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This article was originally published in June of 2016.
I once read a novel about a Vietnam veteran’s life after homecoming. In one scene he’s alone in a bar in April 1975, transfixed to a TV, drinking away anger as he watches the last helicopter lift off the roof of the American embassy in Saigon. Later I told a fellow Iraq veteran friend that I was pretty sure I’d be in a bar someday, drowning my sorrows in iced tea and watching the last helicopter abandon the American embassy in Baghdad.
About two years later, ISIS hit Iraq. Mosul fell after a not-even-halfhearted defense. The Iraqi Army fled Fallujah without a fight. Baghdad came under threat, and Iraqi troops seemed incapable of defending it. One day as I read yet another report of the Iraqi Army retreating in disarray, my Iraq veteran friend sent a text.
“You picked out a bar yet?”
The Iraqi Army – now there’s a term that’s struck terror into the heart of many an American fighting man. Not in 1991 when we stomped it into defeat during Desert Storm, nor in 2003 when we used it as a speedbump on the road to Baghdad; no, the terror came later, when we tried to fight alongside it. I personally had little direct interaction with the IA, but many who did came home full of misgivings, frustration, and visions of impending collapse. When ISIS swept much of the IA aside with barely a fight, many of us Iraq vets felt our “US embassy in Saigon” moment was at hand.
Yet, two years into the fight against ISIS, the Iraqi Army seems to have at least improved. It stopped the ISIS advance outside Baghdad (with our help), took back areas on the outskirts of Mosul, took Hit, took Ramadi and parts of western Fallujah, and is preparing to retake the rest of it. Recently we’ve seen video of an IA helicopter door gunner calmly smoking a fleeing ISIS vehicle, read reports of a lone IA Abrams tank nicknamed “The Beast” whacking ISIS all over Hit, and seen video of another IA Abrams hitting a moving VBIED (car bomb) at long range.
As a former tanker, the stories about IA tanks really got my attention. And while I was encouraged, I also cringed. Is the Iraqi Army really capable of using Abrams tanks? I wondered. And if they are, isn’t that knowledge and capability bound to reach ISIS?
So I was pretty happy when I recently met a US Marine Corps advisor to an Iraqi armored division. This officer deployed twice to Iraq as a tanker and made trips to Afghanistan to see how tanks were being employed there. Policy prevents me from identifying him, so I’ll call him Brad.
Brad and I spoke by phone for over an hour. He’s assigned to a base in Anbar province that I used to run convoys to back in 05, and the troops he advises are in the thick of the fight against ISIS. He’s got direct visibility on the capabilities of today’s Iraqi Army and had direct visibility on the IA during Operation Iraqi Freedom. If we want to know the truth about today’s Iraqi Army and especially their tankers, he’s a good person to ask.
My first question for Brad was whether or not he was going with the Iraqis on missions. In Iraq, I was a TWAT (Tanker Without A Tank) on a convoy escort team, and never fought in a beloved Abrams. In Afghanistan, I was around French light tanks in firefights and had one fire its main gun close enough to rock my Humvee, but never connived my way into one for a mission. Some Americans are outside the wire in the ISIS fight, but what about Brad and other tankers?
“We don’t accompany the Iraqis. Mostly, they’re doing it, they don’t need us,” Brad said. “It’s like the old parable, ‘what you expect of people they tend to deliver’. If we don’t accompany them, the Iraqi Army realizes they need to do it on their own. The only thing we really have a problem with is that they move at their speed, and we want them to move faster. But when it comes to the rubber really meeting the road…
“I was part of an operation earlier this month. They were clearing a road, and it was heavily defended by Daesh. They ran into several problems, they lost one of their senior leaders, they had issues where certain units weren’t performing as well as others. But they adjusted their scheme of maneuver on the fly, they provided relatively accurate reporting, they were relatively responsive to our requests for information while they were in the middle of the fight. Their problems now lie in basic soldierly proficiency. They’re in the war now, and they don’t have time to focus on just basic soldiering. They have to keep everybody on the line, they have to keep everybody attacking.”
Basic proficiency is a big deal though, especially considering all the complex tasks that go into running a tank. So where are they as far as being able to perform basic tanker tasks?
“I mean, are they US Marines or American Army? No. Those are the two finest fighting forces in the world. But they adapt to changing tactical situations, they continue to press despite casualties and IEDs. Are they incredibly proficient at accurate fires and all those things? Well, they’ve got some work to do in that area. But when it comes to behaving like a professional army, they’re making great strides every day, actually. It takes decades to produce the kind of culture and institutional knowledge the US Army and Marine Corps have with their tanks. It takes going to gunnery twice a year, year after year, it takes officers who have been to multiple gunneries, the Master Gunner program, you know, all those things they just don’t have time to do. They are at just a basic level of proficiency. I think the biggest thing to say about this is…they’re not us, but they’re resilient, and they don’t give up. The fighting spirit’s really there.”
An essay titled “Why Arabs Lose Wars” was written by a retired officer who was a liaison to Arab militaries. He said the “strongman” mentality cripples Arab armies and told a story of a tank company that waited a long time for Arabic manuals for the crews. Then after they finally received and distributed the manuals, the CO confiscated them all. He claimed the crews didn’t need them because they couldn’t read, but in reality, he was just trying to hoard knowledge so that he’d be important and indispensable. Does the IA have that problem?
“They certainly have their challenges. Because of the wars over the last several years the education system is problematic in Iraq. So they have issues with their soldiers’ reading ability, and there’s definitely a reliance on officers to act as NCOs. That’s typical across a lot of nations. The prototypical American NCO is not replicated far and wide. And that’s one of our great strengths, the American NCO corps. I work with mostly officers, and I rarely see an NCO. That’s one serious problem for the Iraqi Army. But this war is professionalizing their officers. They have to get results, and because they have to get results they’re investing strongly in getting better at their jobs, at being more fluid as a staff, and many fewer games of ‘I’ve got a secret so I’m in charge.’”
Do you have any other problems with that, with cultural issues making them less effective?
“I’ve been working with the Arab culture for a while now, and I get it. But again, there’s something about having to get it done. Something I’ve learned to like about Iraq, in all my visits here, is that they don’t have precise words for time the way we do, they don’t view certain things the way we view them which tends to give us an advantage in a rapid tactical environment, and tends to hamper them. But they view their job…most of the officers I work with, the ones that couldn’t hack it have mostly fallen by the wayside. The guys that are left have lots of experience, some going back to the 80s in the Iran-Iraq War. For example, the new division commander is holding his troops accountable in a way that is very professional. I don’t want to throw other countries under the bus, but I’ve worked with a lot of militaries all over the world. There are very few that operate at what we would consider a basic level of competence.
“But think about it: when we came here to stop the bleeding a couple years ago, they had lost a bunch of their country. They were running, and it was terrible. These guys don’t run anymore. They. Don’t. Run. Anymore. They took Ramadi. Yeah, we bombed the shit out of it to help them out and we provided ISR [Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance] support, but they took Ramadi. In that operation earlier this month, they cleared that road. Taking casualties, indirect fire, direct fire, sniper fire, all of it. Do they have a long way to go? Yeah, I’m not going to deny that. But they’re making a lot of progress.”
Back when I was a Guard tanker we only went to one gunnery every other year, and we’d lose a lot of training time-fighting maintenance issues. We weren’t as good as regular army tankers, because we didn’t train nearly as much. But during the invasion of Iraq, I saw footage of a Marine infantry squad in a ditch engaging enemy in a building about 200 meters away. A Marine tank pulled up and started blowing holes in the building. I thought, “I’m a National Guard tanker; I can hit a building from 200 meters. Why am I not there?” So I get that Iraqi tankers don’t have to be up to our standards to fight their war, they don’t have to hit a mover at 4000 meters to be effective against ISIS.
“After my IA unit took that road [during the battle mentioned earlier], they set hasty defensive positions. Daesh launched a counterattack that night and drove a VBIED [Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device, a car bomb] into one of the hastily-constructed defensive berms. And a tank spotted it, calmly slewed over and blew it away. The range was almost nothing, it was very close. I don’t know how many rounds it would have taken at further range, but when we look at what needs to happen here, their proficiency is fine. It’s good. They have a little bit of issues with fire discipline from time to time, they have their warts. I don’t want to paint too rosy of a picture here, but I also don’t want to focus on the negatives. What they are good at, those tanks, with just a bit of standoff, are their favorite tools for dealing with VBIEDs.”
What about the reports of “The Beast”, that was supposedly running wild against ISIS in Hit?
“There was a tank that was up there for the whole fight, and it did some pretty good stuff. As an experienced combat vet you can spot stories that have been overblown, but there was, in fact, a lone IA tank in Hit, and it slayed a bunch of Daesh.”
When I was in Iraq, it didn’t seem like there was a feeling of nationalism among Iraqis. Is it there now?
“No, and that’s a funny thing I’ve found in the IA that I respect a great deal. There’s a lot of Shia in the army, not as many Sunni. But they don’t care. They’re in the army. That’s what they care about. The sectarian issues in the country, the army doesn’t care about that. They have a very clear sense of ‘We are the Iraqi Army, it’s our job to take Iraq back, and we’re going to do it.’ But I don’t get a feeling there’s a nationalist flavor to it, it’s more like ‘We will do this because we’re an army, and that’s what armies do.’ It’s a professional pride thing.”
Is there sympathy for ISIS within the Iraqi Army, like there was for insurgent groups during OIF?
“First off, most ISIS fighters aren’t Iraqis. They recruit from all over the world. I’m sure a few Iraqis gravitate toward that, just like there’s a few Americans who gravitate toward that. But it’s difficult for ISIS to infiltrate the Iraqi Army. Second, we treat the IA casualties. We save their brother’s lives here, and they appreciate it. We bomb VBIEDs as they’re approaching, and save their lives. Do they love us? I don’t know, that’s tough. Cause, you know, there’s a lot of uh, things that as two nations we’re working on, let’s be honest. But when I roll into division headquarters, green on blues [attacks on Americans by Iraqi soldiers] are the last thing I worry about. And to tell you the truth, it’s great. For all of us who were here before, when it was really hard and you felt like you were banging your head against a wall, coming back now and getting to work with them when they’re fighting on their own and you get to support them, you give them the help that you can and they take the ground, that’s a rewarding experience.
Since we started supplying TOWs to “moderate” Syrian rebels, I have a bad, bad feeling that we’re going to lose a lot of American troops to TOWs in the near future. Do I need to worry about the Iraqis being proficient with our tanks, and giving that proficiency to ISIS?
“That proficiency actually helps us. And the flipside is, these guys aren’t secretly Daesh sympathizers. Nobody likes Daesh. They are reviled in this nation, because of the executions, because of what they’ve done, because of how they treat people. Iraqis may have their problems with the central government, they may have problems with Shia versus Sunni, but nobody sympathizes with Daesh.”
“Despite what happened with Fallujah opening their doors to them, nobody in Iraq thinks Daesh is a real option. Yeah, I’m working with the army so I won’t run into Daesh sympathizers. But when you watch their local news, when you hang out with them, Daesh is recognized as being just evil. Back in the day, part of the problem here was that there was some appeal to Al Qaeda at first. Then essentially, AQ killed too many Iraqis and you have the Awakening movement, right? Until then, there was a certain amount of appeal to fighting the infidel, and Muslim identity, all that kind of thing. There’s none of that for Daesh. Daesh are just evil, they are just bad, and they need to be exterminated.
“There was a protest in Baghdad a couple weeks ago. Those people weren’t protesting, ‘why are we fighting ISIS.’ They were protesting corruption in their government. Nobody’s upset about taking the fight to ISIS. When you watch their local news, it’s uniformly ‘ISIS is bad and we must get rid of them.’”
A lot of Operation Iraqi Freedom vets would be scared to go back and work with the Iraqis again. How does your experience working with the Iraqi Army during OIF compare to working with them now?
“American veterans should know, it’s coming around. We left here kind of in a hurry, and we both know the relationship between Iraqis and Americans isn’t perfect. But every time I go to the division compound they’re genuinely happy to see me, and we don’t spend an hour talking about families, and drinking chai, and just wasting our time. We get down to business within the first thirty seconds. These guys are serious, they’re serious about working with us, and with our assistance they’re much more effective.
“On the personal side, it’s also much better than before. They invite us to eat, and they mean it, and we stand around a table eating with our hands with a bunch of generals and other officers, and we make jokes with each other, and we mean it. This country isn’t perfect; no country is perfect. This country has its issues and problems. But I can tell you, as someone who fought and lost troops in Fallujah, and then had to come back, I feel a great personal sense of peace coming back here and working with them now. They’re fighting and dying for their country, they’re doing it on their own, and they’re not quitting. They are determined to defeat Daesh. And though we’re helping them, they know it’s coming down to them.
“You know what else is really cool about doing combined planning with the Iraqis and getting to hang out with them? They can smoke inside. That’s delicious. There’s nothing like talking over a map with a cigarette hanging out of your mouth going, ‘I think you can come around this way.’ It’s fucking great. And they bring you chai. You’re sucking on your chai, smoking cigarettes and planning battles. And it’s great.”
What about the old tensions between Iraqi troops and the Americans they really didn’t like?
“You talk to some of these guys and they fought you in OIF. And it’s no big deal. Except for a few died-in-the-wool AQ nutheads, they were just fighting us because they saw us as occupiers. Yeah, it was a dirty nasty insurgency, and yeah there are sectarian problems. Anyone with two eyes can see that. But this [war against ISIS] has given us a second opportunity as two nations to reconcile a bit. I’ve been getting a sense of that here. And actually I really enjoy that.
“Who knows what it’s gonna be like ten years from now? But for right now, we’re partners. It’s not a perfect partnership. But it’s a real partnership, and we’re really working with each other. Another thing is, we’re making real relationships now. When I was here before, there was such a rush to stand up the Iraqi Security Forces that they didn’t take it seriously. You could tell they didn’t take it seriously. It’s not like that now. They listen better, they try and implement things more professionally, they’re interested in becoming a better army, and they’re definitely interested in winning.”
What can you say about our strategy to defeat ISIS?
“It blew my mind when I got here. Cause I’d been watching the news and following the election back home, and I’ve only been out here a couple months on the ground, and within a week I’m like, ‘This is fucking brilliant. This is really working.’ We don’t know why it’s so hard to convince everybody back home that thinks, you know, ‘We should send our own troops in, the Iraqis aren’t good enough.’ No, we’ll let the politicians decide how we’re going to do this. I’m just telling you, what I’m doing here right now without accompanying them, just providing advice and assistance, it’s working just fine.
“The talking heads who want to complain about the strategy here, if you come here for five minutes and you actually see what’s happening on the ground, it’s a very different story. I am seeing this strategy work every day. It’s slow, but there’s not a lot of Americans dying. And Daesh hasn’t taken any new territory. They’re losing. A hundred meters at a time, they’re losing. Steadily and completely.
“Again, don’t let me paint too rosy of a picture, but it’s just not that bad. There are some units aren’t very good, but we’ve taken ground since I got here, and we’ve held it. ISIS has counterattacked, and we’ve still held it. And we’re planning on taking more.”
Will ISIS ever be truly defeated in Iraq?
“Without a doubt, given enough time and our patient support, eventually the last ISIS fighter will be out of Iraq. I don’t know how long it’s going to take, but it’s inevitable. As long as we continue to support them, they will eventually eliminate the last ISIS fighter inside the borders of Iraq.”
Maybe my feelings about the Iraqi Army will never quite be puppies, kitties, and rivers of chocolate. But maybe, just maybe, there’s reason to be hopeful. Maybe, with our help, the Iraqi Army will crush ISIS. Maybe Iraqi tank gunners will keep blasting Daesh VBIEDs to shreds, tank commanders will unleash .50 caliber hell on ISIS technicals, and loaders will spray machine gun rounds into dismounted terrorists. Who knows, maybe there will even be a few confirmed kills from a driver’s engagement. Iraqi tankers, and the army in general, certainly seem capable of winning this fight.
At the very least, today we have hope. And that’s far, far better than what we had two years ago.
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