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On Trackless Roads

Szöveg: Béla Szabó |  2011. március 15. 9:32

A new mission abroad is always an enormous challenge: you are about to start out on a trackless road, there are a lot of unknown factors, and often you can see only in retrospect whether the consequences of your decisions were good or bad. This is especially true if your contingent deploys in the crossfire of continual attacks in a war zone where it is often unclear who is on your side.

Lt-Col. Dr. Romulusz Ruszin, Commanding Officer, HDF 25/88 Light Infantry Battalion commenced his tour of duty as contingent commander in Iraq in 2007 under such circumstances, which were not at all “friendly". The then two-star field officer who was at that time assigned to the Special Forces (SF) Battalion had familiarized himself with the Hungarian Defence Forces as a military college student, and graduated as an artillery officer. Later he filled various artillery and staff positions and chose his military occupational specialty (MOS) in the Special Forces. Thus he went on to enroll in a number of training courses and schools in Hungary and the USA. On deploying to Iraq he found himself in the line of fire, as it was the year when the Hungarian Defence Forces took over the MALT (Military Advisory and Liaison Team), a mission launched by the US military and carried forward by Italian and Polish troops.

The fifteen SF personnel joined the NATO Training Mission  Iraq (NTM-I) project at the former air base of Ar Rustamiyah in Baghdad. The main objective of the program was to restart military higher education in Iraq. With the help of several NATO advisors working in the Iraqi Military Academy located at the base and the Iraqi Joint Staff College, they supported the development of the new Iraqi security forces by running several training courses.

“The impressive-sounding names of these two institutions should not deceive anybody," says the colonel, “in fact these compounds at the base were nothing more than a few buildings with quite modest levels of comfort that had escaped destruction in the war." The conditions and the capabilities had been modest in another sense, too, the colonel told Defence Mirror Extra. There was a US brigade deployed in the northern sector of the Iraqi base to protect the NTM-I area, while an Iraqi battalion was tasked with securing the southern sector. This meant that the Hungarian troops had two responsibilities. On the one hand, they gave advice on how to re-establish military higher education, running and organizing training programs. On the other, they were in command of the Iraqi base security battalion. The latter was a very demanding job because, to put it mildly, the Hungarian instructors were not entirely happy with the Iraqi troops’ remuneration, motivation, equipment and (sometimes) loyalty. Therefore Col. Ruszin and his men focused on improving the combat readiness and response capabilities of the Iraqi battalion. Indeed, the Hungarian trainers had to start from scratch as they had to supervise the Iraqi troops every day to see whether the sentries on duty in the watchtowers were sufficiently skilled, watchful and equipped with the proper weapons, as well as checking the battalion’s deployability posture – among a number of other tasks. . It was typical of the general circumstances that the Iraqi service members had insufficient equipment and weapons, the in- and outbound traffic of the camp was not checked properly, and the registration of entry permits (under a constant terror threat!) was disastrous. Furthermore, the Hungarians had to learn that without regular supervision, Iraqi troops tend to neglect some of their duties. As for the Iraqi soldiers’ marksmanship skills, let it suffice to say that during the first target practice, only ten per cent of them were able to hit the target from 100 meters. So there was ample room for improvement…

Moreover, the drill instructors of the Hungarian Defence Forces had to run the trainings programs knowing that they were exposed to continual attacks. During their six-month tour of duty in the mission, 47 rocket and mortar attacks were launched on their camp and there were another 70 attacks carried out with small arms.

“These include only those cases when our camp took direct hits; we did not count the hits outside a one-meter zone along the fence", Col. Ruszin adds. In another case, the shower facilities where they had been shaving earlier that morning were destroyed by a rocket a couple hours later.

Turning to the above-mentioned issue of loyalty, it was not so reassuring to see that during a secret security crackdown – an action planned and carried out by the Coalition forces before Ramadan and supported by Col. Ruszin’s team –, as many as 70 “bad boys" from the Iraqi battalion were taken into custody.

Despite these circumstances the Hungarians have performed admirably, in cooperation with the Coalition forces and the NGOs providing logistic support to NATO, the profit-oriented Iraqi suppliers and the team of interpreters. By making a comprehensive inventory, they managed to put an end to “bartering", produce the NATO defence plans and raise the Iraqi battalion up to an acceptable level of operational capability. Naturally, they continued the college training programs as well.

“We learned a lot of lessons during those six months", the commander says, adding that “thanks to the lessons learned in the MALT in a real area of operations, we were able to prepare the Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams (OMLTs) and the Special Operations Task Groups (SOTGs) for their tour of duty in ISAF, Afghanistan. The leaders of the Coalition forces also appreciated our service greatly. For the first time in the history of the mission, in which contingents of different troop contributing nations are rotating in and out on a regular basis, Hungarian troops were requested to deploy for two consecutive rotations…


Photo: MALT