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Institution Building in Iraq Isn’t Working, Here’s Why

Hint: We still don’t understand culture.

Words: Ilhan Akcay
Pictures: US Department of Defense

Western nations have been involved to varying degrees in nation-building throughout the Middle East and Central Asia for over a century now. However, the success record is rather spotty. The war in Iraq and its aftermath is one of the latest examples of such an effort that has not gone as planned. There have been many analyses on why nation-building in Iraq has failed. Blithe assumptions and careless planning has been blamed, as well as the poor performance of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the transitional government of Iraq established after the US ground campaign. A lack of clear policy has been another culprit. However, at the core of these failures lies Western nations’ misunderstanding of the unique culture of the nations that are being supported.

Growing up in two very different cultures, my parents Turkish and my environment German, I was acutely aware of what living in and between cultures entailed from a very young age. I leveraged these experiences during my time as a Mobile Training Team (MTT) commander in Iraq in 2019. In an effort to build on those experiences and the unique perspective gained, I’d like to present some of my subjective observations on nation-building in Iraq today and share where I see potential for improvement.


Language is key to understanding a culture, but few members of Western militaries speak any Arabic. I am guilty of this myself. All the Arabic I speak, I picked up as a child in a multicultural environment, a complement to the Arabic loan words in the Turkish language. This situation leads to two problems.

First of all, it creates an unhealthy reliance and dependence on interpreters. In The American Military Advisor: Dealing with Senior Foreign Officials in the Islamic World, Michael J. Metrinko posits that:

[T]he ideal advisor should be fluent in the local language, but this ideal is rarely met. Professional relationships, accuracy, and security will all be affected by the advisor’s inability to speak the language. Most advisors use interpreters, making it difficult to establish a truly effective relationship with the senior local official they are advising.

This is not solely true for American advisors, but for any Western national engaging in nation-building. Metrinko goes on to define the problem with interpreters:

In the real world, the interpreter is more likely a local citizen who left his country decades in the past and has only returned on a contract, or someone whose parents are from the country in question and who learned the language from his family while growing up in America, or a local citizen who studied English in school. None of these is likely to be a formally trained interpreter, and, at best, the American advisor will be provided translation which will only be approximately correct. Facts, figures, and details will often be mistranslated, nuances of meaning may be totally lost.

This is an incredibly important point. Languages are complex, and the use of untrained interpreters who have very little knowledge in the subject matter will most probably lead to a loss of nuance, detail, and in the end, meaning. To illustrate this, let us take the Clausewitzian concept of Schwerpunkt. The German word Schwerpunkt means center of gravity, i.e. an object’s center of gravity. In German doctrinal thinking (and the way Clausewitz meant it), the word Schwerpunkt means main effort. However, the US military has built a myriad of concepts around the idea of center of gravity, claiming to derive these ideas from Clausewitz when they are in fact far away from Schwerpunkt as Germans understand it. This misunderstanding and loss of nuance has developed between two closely related languages in close geographic proximity which have influenced each other for centuries. Imagine the potential for errors in languages as distinct as German and Arabic, or English and Pashto.

Languages are complex, and the use of untrained interpreters who have very little knowledge in the subject matter will most probably lead to a loss of nuance, detail, and in the end, meaning.

Second, you cannot understand a society if you cannot understand how its people view the world, and for that speaking the language is key. I have often witnessed how people from different cultures can fail to get along without any ill intent towards each other, solely due to the fact that their cultures judge different actions differently. Expand this to the level of nations, and it becomes even more problematic, like that one time President Clinton apologized for bombing the Chinese embassy in Belgrade while wearing a polo shirt, or when President Bush used the word ‘crusade’ in his famous speech after 9/11. This lack of language and cultural understanding can also lead us to draw the wrong conclusions about how and why certain events take place, as might be happening with the Anbar Awakening, for example.

This situation is further compounded by the fact that European nations fail to tap into their pool of Arab immigrants and citizens with Arab heritage. Countries like France, Belgium, the Netherlands, or my own Germany have significant Arabic speaking populations, many of them the offspring of families that have lived there for many generations. Encouraging them to join the armed forces, not only as language interpreters but as full-fledged soldiers, will ensure that decisionmakers at all levels have access to this treasure trove of cultural knowledge.


Efforts to provide a Western mantle for societies in the Middle East in general and Iraq specifically really took off with the break-up of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I. This reorganization of societies with disregard to their underlying culture led to various degrees of failure. In the realm of militaries, the reasons why trying to organize Arab militaries along Western organizational thinking has failed are manifold, however, they can be reduced to one common denominator: utter and active ignorance of how various Arab societies are organized.

Ethnicity, tribe, region, religion, sect might not matter in our polities, they do matter a lot in many societies around the world, though. That’s why Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) have been so much more successful than the regular Iraqi army. Officially, the PMF were formed after the collapse of the Iraqi military in the wake of ISIL’s offensive to overtake Iraq. Iraqi cleric Ali al-Sistani had called the Iraqi people to rise and fight against ISIL. It is assumed that al-Sistani called Iraqis to join the military to support the fight. However, it seems like this was misunderstood and Iraqis self-organized into militias along tribal, religious, and ethnic lines. That is one part of the PMF. The other part consists of armed groups that existed in Iraq even before the current war with ISIL, some whom have fought against Coalition forces in the past (and some who still fight against Coalition forces). However,  the PMF played an important role in the defeat of ISIL in Iraq.

The debate on how Western nations should deal with the PMF is still going on, but no matter how the debate goes, Western governments have to understand that trying to force Western organizational structures and thinking onto Iraqi society will not lead to the hoped-for success.


Western nations, especially European nations, are really interested in infusing their know-how into the Iraqi military. The problem is that most Iraqi soldiers are not interested in Western know-how. Many Iraqis just don’t see the same value in the training that we can provide them as we do. The reasons for that are beyond the scope of this article and in the end, they don’t matter. What matters is that we are trying to sell something which Iraqis have no interest in buying. Mind you, most will never say this to someone’s face. They are way too polite to do so.

However, there is one thing we can offer that the Iraqi military is interested in: stuff. The Iraqi military is interested in all the gear Western nations can provide, the more Gucci the gear, the better. Never mind the complexity of these systems and that training is necessary to learn how to use them. It seems to me like Iraqi planners and officers accept the training provided by Western nations as the price they have to pay to get the gear.

Many in the West might be wondering: what happened with Iraq’s oil revenueIraq was OPEC’s second-largest oil exporter in 2018, after all. Incidentally, many Iraqis have been asking the same question. Very little of these oil revenues trickle down to the units on the ground. When visiting Iraqi military installations, the state of disrepair and decay almost immediately catches the eye. Here lies the opportunity for Western nations to bring change: instead of offering training that is unwanted or handing over complex gear that needs lots of maintenance and training, Western nations can help the Iraqi military with infrastructure projects: buildings, air conditioners, sanitary facilities, classrooms, etc. This is a win-win situation for everybody. Western nations get to help Iraq in a direct, measurable, and highly visible way. Iraqi soldiers get an improvement in living quality. Nobody has to sit through classes they don’t see value in, and nobody has to teach classes which are not interesting to the audience.

Efforts by Western nations to help the Iraqi military, even if they are well-intentioned, often spring from ignorance of Iraq’s society and culture. There are better ways to help Iraq, but it is important to learn the language, understand the society, and tailor solutions to their needs. There are civilian organizations that are already doing this and can serve as an example. Otherwise, we are simply wasting taxpayer’s money and our soldiers’ time.

Ilhan Akcay is a German infantry officer with a BSc and MSc in Aerospace Engineering from the Technical University of Munich. He writes about training and readiness on his blog School of War. All opinions expressed in this article are his own and his only.

Ilhan Akcay

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