There’s no shortage of lessons from Iraq. The last twenty years have seen documentaries, books, and podcasts on almost every aspect of coalition operations in the country. World wars aside, the allied effort in Iraq may have prompted more commentary than any other military endeavor in the last hundred years.

Most of this output has focused on a succession of stages of Iraq’s recent history—the 2003 US-led invasion, the country’s subsequent descent into sectarian violence, the years of coalition efforts to stem that violence and introduce political stability, the uncertain period after the 2011 withdrawal of the last coalition troops, the rapid expansion of ISIS and establishment of an international coalition to counter it, and the incremental recapture of Iraqi territory from the extremist group. But as we approach the fifth anniversary of a much lesser-known international engagement in Baghdad, there is new material to be understood. It is the story that offers useful pointers for future military engagements in other countries.

NATO Mission Iraq (NMI) began in October 2018—the Euro-Atlantic alliance’s response to a request from the government of the country. It is a noncombat operation, with a mandate only to advise and build the capacity of Iraq’s armed forces and security institutions. The alliance is also trying to guide the country toward a full-fledged NATO partnership, as conditions allow.

The mission has inevitably had its difficulties. The troubled security situation in its first two years hampered operations, and COVID also had an impact. Problems are compounded by the relatively short tours of most staff in the mission—just six months, which is not enough time to get to know Iraqis and understand the problems they face.

But the mission is novel in several ways and has been able to test new concepts. Here are five lessons from the first five years of NMI:

  1. Size matters, but not in the traditional way. Bigger isn’t always better when it comes to military operations. For an advisory mission, the primary means for achieving the effect—information—is inherently scalable, so the number of people delivering it matters less than how good they are. It’s better to send in a few experts with the right know-how than establish a larger presence of less suitable advisors. Even as NMI has evolved, this focus on high-quality and precisely targeted advising has enabled it to remain nimble and responsive to Iraqi needs.
  2. An alliance advising mission’s strength is its diversity. Advisory and capacity-building operations often involve personnel from several different countries, but usually in national teams—one country takes on transport, for instance, while another deals with logistics, and so on. The innovation for NMI has been to mix those individuals together, so that each advisory team offers a blend of diverse expertise from different countries, and from both civilians and military experts. Bringing diversity to the front line in this way adds credibility to the mission: advisors coming from different perspectives means they can correct each other, and the chance of an individual national agenda being pursued is much reduced.
  3. Training alone is not enough. Iraq’s security forces have already received extensive training from abroad, and have several impressive military academies of their own, including branch schools and a defense university. Moreover, the experience they gained during the fight against ISIS—tens of thousands participated in the battle for Mosul alone—meant that a much more capable military force emerged from that fight than the one that existed when it began. Sending in more trainers to improve their tactical skills is no longer the priority. The much greater need is for strategic advice, including for foreign military experts who can diagnose Iraq’s institutions to suggest how they might do better. Tailored, strategic recommendations have much more impact than teaching generic skills that have been taught before.
  4. Shared objectives are essential. NATO engages in Iraq only because the government of Iraq wants it to. The importance of local consent must guide the whole of any advisory mission, including its activities to improve host nation forces. NMI works to a defined set of long-term objectives, which have been agreed with Iraqi counterparts. Shared objectives allow for a shared program of work and minimize friction between the mission and its hosts. And because the list is public—deliberately shared widely within Iraq’s public buildings, including on large posters within the Ministry of Defense—it helps explain what NMI is here to do.
  5. Corporate memory must be protected. The importance of safeguarding institutional knowledge isn’t new, but it is a particular issue for personnel with relatively short tour lengths operating in complicated environments. NMI’s solution has been to develop “plans-on-a-page”—a program of future activities agreed with Iraqi interlocutors and set out on a single side of paper. Rather than reinvent the wheel each time someone new arrives, advisors can start where their predecessors left off. Advisory work has accelerated, and Iraqis have been relieved of the need to explain the same things to new faces every time people change.

The measure of NATO’s mission in Iraq is not whether it appears in future documentaries, books, and podcasts. Primarily, it is whether NMI’s many innovations can achieve a significant improvement in Iraq’s security forces and defense institutions. As we approach the five-year point, the indicators are positive. But alongside any accomplishments the mission achieves in Iraq, there are important lessons to be learned to advance the quality of advising missions elsewhere in the future.

Iain King is a director of NATO Mission Iraq.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: NATO