Lt. Gen. James Dubik, the former commanding general at Fort Lewis, read 40 books on Iraq before he arrived there to head the command training its security forces.
But, he said, nothing could prepare him for the level of difficulty and complexity he encountered working with the fledging government. He used the analogy of running a sprint underwater, where the runner is moving a lot slower and constantly having to come up for air.
"What seems to be a relatively simple decision takes a lot longer," Dubik told reporters during a telephone interview Thursday morning.
Despite those inherent challenges, the recruitment and performance of the Iraqi security forces is gradually improving, aided by the security operations conducted by coalition forces, he said.
A more secure environment improves public confidence in the Iraqi security forces and aids in recruitment, he explained. In the past four months, 20,000 local police have joined the ranks, he said.
"As the situation gets less violent, then the security forces have a better chance of standing under their own legs," he explained.
But problems remain.
Leadership development is slow, Dubik explained. Security forces must adjust to planning and executing missions with less oversight from a central authority, the situation under the leadership of Saddam Hussein, he added.
"It's changing the mindset to get to the point where they can operate a lot faster than they're used to operating," he said.
The learning curve is very fast at the platoon level, he mentioned, but beyond that it gets slower.
While the violence is down significantly in general, specific cases abound and there's no doubt al-Qaida still has the capability to strike, Dubik said.
The percentage of forces on duty at any one time fluctuates between 75 percent to 85 percent, accounting for wounded soldiers, absenteeism and those on a five-day leave to deliver their pay back to families as there's yet no capability for electronic payment, he said.
Dubik said he meets weekly with Iraq's ministers of interior and defense and has occasional meetings with embattled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
He meets daily with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, and travels out to see the Iraq Army and police officers in action once or twice a week.
Dubik commanded Fort Lewis from November 2004 through April. He expected to remain in his job in Iraq well into 2008.
Christian Hill covers the city of Lacey and military for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5427 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.