U.S. military advisers say they're treated as misfits

Iraqi-Americans and area residents pretend to be citizens, soldiers and translators in a mock Iraqi town at Fort Riley.
Iraqi-Americans and area residents pretend to be citizens, soldiers and translators in a mock Iraqi town at Fort Riley. Nancy A. Youssef / MCT

FORT RILEY, Kan. — Standing next to a screen illuminating a long list of tips, Maj. Anthony Nichols looked out at the classroom of neophyte military trainers and began a lecture about the ways that fellow soldiers will look down at them while they serve in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Other soldiers will call them "undesirables," sent in because they had no other place on the battlefield, the instructor said. Some units will kick military advisers out of security briefings. One recommendation: to "patch swap," carry alternative military insignia for their uniforms so they can pretend to be members of other units. It will help them get supplies and equipment more easily. Or at least more respect.

"I came armed with a stack of patches. . . . Who am I going to be today?" Nichols said about his time in Iraq.

Nichols' depiction is in stark contradiction with Pentagon rhetoric. Top Pentagon officials say that developing a new corps of military advisers is a priority as part of the new emphasis on counterinsurgency. But the military, which continues to use the Army Special Forces to train foreign troops for combat in Iraq and elsewhere, hasn't fully embraced the program to train trainers in counterinsurgency.

At Fort Riley, former military advisers are building the curriculum ad hoc, and their place in the military's pecking order is ambiguous. Advisers don't get promoted as fast as their combat counterparts do, according to soldiers at Fort Riley. And the work of advisers in the field depends on the will of the brigade commander who's securing the area, they say.

Resolving the role of advisers has never been timelier. The U.S. military is considering a drawdown in Iraq. As brigades leave, advisers will stay behind to deter corruption and abuse among the Iraqi forces, track weapons confiscated by Iraqi soldiers and monitor the state of the local forces.

Troops in Afghanistan are stretched thin, and military advisers often are the sole presence in isolated communities. Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that the military needs at least 3,000 more advisers there. Last year, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called training Afghan security forces "arguably the most important military component."

In Iraq, trained advisers are serving with Iraqi combat brigades. As the Iraqi forces are increasingly capable, traditional U.S. brigades are supporting their Iraqi counterparts and monitoring how they take the lead. American soldiers who came expecting combat are watching their Iraqi counterparts take charge. At one base in the southern city of Amara, a U.S. soldier told McClatchy, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to talk candidly: "I keep looking around, wondering what I am supposed to be doing here."

Regardless, there's a pushback throughout the ranks from those who think that the next wars won't demand such cerebral officers, Nichols said. The Army should train to kill enemies, not train large militaries. That job should stay with the special forces, soldiers often complain.

One soldier returning to Fort Riley from a yearlong rotation in Iraq's restive Diyala province told McClatchy of his experience: "I didn't join the Army to be an adviser." He asked not to be identified so that he could speak about his experiences without fear of retribution.

At Fort Riley, some of the Army's best-known innovators are fighting for the advising program. Retired Lt. Col. John Nagl, who helped craft the counterinsurgency manual with current Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus, has proposed that the military develop a permanent 20,000-member "advisory corps."

Here, soldiers who worked as advisers in Iraq and Afghanistan have developed an in-depth training program. Soldiers learn basic Arabic or Dari — one of the Afghan languages — along with the fundamental tenets of Islam and cultural norms of Iraqis and Afghans. Near the end of two months of training, they're sent to a mock town, where native Iraqi and Dari speakers pose as residents and local forces and test the U.S. soldiers on what they've learned.

Col. Jeffrey Ingram, the commander here, has been building the military adviser training program since 2006. Before that, soldiers such as Nichols learned on the job.

In his office, among books such as "Islam for Dummies" and the Quran, Nichols keeps a photo of Col. Yahya Hameed al Zubaidi, an Iraqi police officer he was training near the Syrian border in 2006. Nichols is convinced that tribal leaders killed Zubaidi because the police commander didn't include them enough in his security efforts.

Nichols said that had he known the importance of the tribal system to Iraqis, he would've encouraged officers such as Zubaidi to reach out more.

"He represents the effect you are having on your counterparts," Nichols said, holding the flier that announced the colonel's death. "We push them very hard, and they become vulnerable. I could have been a better transition leader if I had known that then."

Fort Riley trains roughly 40 percent of Army, Navy and Air Force military advisers, and the rest train with their units. Marines train their troops at Twentynine Palms, their base near San Diego. The Army training center is scheduled to move to Fort Polk, La., sometime next year.

Trainers are slowly getting respect. Last month, Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff, said that advisory work by senior officers would be taken into account at promotion boards. The test, Ingram said, is if the promotions come through.