Headlines this weekend indicate that the latest round of U.S. efforts to train and strengthen the Iraqi Army are not going as well as hoped.
Citing anonymous sources, the New York Times reported Saturday that Iraq’s army “faces daunting obstacles on the battlefield that will most likely delay for months a long-planned major offensive on the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul.” Reuters, meanwhile, reports that a 17-month U.S.-led retraining effort “has failed to create a large number of effective Iraqi combat units or limit the power of sectarian militias.”
The reasons for this failure are many, though some are familiar. Two years ago, the Washington Post ran a piece titled “Why the Iraqi army collapsed (and what can be done about it).” The authors attributed said collapse to “two key causes: poor intelligence, and the politicization and corruption of security forces.”
Giving the example of South Vietnamese cronyism and intelligence failures during the Vietnam War, the authors wrote:
Iraqi intelligence and military politics exhibit similar problems today. Bureaucratic infighting and alienation of the Sunni minority have made collection of human intelligence in Sunni regions challenging. Since the 2011 U.S. withdrawal, Iraq also has lost access to U.S.-provided technical intelligence. These deficits enabled ISIS to launch a large-scale offensive in the country’s second-largest city (Mosul) largely undetected.
This surprise would have been much less damaging, however, were Iraqi security forces not thoroughly politicized and corrupt. In 2010, the International Crisis Group quoted a U.S. military adviser’s bleak assessment: “Cronyism, bribery, kickbacks, extortion… [are] commonplace and… getting worse. Commanders are not chosen for their ability, but rather based on whether or not they have paid the Division Commander the fee he demands.”
Despite identification of these problems, the situation appears to have changed little.
On Sunday, a spokesperson for Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi reportedly announced that the government will investigate possible abuses of civilians in the operation to retake the Sunni city of Fallujah from Islamic State (ISIS) militants. While the operation is being led by the Iraqi military, Shia militias are also reportedly involved.
Sectarian differences in majority-Shia Iraq have long been a source of conflict, and contributed to the current crisis. Populations in the Sunni-majority northwest and places like Fallujah have often been sympathetic to ISIS, a Sunni group, while the Iraqi Army is unable to get many Sunnis to make serious commitments to an army run by a Shia-dominated government. Shia militias, some with ties to Iran, fill the gap.
“The Iraqi military operations command of Salahuddin province, north of Baghdad, is dominated by a Shi’ite militia leader, Abu Mehdi Mohandis,” according to Reuters. Mohandis has reportedly been involved in attacks on Western targets, including being convicted in relation to 1983 bombings of U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait.
One of the Iraqi Army’s divisions is reportedly controlled by the Iran-linked Badr Organization, and it has been estimated that between 10 and 20 percent of the 300 officers in charge of the Iraqi military’s Operations Command in Baghdad “have an affinity or association with either the Badr militia or the Shi’ite religious leader Muqtada al Sadr.”
The one major success story of the Iraqi military may be the Iraqi Special Forces or Counter-Terrorism Service, which Reuters describes as “the most effective and only truly non-sectarian Iraqi government fighting force.” But even the Special Forces have their problems.
Reuters reports that “after Iraqi Special Forces, aided by U.S. air strikes, captured a strategic oil refinery in the town of Baiji in October, Shi’ite militias looted all of its salvageable equipment, according to a senior U.S. military official and three Iraqi government officials.
“Over the past year, U.S. military officers have struggled to ensure that militias do not seize American weaponry delivered to the main Iraqi army supply depot in Taji and to a brigade in the Saqlawiya region.
“‘We would transfer arms to units in those areas – and either because of corrupt commanders or outright robbery – they would end up in the hands of the militia groups,’ said one U.S. officer.”
Three years ago – before ISIS, at least under its current brand name, was on most Americans’ radar – army desertions in response to Iraqi government repression of a Sunni protest movement led former Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie to tell the media that high-level Iraqi politicians were giving serious consideration for the first time to partitioning the country.
As has been the case with so much of the story of American involvement in Iraq, history seems to be repeating itself. Yesterday, the same day that troubling new reports emerged about deeply rooted problems within the Iraqi Army, reports of military success in the campaign against ISIS in Fallujah also surfaced.
A report from the Washington Post, however, notes that while the Iraqi military is leading the campaign, “their progress has slowed,” and Shia militias waiting on the outskirts of Fallujah “appear antsy” to join the fray. Other reports perhaps offer a clearer picture of what is undoubtedly a muddled situation.
“In theory, the Iraqi counter-terrorism forces will do the main fighting within the city while the Shia militias will largely stay in the outskirts to fend off any Isis reinforcements,” reports the Financial Times. “The US will then provide air support to the forces on the ground, except for the more pro-Iran militias. But it is a delicate division of labour that could easily break down in the heat of the battle.”
If ISIS is completely driven from Fallujah, it will not be the first time that control over the city has shifted as a result of an American-backed campaign. But a shift that would mark a real break with the past, and which remains elusive, would be a stable, lasting solution to the problems plaguing the region.
“The sectarian divide between the majority Shi’ite and minority Sunni communities threatens to split the country for good,” Reuters reports. And, as al-Rubaie noted three years ago “for Iraq partition would not be a soft option but would be more like the bloodbath when India and Pakistan divided.”
ISIS has been losing ground since the beginning of this year, and continues to do so. Even the complete defeat of the Islamic State, however, does not appear to promise to end America’s entanglement in Iraq.
“Retaking Falluja,” writes Ranj Alaaldin of the London School of Economics and Political Science, “will most likely mean the start of the war after the war.”