CAMP SPEICHER, IRAQ — When Gunnery Sgt. Scott Stalker, one of 5,000 U.S. military advisors in Iraq, arrived at this sprawling base last spring, he was training 80 Iraqi soldiers to fire and maintain their rifles.
Now his class is down to 25.
"It almost feels like 'What are we here for?' " the Marine told Brig. Gen. Dana Pittard, the Army officer sent to Iraq in June to overhaul the Pentagon's military advisor program. "Now the philosophy is 'Train who's there.' "
Pittard has been visiting teams at bases across Iraq recently, checking their progress. Other advisors told him similar stories. Progress is slow. Corruption and fuel shortages are endemic. And 75% of Iraqi soldiers don't show up for duty.
"The reason that is given is it's too dangerous," said Marine Lt. Col. Mark Winn, a Pleasanton, Calif., native who leads Stalker's border patrol advisory team in northern Iraq.
"But they get back in time to be paid, right?" said Pittard, a perennially upbeat West Point graduate. "How do they explain that?"
Sitting with the team in a plywood office, Winn said the Iraqi border patrol officers claim they're afraid to work, then on payday claim they're braving militias. "It became an Abbott and Costello routine -- who's on first?" Winn said.
As leaders in Washington debate Iraq war strategies, nearly everyone appears to agree on one thing: The military advisor program needs to be expanded.
The landmark Iraq Study Group called for up to 15,000 more military advisors. Even Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, outgoing commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East who has resisted adding troops in the region, suggested doubling the number of advisors.
The accepted intelligence is that these small teams, embedded with Iraqi troops and police for a year at a time, will allow U.S. forces to hand over responsibility for security sooner. But if Pittard's visit to the advisor teams this week is any indication, such optimism may be misplaced.
Pittard has said publicly that he thinks the advisors will prepare Iraqis to take over security from U.S. forces in March, and that expanding the teams will allow them to fix logistical and security problems. But Winn, the team leader, said he didn't expect Iraqis to be prepared to take control next spring, or even the one after.
"We're still at the point where if we're not there, trash accumulates, nobody's shaving or wearing uniforms, and we're back where we started," Winn said.
"What would happen if you left now?" Pittard asked.
"They would go right back to where they were within a month," Winn said.
What if they had another year?
"I don't think a year will be long enough to break their bad habits," Winn said. "It gets pretty frustrating when you're hitting it every day that you're not making more progress."
The U.S. military began embedding its forces in Iraqi units soon after they arrived in Iraq, although early efforts were sporadic. The Army developed a more systematic approach at the start of 2006, dedicating an entire base to training advisors at Ft. Riley, Kan. But a Defense Department report last month said Iraqi forces were still plagued by problems nationwide, including equipment and personnel shortages.
As Ft. Riley churns out 2,000 advisors every two months, those already in Iraq wonder whether Iraqi units are capable of benefiting from their help.
"Everybody wants to know why the Iraqis aren't further along," said Capt. Daniel Sanchez, Winn's assistant team leader. "But even a transition team of superstars couldn't do that. It's not that we haven't had the talent there -- it's that the culture is so different. We're at the 30-yard line."
"You mean 30 yards from the end?" Pittard asked.
"No, sir, the 30-yard line." "Not even the 40-yard line?" "No, sir." "Wow."
Iraqi border agents who show up appear friendly and eager to learn, Winn said, but struggle with corrupt leaders and fuel shortages.
Later in the day, Pittard sat down with the military advisory team paired with the 1st Brigade, 4th Iraqi Army Division.
Flipping through a list of Iraqi commanders, Pittard asked who was Sunni, who was Shiite and how effective they had been. Team members said they couldn't be sure of their counterparts' religious affiliations except for one, a Shiite commander who was recently removed.
"He was having militia leaders over for meetings in his office," said the team's leader, Army Maj. Dan Greene.
In addition to militia activity, the advisors said they're hampered by equipment shortages and security concerns.
They have no cellphones. Their Internet access expires this month. Their six Humvees, all more than 2 years old, have been repeatedly hit by roadside bombs. They're so unreliable, the advisors have had to delay missions and borrow a Humvee from the Iraqis.
The Iraqi brigade headquarters itself is a security risk, advisors said. Located in an old hospital building in nearby Tikrit, it's too close to the street, with minimal security. Recently, the brother of the executive officer of the Iraqi battalion was kidnapped and killed after the officer refused to wear a suicide belt of explosives to work, they said.
"We're struggling with what's the way ahead," Greene said.
Before leaving the border patrol team, Pittard asked what advice they would offer advisors scheduled to replace them next spring. The group fell silent, trading glances. Jose Zavala, a Marine out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., finally spoke up.
"Patience," he said.