Corps plans to train 80 advisory teams next year
By Gina Cavallaro
Marine Corps Times Staff writer

Marines getting ready to train Afghan army soldiers will take part in a pilot training program in January - in a place offering the most realistic environment possible outside of Afghanistan itself.

Overall, the Corps plans to train about 80 advisory teams in the coming year for deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. Those headed to Afghanistan will train alongside soldiers, airmen and sailors at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, Calif., said Maj. Gen. George Flynn, commanding general of Training and Education Command at Quantico, Va.

"It's part of the building block approach. What you're going to see in there is foreign weapons training, cultural training, some of the driver training and the counter-[roadside bomb] training. It's just more a standardized practice because right now a lot of our training we allow the operating force to do, and what we're trying to do is … give them more support and help them do it in a more productive way," Flynn said.

"This program that I'm talking about will be 25 to 30 days for those going to Iraq. It'll be a little bit longer for those going to Afghanistan because what we really want to do is expose them to the environment," Flynn said after a Dec. 7 House Armed Services Committee hearing on the transition teams working in the war zones.

Flynn was joined by Army Lt. Gen. James Lovelace, deputy chief of staff, G-3, and Army Maj. Gen. Carter Ham, commander of 1st Infantry Division.

The sparsely attended hearing was an opportunity for Democrats, soon to be in the majority, to lob questions about the composition of the U.S. teams and whether their safety in the war zone can be assured. The lawmakers drilled for information and personal opinions on how effective the strategy is for getting U.S. forces out of Iraq.

Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., soon to become committee chairman, elicited a pause from the three generals when he questioned whether the performance of the Iraqi forces should be considered a reflection of the proficiency of the transition teams training them, a question echoed later by Rep. John Kline, R-Minn.

"It is not a reflection of the capabilities, confidence or performance of our forces - there are too many variables," said Lovelace, who explained to the panel that the assessment of readiness for Iraqi units is done in a parallel fashion up Iraqi and U.S. chains of command. "It's reconciled. They have to truthfully say if they're ready for a mission."

How training is going

Flynn suggested that the training is going as well as it could be under the circumstances, and that the safety of U.S. troops could not be forsaken for speed.

"The key part is we're making sure we train them correctly and man them correctly. It is a high-risk assignment," said Flynn, who explained that he will be training about 80 advisory teams in the coming year, representing 800 to 1,000 Marines, who will pull seven- and 12-month rotations.

The teams on shorter rotations are attached to units deploying for regular tours. The 12-month rotations are for teams trained specially for the mission, Flynn said.

The advisory team mission is billed as the cornerstone of the U.S. military's exit strategy from Iraq, and the questioning by the panel members revealed some of the complexities that trainers are facing.

For the most part, the testimony centered on how the Army and Marines have standardized their training.

"We all talk to each other and we take their best practices, like they take our best practices," Flynn said of his regular contact with Ham. "We also have a part where we work through Joint Forces Command and we interface a little bit there."

Ham pointed to the difficulty of finding and keeping qualified Iraqi linguists and cultural experts on hand for educating the teams.

"Linguists and foreign language speakers are the toughest resource to get. So far we have been able to do that to the requisite standard. We try to get actual Iraqi and Afghan leaders to come and talk to our teams," he said, noting that about half of the team members have prior combat experience.

Skelton asked whether the Iraqis being trained have the will to win.

"The feedback is that the attitude of the Iraqi counterparts is very positive," said Ham, whose headquarters and staff from two brigades at 1st Infantry Division are dedicated to training the Army's advisory teams.

"They're concerned about capabilities and support from their own government, but understand the role they must play," Ham said.