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Key Iraq Training Units Still Being Developed

U.S. Army soldiers return fire from insurgents in Buhriz, Iraq. (army.mil)

Barack Obama’s plan for withdrawing troops from Iraq, which he outlined last week, depends on creating new Army units to train** Iraqi soldiers to secure Iraq, **but the composition of those units has yet to be determined.

On Friday, Obama announced in a speech that by August 2010, U.S. combat brigades will depart Iraq, leaving behind a force of between 30,000 and 55,000 troops until December 2011 for a training and assistance mission. The combat brigades, formally known as Brigade Combat Teams, are a structure devised by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon to make a unit of between 3,500 to 5,000 soldiers the basic deployable unit of the Army, rather than its parent division of around 10,000 troops, which Rumsfeld considered too slow to deploy. As a result, the structure and functions of Brigade Combat Teams are known quantities throughout the Army.

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin
Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

That is not the case with the new training units, which will be known as Advisory and Assistance Brigades, or AABs.** **At a background briefing for defense experts on the Obama withdrawal plan on Friday, a senior military official conceded that the structure of the new advisory units has not been fully worked out, according to sources familiar with the briefing. It remains unclear, for instance, what sort of support the training units will require, such as engineers or intelligence and surveillance equipment and personnel. Nor is it clear whether the units will to be the size of a regular brigade combat team or what equipment it should possess. Another unresolved issue is the degree to which training units will engage in combat alongside their Iraqi army counterparts, as some training units currently do.

The United States has trained and mentored Iraqi Army units since 2003 — and the transition away from combat and to a training and “overwatch” mission was first envisioned by Gen. David Petraeus, the former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, during his September 2007 congressional testimony — but the units doing so have been component units of either Brigade Combat Teams or military-police brigades.

In a letter to his troops on Friday, Gen. Raymond Odierno, Petraeus’ successor as commander in Iraq, laid out a broad vision of the transition. “U.S. forces will be composed of a transition force that consists of a transition headquarters, several Advisory and Assistance Brigades, and appropriate supporting forces,” Odierno wrote. A spokesman for Odierno did not return an email seeking elaboration. Neither did representatives from the National Security Council staff or the Army chief of staff’s office.

While the structure of the AABs may not have coalesced yet, defense theorists have grappled with creating specialized units dedicated for training foreign militaries in recent years. The leading proponent of the idea is John Nagl, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who now runs the Center for a New American Security, a think tank that has sent many of its scholars into the Obama Pentagon and State Dept. A much-debated June 2007 paper he authored for CNAS argued that the Army should create an “advisory corps,” whereby troops would be assigned to standing units dedicated to training other militaries for a three-year period, just as they are assigned to other units currently. “Standing units have history, lineage, and traditions,” Nagl elaborated in an August 2007 post on the Small Wars Journal counterinsurgency blog. “Who wants to serve in Unit Rotating Force 1134 (as Transition Teams of Advisors are currently designated), especially if 1134 is disbanded four days after redeploying from combat?”

Nagl did not expect the composition of the Brigade Combat Teams to change very much as the Army creates the new AABs. “It is my understanding that the Army will modify existing Brigade Combat Teams by giving them a new mission and some additional senior personnel to focus on advising,” he said. Asked if he was advising the Pentagon or Odierno’s command as to how to create the AABs, he replied, “I think it’s fair to say that I remain in contact with many of my friends in the Army who work on these issues.”

Last year, Nagl singled out the concept of a Transition Task Force for moving from combat operations to advisory operations that the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division pioneered in the Sunni Iraqi city of Mahmoudiya. The task force was much smaller than the Brigade Combat Team — a battalion of 800 soldiers rather than the Brigade Combat Team’s 5,000 — and it advised not only the Iraqi and police, but also the local government. The concept was “a bold but calculated effort to mitigate the risk of a U.S. drawdown of forces,” wrote Nagl and Capt. Adam Scher, a member of the 3rd Brigade Combat team, in the Christian Science Monitor.

Similarly, Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration who now studies defense issues at the progressive Center for American Progress, said he expected the AABs to be smaller than the Brigade Combat Teams. “You don’t need brigades of that size to be training Iraqis.” Instead the AABs would require skill sets like language abilities and those who train fellow units of the U.S. Army. “Human relation skills are really a key,” Korb said.

Speaking on NBC’s “Meet The Press” on Sunday, Defense Secretary Gates conceded that some training units might find themselves in combat. “We will still have some soldiers embedded with Iraqi units as part [of] the training effort,” he said . “But it’s a very different kind of arrangement, and our soldiers will be consolidated into a limited number of bases in order to provide protection for themselves and for civilians who are out working in the Iraqi neighborhoods and countryside as well.”

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