As the joint civil war in Iraq and Syria expands—and now Israel has joined the fight—Secretary of State John Kerry has visited Baghdad to do, well, what exactly?
Let’s give Dick Cheney credit for saying the obvious: that by sending 300 American special forces to Iraq, nearly three years after the United States pulled the last of its forces out, Washington is trying to do long-distance with a handful of troops what it had initially thought to do with 20,000-plus residual forces. (That was the level proposed by the US military in 2011, far beyond what President Obama would accept and, in any case, 20,000-plus more than the number that Maliki might accept, which was zero.)
So now the United States proposes “intense and sustained” help for Iraq, says Kerry—maybe including airstrikes. But can the Iraqi armed forces, which suffered a breathtaking collapse after the start of the offensive by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), be saved? Maybe not. In today’s newspapers, all three major US dailies—The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, take long, sad looks at the state of Iraq’s hollowed-out, politicized and demoralized security forces. It’s not a pretty picture.
The Times calls Iraq’s army a “defeated force.” It quotes US officials who say that five of Iraq’s fourteen army divisions—including the two overrun in days in Mosul—are “combat ineffective,” and it cites a thinktank official who says that sixty of the 243 Iraqi combat battalions “cannot be accounted for, and all their equipment is lost.” (Much of the materiel, of course, is now in the hands of ISIS.) Adds the Times, “morale among troops is low and its leadership suffers from widespread corruption.” Much of the corruption, of course, starts with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who replaced semi-competent commanders, many US-trained, with loyal but wildly corrupt and incompetent Shiite officers.
The Post, in a deeply pessimistic story, says that the Iraqi army faces “psychological collapse.” Quoting former US Ambassador James Jeffrey—who cites “sycophantic generals,” low morale and a sectarian Shiite volunteer force as key problems—the Post adds:
The crisis in the armed forces is a result of corruption, poor leadership and intelligence, and severe inattention to training, said a former US adviser to the Iraqi armed forces who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. Those problems have turned what was a functioning military when US troops withdrew in 2011 into an “empty shell that is resorting to a call to arms of men and boys off the street,” he said. He added that the scale of the reverses this month has been “catastrophic.”