In blood-spattered Iraq, seasoned American soldiers and extraordinarily capable retired U.S. Army sergeants currently employed by the Vinnell Corporation have been busting their butts trying to forge a post-Saddam Iraqi army. It’s probably the most daunting task either of these outfits has ever faced – and both have plenty of experience turning rabble into effective fighting machines.

Today’s gold standard in this type of exercise is the U.S. Army’s molding of the South Korean army, which pound for mean pound has become one of the best-trained and disciplined armies in the world.

This time around, the master plan calls for standing up 27 Iraqi battalions by the end of the year. Four battalions have graduated, but the 1st Battalion is already on its second commander. The first CO got bounced after only a few months for wheeling and dealing the way it used to work under the previous regime and the way it worked for countless centuries before Saddam Hussein shot his way into dictatorship.

Although Uncle Deep Pockets has sunk almost $100 million into this effort, none of the units is considered combat-ready. On average, all have about 25 percent of their soldiers on leave and 20 percent AWOL at any one time.

A Vinnell trainer says: “No one wants to rate them combat-ready because this is too risky – it would mean somebody’s career slides down the tubes if one of these units got whipped. However, no one wanted to rate them not combat-ready either, because that would imply that all the money, time and effort devoted to these units had been wasted.”

Yet our high brass have been stating that the training of the Iraqi army is already a tremendous success. Nothing is being said about most of the Kurds refusing to serve because of their feelings toward the Arabs. Nor that a lot of the men volunteering for the Iraqi army are of poor quality and seem to be signing up only for a quick buck: They join for a few weeks and then quit after they’ve picked up a few dinars. In one day alone last month, 139 NCO School candidates handed in their quit slips because they were Arabs who couldn’t get along with Kurds or vice versa, or they didn’t like the training or were just homesick and headed out the front gate.

It’s rush, rush, rush to field an Iraqi army – regardless of quality – to replace our overextended forces. Otherwise, there’s no way we’ll ever be able to execute our nonexistent exit plan.

This con game reminds me of Vietnam when Richard Nixon ordered the war turned over to the Vietnamese so we could get our boys home muy pronto. Back then, the subterfuge was called, “Vietnamization.” I spent three years training some of the better units in the South Vietnamese army – Airborne, Ranger and Special Forces – and from the beginning it was clear that the effort was mission impossible – kind of like trying to turn a two-wheeled bike into a Sherman tank.

If we delude ourselves again as we did with the South Vietnamese army and cut and run too soon, all our sacrifices in Iraq will have been in vain. And right now, my take is that the new Iraqi army couldn’t handle a tug-of-war with a Brownie troop, let alone the sort of serious stand-up, knock-down firefights we’re seeing in Iraq, or the civil wars flickering on and off between the Kurds and Arabs and Sunni and Shiite Muslims that could easily blow up into major conflagrations.

In the movie “The Last Samurai,” when Tom Cruise is ordered to take his newly trained Japanese soldiers into battle before they’re ready, their defeat is painfully predictable. A Vinnell trainer puts the Iraqi army in the same category: “Even though they’ve been trained, they’re a long way from being battle-ready,” he says. “In short, they’re not capable of doing what the Coalition Forces are doing right now, and they won’t be for a long time.”

Let’s pray that we’ve learned from the past or at least from Hollywood and take the time to forge an effective Iraqi army in fact rather than hype before we pack up our toys and boys and beat feet back to the home front.

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