Building Security Forces and Ministerial Capacity: Iraq as a Primer





This report discusses how U.S. commanders in Iraq vastly accelerated the growth of the Iraq Security Forces as part of a broader counterinsurgency strategy to supplement the Surge of U.S. forces into the region.

The author, Lieutenant General James Dubik (ret.), who served as the commander of Multi-National Security and Transition Command – Iraq (MNSTC-I) from mid-2007 to mid-2008, oversaw a rapid growth in the quantity of Iraqi Security Forces, an improvement of their operational capability due to the partnership and training with the U.S., and a reformation of the Iraqi Ministries of Interior and Defense to help institutionalize the growth of these indigenous security forces. Despite the success in developing security forces during the Iraqi Surge, our current military doctrine does not reflect the lessons learned or best practices used in 2007 – 2008.

Future conflicts will likely arise in failing states and will therefore involve the Army in counterinsurgency (COIN) or stability operations. The conventional forces of the United States Army will have an enduring requirement to build the security forces and security ministries of other countries. This requirement is consequently not an aberration, unique to Iraq and Afghanistan. Planning, training, doctrine, and acquisition must take account of this mission and support it.


Key Findings


  • The responsibility for defeating an insurgency lies with U.S. as well as indigenous forces. Passing on an active insurgency to weak indigenous forces is a failing strategy.
    • Training Commands must actively support the efforts of the overall operational commander. MNSTC-I in 2007 generated Iraqi units to fulfill specific needs identified by Lieutenant General Ray Odierno – then the operational commander in Iraq – as he planned his surge campaign and assigned U.S. and Iraqi forces to tasks. 
    • MNSTC-I had a direct effect on helping the Iraqis contribute to the counter-offensive, and thus improve the security situation. 
    • The end result would ultimately be the indirect effect we all sought: transition of security responsibility to Iraqi control.
  • Increasing indigenous security forces reduces but does not eliminate the need for U.S. forces in counterinsurgency conflicts and in the state-building efforts that follow. Policymakers mistakenly equate developing indigenous security forces with an exit strategy from conflict, arguing that as indigenous troops stand up, American forces can “stand-down.”
  • U.S. efforts to build indigenous security forces can and should stimulate state-building as a whole, providing the impetus and resources for the development of ministries, financial systems, budgeting, contracting, legal development, and other necessary functions of state and industry – as they did in Iraq in 2007-2008.
  • Building armies and the institutions that support them takes years. Our transition commands consequently tend to focus on executing long-term development plans. Although such plans are necessary, the transition command must provide a series of achievable, short-term tasks upon which the trainers and advisors can focus attention.
  • The perceived trade-off between quality and quantity is a false dichotomy. The U.S. needs to develop indigenous forces that are good enough to fight and defeat specific insurgents in conjunction with U.S. forces. Over time, these forces will have to metamorphose in size and composition ultimately to defend their country against external enemies. These countries will require residual U.S. assets even after the COIN fight, as they acquire these more sophisticated capabilities for national defense. Quantity has a quality of its own.
  • Train forces iteratively to increase quality without compromising the availability of forces. Quality standards should be flexible. At first, a minimum standard is good enough, given the enemy and other key factors of the situation. Once a force, or part of it, meets that standard, it can be raised and continually improved—especially as part of a coherent partnership program.
    • U.S. forces fighting on the ground played a vital role in continuing the training of the Iraqi Army and Police forces. That role included the embedded training teams, the Coalition maneuver units—called “partner units”—who fought side-by-side with their Iraqi counterparts, and the contracted civilian police trainer/advisors. The advisors, trainers, and war fighters continuously upgraded Iraqi combat skills, developed their leadership techniques, and improved maintenance and maintenance management procedures.
  • Balancing a force between the Army and the Police requires developing each institution at the right time for use at the right stage of the conflict. The relative requirements for Army and Police forces will change over time, as the state develops.
    • Decelerate the growth and fielding of forces that are ill-suited for current or likely future situations on the ground. Police forces – especially beat-cops rather than paramilitary forces – are poorly suited for a COIN mission, as they cannot link to an effective legal system and cannot stand up to enemy forces. Once counter-offensive operations were completed in an area, and sufficient coalition and Iraqi forces were available to hold and build, the construction of police facilities could take place.
Strong indigenous senior leaders can and must reform broken institutions – when advised, supported, and even criticized by their U.S. partners, who have leverage with them. Security ministries must be strong enough to manage malign or corrupt actors within their ranks through their own internal affairs processes. 



In fragile, failing, or failed states, it may take a generation for an indigenous force to reach a level of self-sustainment, in which case the U.S. must prepare to engage in a long-term cooperative security arrangement with the host nation.

Nations that require security force assistance and security sector reform are likely also to require external funding for these tasks. Foreign contributions are necessary for success and can have a double benefit – by contributing to the growth of state finances as well as security forces.

Organizations with responsibilities like MNSTC-I have to be staffed with leaders experienced in operating large, institutional organizations and staffed with members able to link their tactical, day-to-day actions to strategic effects. The Army must train its officers and its general officers better to meet these management requirements.