U.S. teams play support role to Iraqis in Sadr City
BAGHDAD — The Iraqi brigade operations staff leaned into U.S. Army Capt. Matthew Custer as he told them the plan for the next few days.
Custer, a military transition team adviser, had cards bearing pictures of wanted men to be distributed around various Iraqi neighborhoods. Like a good mentor letting his students find their way, Custer encouraged the Iraqis to work out the details. He told them the sector where the leaflets needed to be distributed, asked them where they wanted to start and jotted down the grid.
In most parts of Iraq, Custer would probably be with the Iraqi soldiers as they distributed the leaflets. But Custer isn’t in most parts of Iraq: He’s in Sadr City, and that means he’s not allowed to venture into most of the 44th Iraqi Army Brigade’s area.
Three of the Iraqi brigade’s five battalions are in a part of Sadr City called the "exclusion zone" that was declared off-limits to American soldiers as part of a cease-fire agreement that ended last spring’s fighting with Shiite militias. For the MiTTs — as the teams are known — it can be a challenge to teach the Iraqi troops when so much of the Iraqi brigade operates in an area where they can’t go.
Advisers typically begin their time in Iraq by going everywhere with the local Iraqi army commander to build his trust, said Lt. Col. Craig Simonsgaard, the commander of the team that advises the 44th Iraqi Brigade. MiTT advisers depend on these relationships — not orders — to encourage their counterparts to change.
"To do that, you need to spend time with them — including when he’s getting shot at," Simonsgaard said.
That’s not possible in most of Sadr City.
The advisers also lose ground-level observations that help them get to know a unit or commander. Listening to reports back at the brigade headquarters just doesn’t give as full a picture.
"When you’ve got a guy on the ground, you can sense things better — like is this battalion commander really aggressive in his approach to fighting or is he always in his office?" Simonsgaard said.
Linking Iraqis to American assets is a secondary, but vital, part of the MiTT mission. Advisers in the past have called in fire from American planes and helicopters. This is all but impossible when they’re not actually on the ground with the Iraqis.
"You’re not doing that on a cell phone with a translator," Simonsgaard said.
The Americans can direct assets that don’t cause damage, like unmanned aerial vehicles, to the battlefield. But this still leaves Iraqi forces without key firepower in what is perhaps Iraq’s most dangerous area.
Then there’s the whole stigma of leading from the rear. American officers are trained to lead by personal example, yet the situation in Sadr City forces them to encourage the Iraqis to be more aggressive without being able to be aggressive with them.
Even the Iraqis have felt the effects. The brigade commander has concentrated his best units and best commanders in the exclusion zone because he knew they wouldn’t have American support.
Difficulty working with ground-level units isn’t necessarily unique to the 44th Brigade MiTTs. Multi-National Division-Baghdad has begun to concentrate the advisers at the brigade level and above — a process known as "MiTTing up" — in order to focus on improving the commander and his staff. This has left many with little time to work with platoons, companies and battalions. One advantage of the Sadr City environment is that it forces the advisers to focus on this aspect, Simonsgaard said.
But concentrating at the brigade level also removes the advisers from the least experienced Iraqi soldiers, who need the most help. Battalion logistics officers, for example, are usually very junior and don’t know how to predict what they’ll need, said Capt. Derrick Dunlap, a logistics adviser.
Not everyone sees the same difficulties, though.
Capt. Will Wadzinski, a personnel and finance adviser, said he sees little impact because nearly everything he monitors most flow up through brigade and on to division.
"With logistics and pay, I think we get more work done working with the higher headquarters," Wadzinski concluded.
Maj. David Acker, an operations adviser, distinguished between the tactical and operational levels in talking about the challenge of working in Sadr City. The MiTTs can no longer do the work they once did on the tactical level — training individual soldiers on crucial skills like clearing rooms, searching vehicles and manning checkpoints. For the most part, the soldiers in the brigade headquarters don’t even do such missions.
"All of that is geared toward the tactical fight, on-the-ground stuff," Acker said.
But they can still help staff, systems and processes grow across the brigade — establishing ways to get warrants, for example, or share intelligence.
"We’re no longer managing platoons and companies. We’re managing battalions," he said.
Simonsgaard’s conclusions are clear, though. The Iraqi brigade is definitely progressing, but he thinks it would be progressing faster if it had MiTTs or an American unit advising it on the ground level.
"Some of the things they get from working with Americans are things that are hard to measure — soldier discipline, work ethic," he said.