Wanna fix the Iraqi army? You’re probably gonna need to change its culture
News that the Iraqi army cannot recruit sufficient numbers hints at the size and nature of the problem in Iraq.
By Paul Edgar
Best Defense guest columnist
Go big, go long, or go home. Or… go back, and go long.
News that the Iraqi army cannot recruit sufficient numbers hints at the size and nature of the problem in Iraq. It also indicates the magnitude of the investment required if the United States is serious about fixing the army, defeating ISIS, and stabilizing the region for more than a few years at a time.
We’ve heard many so-called strategies to fix the Iraqi army and defeat ISIS. And to be fair, most proposals have technical merit. Invariably, plans will include three elements: organization building (man, train, and equip); cadre building (training-the-trainers); and executive mentorship. This is true whether the emphasis is on special operators, conventional forces, or militarized police.
This approach is sufficient in some contexts. For example, between 2001 and 2010, we followed similar models, building dozens of U.S. battalions and brigades from scratch. Within two to three years, most new units performed as well or better than units with unbroken active service since World War II.
But given the context in Iraq, this approach amounts to tactics, not strategy. For a decade, we’ve presumed that we can replicate this process with similar results in Iraq (and elsewhere). And for a decade we’ve overlooked the prerequisite contribution of American national culture to its armed forces. One aspect of national culture that sustains a modern military is what political scientists and historians call civil society.
In layman’s terms, civil society is simply the way people organize and ally themselves in the space between the state and private or family life.
In the United States, that space is elaborate. In Iraq, it is less so. Amongst other things, civil society in the United States reflects and inculcates a culture of organization. It conditions us to arrange people and systems in certain ways when we organize to do something collectively: a family reunion, a high school sports tournament, or something more enduring like a business.
Here is an example that demonstrates the uniformity of our culture of organization in the United States: How are the American Civil Liberties Union, Samaritan’s Purse, Exxon-Mobil, and the Automatic Transmission Rebuilders Association similar? Not very, right? But consider their organizational structure, the way they organize to do things. Each has a board of directors, presidents, and chief financial officers. All but the Transmission Association have chief operating officers, development officers, and directors of communication. Within each organization, these offices interact in similar ways to plan and do the work unique to their mission.
These organizations never set out to mimic one another. It just happened. Their members grew up in similar environments and were conditioned to organize in similar ways. American institutions — schools, sports teams, clubs, churches, professional associations, and even families — conditioned them to operate the way they do. American institutions, relatively speaking, tend to be bureaucratic, efficient, modular, merit based, and scalable. These qualities are also characteristic of western militaries.
In contrast, Iraqis have a very different culture of organization. They are conditioned to function in a confined civil society, where patrimonial social and civic institutions orient more around people and positions, less around missions and functions. Intensely loyal and communal, Iraqi institutions are not bureaucratic, efficient, modular, merit based, or easily scalable.
Of course both countries exhibit elements of patrimony and modern bureaucracy. Still, the degree to which each country operates in a particular domain sanctions categorical description. Also, this is not a moral evaluation of Iraqi culture; it is a description of the correlation between one aspect of culture and military performance.
Imagine how differently the two cultures condition those who grow up in them. Very few Iraqi boys and girls move between organizations like Boy or Girl Scouts troops, yearbook committees, junior varsity soccer teams, 4-H, or debate teams. As young adults, very few associate with mobilized interest groups or professional organizations (like the Automatic Transmission Rebuilders Association). The handful of modern organizations that do exist in Iraq are usually extensions of patrimonial authority.
This may seem a small thing. But the repetitive experience of attaching to an organization, establishing one’s role, working toward a collective goal, detaching from the organization, and starting it all over again has a cumulative effect. We are comfortable with the experience, if unaware. Most Iraqis are less so. The skills they develop to navigate a patrimonial system are different. Collectively, these individual experiences have national consequences.
The Kingdom of Jordan’s general election in 2010 was, to me, an eye-opening example of the mismatch between modern and ancient modes of organization. I lived in Amman and was friendly with a few potential candidates. I learned that parties and candidates were usually extensions of prominent tribes. Primary elections were essentially family decisions about who could run. At election time, voters cast ballots according to family associations. Despite the modern electoral structure, older standards of alliance and organization carried the day. The same incongruities exist in Iraq and in its army, where the environment is less congenial.
This is not a new phenomenon. It is often noted that Western European countries had an advantage when mobilizing for the World Wars because of their elaborate political society. Shift supervisors, mission board members, and trade union representatives had more experience leading small groups in support of larger programs than their counterparts in Eastern Europe and Russia who worked on farms in traditional communities. For Western Europe, the terrible learning curve of leadership and organization in combat was slightly less steep. We can describe many of the Iraqi army’s problems in similar terms.
Yet cultures and armies are not static. However difficult, it is possible to modify one or the other. For example, the Iraqi army can be organized explicitly along tribal and sectarian lines to match its society. The Sons of Iraq were effective because of this arrangement. Shia militias are often capable for the same reason. But understandably, the United States and our allies are rarely comfortable with this approach. It seems counterproductive.
The alternative, maintaining a modernized army, requires dogged external pressure to keep it intact, supplying what its society cannot until it can. At the moment, the only source of dogged external pressure is the U.S. military. And the solution of U.S. military presence leads us to the fundamental flaw in our proposals. We want our military to be present just long enough to get the organization up and running, again. But the problem with the Iraqi army is not the organization itself. It is the culture of organization that fills the gap when we leave.
If we really want to stabilize Iraq and its army, defeat ISIS, and prevent threats still unknown, our national strategy must look beyond technical solutions like building organizations even as we build the organizations. Rebuilding the army and even defeat of ISIS are not ends in themselves. The end we seek is stability originating from changed behavior, organization, and alliances. It is culture change, reflected in things like an army that performs.
Culture change takes more than a few years. The last twelve years are only a prelude to the commitment required. An entire generation of Iraqi soldiers and officers must grow up with overt American influence in order to modify their culture of organization.
This characteristic of the problem should alter the nature of our policy discussions and solutions. It should temper our eagerness to get over there and ‘fix’ things and make us think harder about whether we really are serious, this time. It matters much less if we go with President Obama’s plan or a Republican plan than if we are willing to stick with a plan for one administration or for seven.
Paul Edgar is a Ph.D. student in Middle East studies at the University of Texas and a Clements Center Graduate Fellow. Recently retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel, he commanded 4thBattalion, 3rd U.S. Infantry from 2011-2013. He also has worked extensively in Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan, and Israel.
Photo credit: Ali Al-Saadi/AFP/Getty Images
Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1
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