Iraqi divisional HQ takes charge

The 6th Division Assumes Authority

The baby steps continue in the process to build Iraq’s new army. This is the sort of thing that gets totally overlooked while the hand-wringers go on and on about how the Iraqi military will never manage to get control of their own country.

Yes, the number of Iraqi battalions capable of independent operations is apparently down to one from three. But no one seems to want to really talk about what the difference between Level 2 (mostly independent) and Level 1 (fully independent) is. At both Level 2 and Level 1 readiness, for instance, the Iraqi forces plan and conduct their own operations. The difference isn’t who does the fighting, the difference is who provides logistics, artillery fire support, medical evac, and other non-direct combat support services.

This isn’t to minimize the contribution or importance of these types of units, or to say that the Iraqi army doesn’t need to perform the duties for themselves. But it’s very important to understand what the military is saying when they’re telling us about the Iraqi army’s capability for “independent operations”.

From the news reports and the punditry’s remarks, I get the definite impression that they are mistaking “not capable of independent operations” for what the military calls Level 3. Level 3 units in the Iraqi army operate with Coalition forces, under the direction and usually in support of combat operations by front-line Coalition combat troops. A small Iraqi unit attached to a US battalion, often held in reserve or sent to provide perimeter security, for instance, is an example of a Level 3 unit. Level 3 is “on the job training”, and is where the Iraqi combat troops get their feet wet.

Level 2 units, though not capable of “independent operations”, are often fully combat trained, equipped, and battle-tested. Iraqi units incapable of “independent operations” can enter into battle without any US troops alongside them. They just need to have American logistics to bring them ammunition and close air support (for instance) available to assist if required.

Does this need to be addressed? Absolutely. Is it troubling that a couple of months ago there were three battalions capable of operating without any US support whatsoever and now there is only one? Absolutely. Does much of the new Iraqi army need to have these capabilities before large numbers of US troops can come home? Absolutely.

But in the time that those two battalions backslid to the point where they could no longer operate without at least some help from American forces, how many Level 3 units progressed to Level 2? How many Level 4 units, which are basically raw recruits, completed their basic training and joined forces in the field as Level 3 units? This would be nice to know and would tell us a lot more about the state of the Iraqi army than the number of Iraqi units able to go off on their own.

This Iraqi divisional HQ taking over command of Iraqi units in the field is significant because it represents the sort of thing that sets Level 1 units apart from Level 2 units as generally a lot of an army’s support is organized at the divisional level. Another important story is the opening of a small arms ammunition depot. This sort of upper-level command organization and basic infrastructure needs to be in place before many Iraqi units will be able to reach Level 1. While these stories aren’t terribly exciting and certainly won’t make the front pages, they are exactly the sort of slow and methodical progress that will be required to get more of the Iraqi army to where it needs to be.

Yes, I wish things were progressing more quickly and I’m often frustrated with the lack of apparent progress and especially by the hiccups and backslides that are part of any evolutionary process. What I’d really be interested in seeing is a more-detailed breakdown of how many Iraqi units are at each level of capability, maybe in a monthly report format so that progress (or the lack thereof) can be noted over time. Of course, some of this information is obviously sensitive and some of the stories we tell are told for the benefit of our enemies, so I understand why we’re being more than a little vague about things.

As a final note, here’s a quick rundown of Levels I-IV as explained on the Fourth Rail not long ago:

+ Level 1 is the highest rating, where units are fully independent in all aspects. This includes being able to plan and conduct operations without coalition support. It also means the units sustain themselves through their own systems, handle all maintenance and have every piece of equipment needed to perform any mission.

+ Level 2 means units that are “in the lead” in the counterinsurgency effort. The units plan and execute their own operations, but they do require coalition support. This support is typically logistics, close-air support, indirect fire, medical evacuation and so on.

+ Level 3 indicates units fighting alongside coalition units. An Iraqi company will be embedded with a coalition battalion. The company gets support from the coalition and operates with the battalion.

+ Level 4 indicates units just forming.

The bulk of the Iraqi army is probably either at Level 3 or at Level 4 waiting for an opportunity to get deployed and advance to Level 3. But a lot of the Level 3 units have been in the thick of the fighting over the past six or eight months, putting them squarely on the path to Levels 2 and 1.

I don’t know what our exact goals for the Iraqi army are, but most armies usually consist mainly of Level 2 and Level 3-type units, with a core of Level 1 front-line combat units and a steady stream of Level 4 types coming in to replace those leaving the army.

Things could certainly be much, much better. But they aren’t as bad as many are making them sound, mostly because they don’t seem to understand what’s being said.

UPDATE: Okay, found this info: During the time the number of Level 1 battalions went from three to one, the number of Level 2 battalions went from about 18 to 36.

Also, during that time the rating system was tinkered with and the one current Level 1 unit isn’t even one of the original three. That makes me wonder how much of change over the summer is due to administrative decision-making regarding the definitions of the four levels and how much is actually due to a change in the actual capabilities of the units in question.

And I also found this headline, which is just plain stupid: Just 1 Iraqi battalion fit to fight insurgents. Not only stupid, but an out-and-out L-I-E.

Hard to figure how so many people are misinformed about the state of the Iraqi army, isn’t it?

Plus, it seems that about 60-70 battalions are Level 3:

The focus has been to create Iraqi light infantry units as rapidly as possible, so it was never in the plan that there be more than a couple of Level 1 battalions at this stage, [Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Barry] Venable said. The emphasis, he said, has been on moving Level 3 units up to Level 2, so Iraqis can take over the bulk of the fighting, with American troops providing advice and fire and logistics support — roles they are likely to play for a long time to come.

Finally, Juan Cole (who’s been to some of the nations that border Iraq, so don’t question his authority on the subject) simply doesn’t get it:

SecDef Rumsfeld and Gen. Casey were saying not long ago that there were 3 Iraqi units (a brigade and two battalions) that would and could take the lead in fighting the guerrillas. A brigade doesn’t have a fixed number, but let’s say it is 1500 to 3000. A battalion is roughly 500-1000 men. Now, the press said that the charge at Tal Afar was led by 4,000 to 6,000 Iraqi troops. Was that the level-1 units plus some level 2s? Were these the units who could fight on their own? They were said to be mostly Kurdish Peshmerga, with some Sh2tes along (Badr Corps?)

As is very clear to anyone who bothers to try and understand the rating system for the Iraqi army, Levels 1, 2, and 3 are all capable of fighting, Levels I and 2 without Coalition troops with them and Level 3 only as part of a joint operation. Which means that roughly 75,000 Iraqi troops are capable of combat if you figure 100 battalions (the figure given as Level 3 or greater) at about 750 troops per. So the Iraqi troops at Tal Afar could have been any of them, since US forces were also involved.

Also posted at WoC.

UPDATE 2: The leap from Level 3 to Level 2 is a far more important and telling accomplishment than the step up from Level 2 to Level 1. At least for the short- and mid-term outlook.

The important thing today and for the next couple of years is to have battle-proven combat troops available to take up the majority of the fighting from US forces, and to be able to do it effectively. This is the key. We literally have years to establish logistics, maintenance, and command/control/communications infrastructure, and we will be able to do so with limited exposure of US forces to the fighting. Air support and aerial logistics, of course, will take years to “get off the ground” regardless of timetables, and no significant Iraqi troop formations are going to be truly Level 1 for any amount of time without air support in logistical, intelligence/command, and direct combat roles.

Top-notch troops and well-oiled military organizations take years and years to set up and whip into shape. They need to learn, gain experience, and then be able to incorporate the lessons that experience teaches. Even US uints take quite some time to get into shape and require a lot of work to stay there. These Iraqi units are all starting from square one. There’s no substitute for experience, and experience takes a long time to acquire. Years. And that’s exactly how long it’s taking.

Our strategy seems to be to get as many professional fighting men into the field as we can as soon as we can without rushing the process so much that it fails. We saw the results of “too much too soon” a year and a half ago when we first tried to press raw Iraqi troops into action. It’s capable front-line combat troops and security forces that we need now. The behind-the-scenes administrative and support elements can wait.

If we really thought that reaching Level 1 was the most important thing, we would have taken 30 or 40 of the combat battalions and made them support forces instead. We’d have taken hundreds of trigger-pullers and turned them into supply clerks and mechanics and staff personnel. Then instead of 100 battalions requiring US support, we’d have 60 battalions requiring almost no support and additional US combat troops doing the fighting.

If the insurgency/terrorists weren’t putting up so much of a fight, that’s probably how we would have preferred to do it. But we don’t have that luxury and we’ve decided that continued US supporting forces are preferable to additional US combat troops. I think it’s the right move.


  1. Your headline had me excited for a moment. I thought you were refering to the U.S. 6th Infantry Division which was foolishly deactivated in the 1990’s.

  2. Good point. Still a level 2 unit still needs us there as much as the level 3 and 4 unit does. Maybe not in the same capacity but it needs us. The idea of this is to get us out. Maybe I am being unrealistic. Yeah the real progress is being made in the level 2 units to the level 3. There is some progress. Ah all this is according to who? The military, the administration? Why all the verbal gymnactics. What I am saying is this makes sense and it seems that progress is being made but I am still skeptical of it. Though you do have more detail and insight then CNN or FOX.

  3. Joe: You are right about taking this info with a grain of salt. Propoganda comes from all directions, and glossing over details or even outright deceptions are not only possible but a certainty. Just remember that in many cases there will be a good reason for the tale being told. As for the Level 2 needing us as much as a Level 3 or 4, though, I think you’re not really putting it correctly. Yes, Levels 2, 3, and 4 all need some US presense, but there’s a huge huge difference between US artillery, air power, and fuel trucks needed for Level 2 compared to large numbers of front-line combat troops in the middle of the fight for Level 3. See UPDATE 2 to this post for a bit more on this.

  4. I’ve read some comments from actual US troops in other blogs (sorry, forgot which one(s)) in which they state that THEIR units were downgraded from level 2 to level 1 due to illness, force rotations, etc. Apparently, as soon as any unit gets below 90% fully operational strength (including if vehicles or other equipment is out for repairs, etc.) it automatically goes from level 1 to level 2. Perhaps the US commanders (justifiably) decided to ‘spread around’ the expertise from those three battalions into a whole bunch of others, thus diluting the talent and forcing the unit readiness of those three units to drop? Obviously it takes a while to train quartermasters, mechanics and all those necessary to perform logistics tasks. In addition, they have to work together at many levels, and they need not only facilities but a supply chain. It’s clear to anyone who has a good sense of what’s going on in Iraq that the ISF are making great strides. How else could the massive increase in Iraqi force-heavy operations be explained?

  5. Oops, sorry, that first sentence should read ‘… from level 1 to level 2 …’. Additionally I read that the only other force in the Middle East with a significant number (or perhaps any) Level 1 forces is Israel, and that a lot of western nations don’t have level 1 forces either. It’s a high aim point and it will take a while to get there. The media acts more and more like children. Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? We have to stop, I need to pee!!

  6. Hmm, I seem to be something of a conversation-killer here at Murdoc Online. They say that ‘(s)he who laugh last laughs best’ but I’m interested to have people debunk/augment/comment on what I say, even if it is a load of drivel :)

  7. Nicholas: Well, I think you’re right about the idea that some of the good officers and NCOs from top units are pulled and sent to newer units, and that this would then obviously degrade the top units. I’ve pointed out previously a number of times that the NCO corps as we know it basically didn’t exist in Iraq until we created it, and I’m sure that there is a critically severe shortage of good sergeants. You could be totally right that pulling some from the cream of the crop would drop the rating of their old units. I just doubt we’re ever going to be seeing that level of detail so we’ll never know for sure. A lot of folks just don’t understand the fact that a significant part of all militaries are not Level 1. Level 2 is the key here, not Level 1.

  8. I wish I remembered where I read some of this info, one of the articles was very interesting, it stated something along these lines: The advantage of having units at level 1 is that in the event of a major, protracted conflict (such as a big war with a neighbour), the level 1 units can stay effective for the duration of the fight. They need supply from high level (divisional and upwards) but they can maintain and repair vehicles, maintain communications and other vital duties in a situation where they can no longer rely on much external support. This is obviously a lofty goal and vital for the US military deployed overseas (as well as homeland defence). If the balloon was to go up in Korea, for example, the forces there would have to fight for an extended period against a numerically superior foe until help arrived. They can only hold the line while they have superior equipment and can use it. If all the tanks/planes/etc. are damaged/break down and they can’t fix them, they’re in deep trouble. This is much less of an issue in a guerilla war. External and civilian support is available; the civilian infrastructure is left mostly intact. One day the Iraqi forces may face a serious external threat, so it would be great if they get there eventually, and as you point out, we want to be able to leave Iraq eventually so they will need to be able to support themselves. For now it isn’t, and can’t be, much of an issue. To claim it is would be to put the cart before the horse. Viewed in this light, it’s interesting to look at past conflicts. For example, the 1967 and 1973 wars involving Israel. One reason they won both (despite the surprise attack launched in 1973) was the degree of indepdence their units had, Other reasons include what you and others have touched on WRT the NCO issue. Well, sorry to waffle on :) I guess I’m a bit of an armchair military geek.

  9. Great coverage Murdoc. Lt. Gen. David Petraeus says Iraqis are taking back their country, and offers some specifics on how ‘levels of readiness’ are assigned, what they really mean, and how many battalions are in each level. A must-read if you want to really understand the progress in this regard. Lets’s see 36 battalions, conservatively that should be 36 x 500 = 18,000 Iraqis ‘taking the lead.’ 80 battalions x 500 = 40,000 Iraqis ‘in the fight.’ Given that these numbers were close to zero a year ago, it’s a good bet they will double or more in the next year, meaning a lot of U.S. troops will probably be heading home. I’m guessing U.S. force levels will be somewhere between 25,000 and 75,000 in Oct 2006, depending on how the insurgency and political process go.