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.”
Says the Post, the Iraqi army is “bleak,” “in shambles” and “will take years to restructure.”
Meanwhile, a pair of articles in The Wall Street Journal build on this theme. The first, titled, “Iraq Army’s Ability to Fight Raises Worry,” reports:
Across the military US military personnel found the Iraqis were failing to properly maintain equipment. Training standards have declined sharply from 2011, when US military forces advised Iraqi units.
And it says that the Iraqi armed forces in Mosul fled so quickly in part because they believed that the city would have risen up against them, in support of ISIS and its allies—including Sunni tribal militias and the forces led by the Baath party. Like many other sources, the Journal also suggests that the commanding officers of the Iraqi forces in Mosul and other parts of the north and west either sold the territory to ISIS and its allies or were otherwise complicit in the takeover. (Maliki, while recruiting thousands of Shiite-sectarian volunteers now, is planning show trials of commanders.)
A second Journal piece, recounting a secret 2013 US effort to aid Iraq’s military, says that the United States tried to build a “fusion intelligence” center in Iraq last year, but it failed in part because of Iraqi resistance to the idea. And the article reports shock at the highest levels of the US government when the scope of Iraq’s military crisis emerged months ago:
Administration and congressional officials say the US also miscalculated the readiness of Iraqi forces: The White House’s limited investment in the intelligence center was driven at least in part by the assumption that Iraqi forces would be more competent, the official said. Then, at the end of April, the Pentagon dispatched a team of special-operations personnel to assess the capabilities of Iraq’s security forces, a defense official said. The assessment they brought back was bleak: Sunni Army officers had been forced out, overall leadership had declined, the Iraqi military wasn’t maintaining its equipment and had stopped conducting rigorous training. The response in Washington, summed up by a senior US official, was: “Whoa, what the hell happened here?”
That phrase—“whoa, what the hell happened here?”—could be the mantra for the entire US involvement in Iraq. The utter collapse of the Iraqi armed forces is so bad that it raises serious questions about Obama’s supposed option of launching drone attacks and other airstrikes against ISIS forces in the north. It’s obvious that Iraq’s problem is political, not military, and so Kerry’s haphazard effort to reconstitute a new Iraqi government may be the only (long-term) way out of the crisis. Building a new Iraqi government that is inclusive of Sunnis, rather than launching a political war against them, and which negotiates a new accord with the Kurds in the northeast, is the only way to stabilize Iraq. But Kerry—who’s been meeting with a wide range of Iraqi politicians—can’t do it himself, and he’ll need to get buy-in from Iran and other neighbors of Iraq. Meanwhile, Maliki’s effort to recruit Shiite militiamen for his shattered army will only create more sympathy for ISIS and its Sunni allies across Anbar and other parts of Iraq. (The same goes for American airstrikes, which will be seen as using US firepower on behalf of the Shiites, not Iraq.)
It’ll get a lot worse before it gets better.
Read Next: Obama sets the US on a slippery slope to war in Iraq.