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Why the U.S. (still) can’t train the Iraqi military

Iraqi soldiers with U.S.-made weapons take combat positions at the front line in an eastern suburb of Ramadi, Anbar province, in July as they battle the Islamic State militant group. (AP)
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Since the Islamic State’s stunning gains in Iraq in summer 2014, the United States has gotten back into the business of trying to train Iraqi security forces. Although it didn’t work the first time — when the United States spent $25 billion over more than a decade in the wake of the 2003 invasion — recently some U.S. officials have expressed guarded optimism about what the new training effort can achieve, both publicly and privately.

Although it is true that recent U.S. efforts may have yielded some tactical improvements in Iraqi forces, these have been limited at best. More importantly, social science research on military effectiveness suggests that these gains are unlikely to translate into the larger operational and strategic military successes that the administration’s “Iraq-first” approach against the Islamic State militant group requires.

This is mainly because the underlying problems with the Iraqi security forces are political. The regime in Baghdad has little interest in building the neutral, nonsectarian professional army that the United States has long wanted to create, and this fundamental clash of objectives, common in instances of security forces assistance, has produced serious obstacles to the Iraqi combat effectiveness needed to push back the Islamic State. Furthermore, the United States has relatively little leverage to pressure Baghdad into conforming to its wishes, in part because it lacks a credible exit option and in part because Iraq can turn to Iran as an alternative patron.

Currently, the United States has a total military presence in Iraq of about 3,500 personnel. Of these, 450 work as trainers and 100 serve as advisers. The trainers’ goal is to help improve the skills of the 250,000-man Iraqi army — an army that on paper is far, far larger than the Islamic State forces it seeks to defeat. Meanwhile, the advisers’ role is to assist during operations with decision-making, coordinating, logistics, calling for air support and so on.

Yet this effort has produced disappointing results. First, only a fraction of the Iraqi army — about 13,000 soldiers — has received any training. This figure includes Kurdish forces, not just those operated by Baghdad, and falls far short of the training program’s stated goals, mainly because Baghdad has not provided the number of recruits the United States has sought. Privately, some officials have noted that even when recruits are provided, they are more likely to be support personnel from rear echelons, such as cooks, than fully formed combat units. As Gen. Lloyd Austin noted in Senate testimony last week that made headlines primarily for his comments on Syria, efforts to train Iraqis “are making a difference, but until the Iraqis commit to a more rapid force generation, gains will likely remain limited.”

Second, even the units that have received additional training have not performed well in combat. The recent attempt to retake Ramadi has stalled badly. Ramadi is a Sunni-dominated town long ignored by the Shiite regime in Baghdad, which allowed it to fall to Islamic State forces after local Sunni fighters endured a brutal siege earlier this year. Some Iraqi officers now fighting and failing to retake Ramadi have pointed the finger at a supposed lack of U.S. airstrikes. But the real problems stem from a lack of basic tactical skills and, most importantly, an inability to aggregate those skills into the performance of complex operations involving both initiative by individual units and coordination across units.

Research on military effectiveness suggests that even very brave, highly motivated soldiers won’t be successful in their efforts to take territory if they fail to master these key skills. It also suggests that these skills are particularly unlikely to develop in regimes that are more concerned with maintaining power, especially in the face of political threats from their own military organizations, than combating conventionally powerful adversaries. This problem has historically plagued most Iraqi efforts to generate effective military forces, dating to the time of Saddam Hussein.

In particular, the Iraqi army has long been woefully inadequate in critical logistics functions. The weakness of logistics was readily identifiable even before the U.S. withdrawal by December 2011. A 2010 report noted many challenges and emphasized that “the army could face major challenges in shifting large units… in response to an internal crisis or major border incident.”

In other words, five years ago, there were already concerns about the army’s ability to make exactly the sort of movements needed to retake Mosul or Ramadi. Those concerns have proven prophetic as U.S. forces today highlight logistics as one of the major hurdles for retraining Iraqi forces. Reversing these weaknesses would require exactly the sort of professionalization, de-politicization and reform the Iraqi government has been unable or unwilling to enact for the past decade.

Furthermore, these problems are not simply attributable to the general difficulty of training local forces in the Middle East, though such a task surely is challenging. The Islamic State has suffered ample territorial losses in Iraq over the past year, just not at the hands of the U.S.-trained and -backed Iraqi army. The defeat of the Islamic State in Hussein’s home town of Tikrit, for example, was the result mainly of coalition air power and popular mobilization forces (PMFs), consisting largely of Shiite militiamen supported by Iranian advisers, intelligence and artillery. In fact, the initial Iraqi army effort to retake the town lost momentum quickly. Similarly, Islamic State losses in the north have been the result of Kurdish operations run entirely outside Baghdad’s control. In contrast, major cities such as Mosul — where U.S. Central Command officials once predicted the Iraqi army would undertake offensives this past spring — remain firmly under Islamic State control.

Outside of Iraq, other U.S.-allied Arab armies have proved capable in combat. The United Arab Emirates has invested in building a professional force, despite a federal structure that requires balancing the interests of its seven constituent monarchies. As a result, the UAE military has been able to master the logistics and tactical combat tasks needed to project power from Abu Dhabi to Aden and beyond. Although professionalism is no guarantee of victory in a complex war such as the one in Yemen, Emirati performance demonstrates that building an effective army is possible where there is political will to limit nepotism and corruption.

Despite sunny rhetoric about the current training effort, the evidence is clear. Absent a commitment by the ruling Iraqi parties to address corruption and politicization while emphasizing military professionalism, the ongoing training effort is highly unlikely to produce results different from the effort before 2011. That may be enough if the United States seeks only to pin Islamic State forces in place indefinitely. But decisively defeating such forces — and keeping Iraq together as a state — will require considerably more than history has suggested Baghdad is interested in delivering.

Caitlin Talmadge is an assistant professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and author of “The Dictator’s Army: Battlefield Effectiveness in Authoritarian Regimes” (Cornell University Press, 2015). Austin Long is an assistant professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University and author of The Soul of Armies: Counterinsurgency Doctrine and Military Culture in the United States and United Kingdom” (Cornell, forthcoming 2016).