalition for logistic support and artillery support. That means that they control every aspect of their operation – offensive and defensive. But they still need food, bullets, fuel and other supplies from the US to carry out their operation. And there are many Iraqi battalions in category II. That is far cry from the head lines suggestion that only one Iraqi unit is ready to fight.

The reason that there are so few Iraqi battalions in the category one is intentional. The Iraqi Army, unlike the US army has a low teeth-to-tails ratio*. That means that they have a whole lot of riflemen but very few supply specialists, administrative clerks, medics, and other supported specialists. The reason is when we built the new Iraqi armed force from scratch; we started out with the basic skill and function of soldering, mainly infantry skills. This is logical because the combating element is the basic foundation of any armed force. Once that foundation is built, other skill set such as logistic, medicine, administration can be added on later to build a complete and independent unit. Those added on skills set have nothing to do with combat per se, but they are essential to the functionality of an armed force.

Furthermore those added on skill and functions is difficult to teach and built. Those who work in private sector in any managerial capacity will have an appreciation for the difficulty of running a logistic and administrative function. It is a skill set that even Fortune 500 companies are struggling with on a daily basis. How often do you go to your favorite retailer only to find out the items you are looking to purchase is out of stock? It is therefore unreasonable to expect the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, who just set up their logistic command and administrative center, can learn how to do in a short period of time.

But the fact it is I who are explaining this to you instead of the Bush administration is unacceptable. The support – or the lack of it – for the war has less to do with the situation on the ground, and has more to do with the administration inability to explain the situation on the ground. General Casey should not be the one who explain the status of the Iraqi armed force to the Senate. The right person is General Petraeus who was in charge of training and equipment the Iraqi Armed Force. The war does not need a spin – it only needs to be explained clearly. And if I have to give a grade on the Bush administration on explaining the war to the public; I would give them a failing grade. It would be unfortunate if a noble, positive, and righteous war is lost because the administration fails to explain it.
*teeth-to-tails are military term refering to the ratio between combating personnels and supporting personnels. Teeth are combating soldiers; tails are supporting soldiers. With the US Army, the ratio is 1 to 3. With the Iraqi Army, there are a whole of of teeth and almost no tails.

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