War Stories

The Adviser Model

We have to stay in Iraq for a decade. Here’s how to do it.

Now that Democrats have stripped their troop-withdrawal timetable from the war funding bill, it’s clear that American forces will remain in Iraq through 2008. It also seems likely that they will stay much, much longer. The leading presidential candidates in both parties recognize the dangers of a rapid pullout, and achieving stability in Iraq is going to take a decade. (In this piece, Phillip Carter argues that the United States can withdraw quickly, and explains how to do it.)

How can U.S. soldiers stay in Iraq and accomplish what needs to be done? Our best hope is the Adviser Model. With the surge still under way, Gen. David Petraeus obviously cannot discuss a Plan B. But given U.S. public opinion, a Plan B for 2008 and beyond is a certainty. Its central feature is likely to be the buildup of a combat-advisory corps as our combat units are drawn down.

Americans need to understand who those advisers are, what they will do, and how many we will need. There is little to indicate that most citizens, or even politicians, are well-educated on the subject. A recent proposal from House Democrats, for example, distinguished between advisers, whom they allowed to remain in Iraq, and the “combat troops” they sought to withdraw. This indicates a gap of understanding that must be bridged before any such transition can occur.

Advisers have been a U.S. military staple for 70 years. American advisers augmented allied forces in World War II and Korea but were most prominent in Vietnam. While initially prohibited from direct combat, advisers in Vietnam became increasingly combat-oriented as our involvement increased. The first infantry advisers were special-forces soldiers designed for the domino theory and trained to aid “indigs.” By the time Nixon’s Vietnamization policy was announced in 1969, there were almost 12,000 military advisers in Vietnam, mostly officers and senior NCOs from traditional ranks. When the conventional forces withdrew, the advisers were the remaining link to American firepower, bolstering the defense—and morale—of the South Vietnamese army until they, too, were pulled out.

The military has a mission statement for advisers that is too broad to be informative. Advisers “advise, coach, teach and mentor.” Today, every Iraqi army and police unit has between 10 and 25 advisers, called “transition teams,” living with them. While some advisers perform as drill instructors for recruits and others work with Iraqi staffs behind barriers of American concrete, the majority do their job by setting the example outside the wire in combat. Many battalion advisers accompany Iraqi patrols twice a day, setting a much higher operational tempo than most American units.

This aggressive willingness to share risk makes the Advisory Model viable. The heart of the relationship between the American adviser and his Iraqi counterpart is a quid pro quo: The transition team leader brings logistics and a lifeline to American forces and firepower. In return, the Iraqi commander listens to advice about basic tactics and planning. It is the adviser’s performance under stress and willingness to share risk side by side with Iraqi troops that yields the true leverage: the ability to influence operations.

Danger is part of the job. It would be misleading to assume that the number of American casualties will drop precipitously if most combat units are withdrawn and advisers stay. The improvised explosive devices that account for more than 65 percent of U.S. casualties will still lurk in waiting every time a mounted patrol leaves the wire. This is especially true as the advisers persist with the current counterinsurgency emphasis of living in the neighborhoods instead of on large bases.

The Advisory Model represents America’s best chance to influence the fight for Iraq while pulling our troops out, but to do it the military must make three changes.

First, the military must select its best troops for these assignments. Currently, there is a marked variance in the performance of adviser teams. Though advisers have been labeled as our most important Iraq effort, the selection policy reveals the underlying truth: Leadership and key staff billets in conventional units such as battalions are much more prized than are assignments to advisory teams. The same held true in Vietnam. 

Second, the military needs a new model for its advisers’ tour lengths. Most advisers say that 12 months in-country is too long, especially given the small size of the unit and its outsized responsibilities. But most also agree that relationships take time to cement and that seven-month Marine tours—and even 13-month Army tours—are too short to see a local plan through to a conclusion. A better alternative, albeit at higher support and travel costs, is to copy the model used by special-operations teams. This would extend the assignment to specific Iraqi units up to two years, enlarging the teams while permitting team members back to the United States for 30 days every four months.

Finally, the military needs a new management model for its advisory corps. Advisers are like entrepreneurs, each tinkering with their own startup projects. This is unusual in a military that still uses a Napoleonic, hierarchical management structure, and the results so far have been mixed. One transition team may do what’s called “active advising,” spending the bulk of its time patrolling, while 5 kilometers away another may choose to remain inside the base, focused on staff planning. The military needs to adopt risk controls similar to those employed by Wall Street firms and other large companies that encourage risk-taking by entrepreneurial units. It must strike a better balance between nationwide unity of effort, local relationships, and individual risk-reward profiles.

A full-fledged Plan B would leave about 80,000 U.S. troops in Iraq in 2009, about half as many as will be in-country at the height of the surge. The adviser corps would nearly quadruple, to 20,000 troops, with another 25,000 in four combat brigades and special-forces units, plus 30,000 logistics troops. Another 5,000 Americans will live on the grounds of the new U.S. embassy in Baghdad, where they will rarely venture out. A comparative handful of American diplomats, called Provincial Reconstruction Teams, currently live with U.S. brigades. Far more are needed. Another 15,000 American contractors would provide security and training functions, up from 10,000 today. In addition, the number of foreign contractors who provide food and logistics to the U.S. military would remain steady at 90,000 or drop.

Equally as important: Over the next two years, the Iraqis need to build to 60,000 soldiers and police in Anbar province, 80,000 in Baghdad, and another 40,000 in the rest of the Sunni Triangle. This represents an increase of 25 percent over current plans.

Can an Adviser Model work as Plan B? At the grass roots, yes. An aggressive corps of advisers and their Iraqi brethren can prevent the country from cratering. However, stability in Iraq depends on two other factors. The first is the commitment to national unity on the part of the ministries and political parties. On May 17, Ambassador Ryan Crocker said, “What I see is an awareness and focus on the part of the Iraqi leadership that reconciliation is key to Iraq’s success.” Obviously, Crocker has to be proved right in his judgment. To date, the top Iraqi leadership has been much weaker—and more selfish—than the bottom.

The second factor is U.S. steadfastness. There is no full exit or abrupt departure without serious adverse consequences. “If you leave quickly, we’ll redistribute our units and go back to where we have local support,” Lt. Gen. Ali Ghaidan, commander of the Iraqi Ground Forces, told us in a recent interview. Such consolidation, which seems logical, is the adjustment President Nguyen Van Thieu tried to make in South Vietnam in 1975. But once South Vietnamese units began to pull out of the more remote areas, panic set in and events cascaded out of control. South Vietnam had a very experienced army; for the Iraqi army to try such adjusting—meaning, pulling out of the tough Sunni areas like Qaim or Fallujah—risks total chaos. 

This war will be fought for another 10 years because there is no central authority controlling the extremist groups among the dozens of gangs that compose the Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias. This is a bottom-up war that will be fought out in dozens of cities, towns, and farming communities. The core strength of the Iraqi security forces lies at the battalion level of the army, which is the least sectarian institution in Iraq. These battalions, paired with police departments, are the key to the war. Left abruptly on their own, they would fall apart. Like Afghanistan—where we have 30,000 soldiers fighting and advising—Iraq is a commitment for a decade.