How could the Iraqi military have folded so quickly in Mosul, Tikrit, Baji, and Samarra after the United States spent billions of dollars building its capabilities?
It’s relatively easy to explain. The Iraqi Army was becoming “good” while U.S. forces were there to train, equip and mentor them; they were polishing their battlefield skills by fighting alongside Americans in combined operations. Their leaders were learning battle command alongside ours, studying complex counterinsurgency strategy against an enemy that was increasingly less capable.
The day the U.S. forces left – because of the desire of our people and our politicians, but also because Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused to sign a required and critically protective Status of Forces Agreement – the Iraqi Army began to deteriorate.
There were myriad reasons for this, besides our departure. Even before the U.S. forces left, American-trained leaders were being replaced with more and more “favored” officers from sects, tribes or families linked to the government. They weren’t chosen for their competency, a big mistake.
The increasing sectarianism of the central government turned people against the security forces, too, and against public officials. A punishing operational tempo for both elite and normal units meant that “select and trusted” Iraqi units were being shuttled to the various trouble spots across the country. Those on the frontiers were worn out fighting local insurgencies, terrorists and criminals. The Iraqi Army was, in effect, in combat continuously for several years after U.S. forces departed. There was little re-training and little rest. This kind of operational tempo will exhaust even the best soldiers. For Iraq’s soldiers, their level of training and toxic leadership became a recipe for disaster.
And rising levels of corruption on the part of many of the high-level military and police force leaders (it’s part of the culture of power).
But it’s not just the Army we should blame. As the army weakened, the Iraqi people became frustrated that their government wasn’t providing them security from criminals, electricity, water and jobs. While this occurred, the central government grew increasingly sectarian, becoming less and less inclusive, and was focused almost exclusively on consolidating power.
In my final tour, between 2007 and 2008, our soldiers did a great job reducing attacks in the north. I was able to observe and compare the capabilities of the four divisions of the Iraqi Army with the many units of the Kurdish pesh merga.
While both groups were becoming increasingly professional and capable, the connection between the pesh merga and the Kurdish government officials and Kurdish population was positive and vibrant. The same cannot be said of the Iraqi triad.
Beyond that, I also had the chance to engage with government officials, police, academics and doctors, lawyers, and women’s groups. The people we met were unfailingly professional and kind. And, almost universally, the Arab Iraqis and the Kurdish Iraqis were vocal in their frustration with the lack of action by “those in Baghdad” to attend to the matters of government: security, economic growth, services.
Over the years, that’s gotten worse. Combined with the other issues in the region – especially the effect linked to the transit of insurgents across the border during the Syrian civil war – leads us to where we are now.
There are some actions which may contribute to solutions, but they are not easily attained, and they will prove difficult given the rapidly evolving security situation and the culture of this particular nation. More inclusion of the various religious and national factions, a law limiting prime minister’s terms, hierarchical reorganization of the military chain of command, increased funding (from the oil wealth) for security force development and infrastructure repair, elimination of sectarian organizations (like the various brigades of Moqtada al-Sadr, and even forces from the new Iranian allies, who are itching to get into the fight but who are not under anyone’s control), and many, many more. But these are, as we say in the military, blinding flashes of the obvious.
Mr. Maliki has known all of this, and chose to not take action. He chose not to lead. Those in power in Iraq need to learn to adapt, and adapt quickly. Not just during this crisis. And, they need to want it more than we do.