A Special Correspondent | Canberra
Back in 2003 the government dispatched a small team of soldiers to help train the Iraqi military, a massive job considering the US administration in Baghdad had unilaterally abolished Saddam’s army as irremediably compromised by Baathism.
In October 2004, this group was named the Australian Army Training Team in Iraq (AATT-I), in clear homage to the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam, the most decorated single unit of Australia’s controversial involvement in south-east Asia.
Numbering around 100 at peak, the Iraq team did most of its work at Taji, north of Baghdad. From training recruits and higher-level advice, the unit eventually concentrated on niche skills including logistics. Along with other combat forces, the training team withdrew in mid-2008, having instructed more than 30,000 Iraq soldiers.
The US did most of the Iraqi army training, devoting vast sums in the hope that a professional force could adequately secure the nation. In that job the Iraqi army abjectly failed, breaking and running in the face a numerically smaller and less well-armed force of Islamic Nation insurgents.
For those inclined to do some finger-pointing our way, here’s a story about the Australian training experience in Vietnam.
Much of the final period before the final withdrawal of combat troops was devoted to training South Vietnamese forces in the hope that they would be able to hold on once the US, Australia and everyone else departed.
Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces were seldom highly regarded and among the more dismal of units was the 18th Infantry Division, beset by poor leadership, low morale and a reputation for indiscipline. Australian soldiers worked valiantly to lift the standard of some of its battalions, with seemingly little to show for their efforts.
In April 1975 - long after Australian units departed - the 18th Division faced the main North Vietnamese southwards thrust at the town of Xuan Loc. Fighting with a tenacity which stunned their vastly stronger opponents, the unit stood firm, delaying the inevitable fall of South Vietnam for two weeks. This was regarded as ARVN’s best performance of the entire war.
Australian War Memorial historian Ashley Ekins said Australian soldiers involved in training this unit could take some pride in their performance.
But the real clincher appears to have been something sorely lacking for much of the 18th Division’s history - decent leadership at the top, in the form of the inspirational Major General Le Minh Dao.
Absence of decent leadership is what the Iraqi army lacked in confronting IS, with officers hitting the road, leaving the lower ranks to either follow as a disorganised rabble, or stay, be rounded up and shot.
Much has been written about why the Iraqi army collapsed, allowing IS to now control much of northern Iraq and Mosul, the nation’s second largest city. The former Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki cops a lot of the blame for politicising the army, appointing senior officers based on their loyalty rather than military acumen.
Well-known practices of cronyism and rampant corruption returned with a vengeance, with some units existing more on paper than in reality with their commanders pocketing salaries for these ghost soldiers.
Just on the basis of numbers - 193,000 in the army and 500,000 in the police force - Iraqi security forces should have performed better against IS, which never numbered much more than 30,000 combatants in both Iraq and Syria, according to a CIA estimate.
Much has been written about the general performance of Arab armies which have repeatedly failed in battle, despite vast sums invested in equipment and training and numerous examples of personal bravery. For an examination of why, your correspondent recommends a study by retired US Army colonel Norvell Atkine titled “Why Arabs Lose Wars” and readily available on the internet.
Atkine’s position is that armies in Arab nations reflect their national culture, with political paranoia and operational hermeticism rather than openness and team effort, the basic rules of advancement and survival.
“These are not issues of genetics, of course, but matters of historical and political culture,” he concludes.
In contrast, IS does a lot of things right. It operated at mostly company and occasionally battalion level with a diffuse command structure encouraging flexibility and tactical initiative at mid and junior officer level. Units travelled light and fast, showing an ability to speedily exploit battlefield opportunities, retreating in the face of opposition and then moving to outflank the enemy positions.
That was aided by a good measure of terror - those facing IS fighters knew they would be rounded up and shot.
In a recent visit to Baghdad Defence force chief Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin said he discussed all this with his Iraqi opposite number, who revealed a few extra details.
One tactic involved IS’ own version of precision guided weapons - SUVs packed with explosives which roared up to Iraqi army checkpoints and vehicles and blew up. As a shock tactic this was highly effective but ultimately costly in IS personnel and materiel.
Into this maelstrom is heading the Australian special operations task group, around 200 personnel drawn mostly from the 2nd Commando Regiment.
At time of writing, their deployment from the United Arab Emirates into Iraq had been delayed, first by the need to sign off on an appropriate legal protections for deployed personnel and then by unspecified administrative problems.
On one report, the latest delay related to Iraq’s bureaucratic challenge in issuing 200 visas. When your correspondent visited Iraq some years back, one visa requirement, apparently directed at all decadent westerners, was an AIDS test.
Troops, operating in small teams, will advise and assist the headquarters of Iraqi units down to battalion level, a job likely to take them close to the front line. This certainly carries considerable risk. Much hasn’t been revealed about this mission, including where the area of operations and with what Iraqi units.
However, priority for assistance clearly lies in the Sunni-dominated area west of Baghdad where al-Qaeda once reigned supreme. Removing IS could well involve Iraqi troops in brutal house to house fighting not that different from what US forces encountered in Fallujah. If it comes to that, Australian advisers mightn’t be far away.