In a bloody ISIS attack on an Iraqi Army base just north of Fallujah on September 21, upwards of 500 government soldiers perished or disappeared, fleeing into the marshlands, the woods, or to the next base camp four miles away. Few were left behind alive, surrounded by militant fighters who by all accounts were supposed to be less equipped, less trained, and less organized than Iraq’s professional fighting force.
But the Iraqi security forces, into which American taxpayers poured some $25 billion over the course of a decade, had in the span of a summer, crumbled.
While pro-war critics blame the Iraqi military’s failures on the current administration for leaving the country too soon, American veterans and journalists who spoke with TAC say the army was corrupt, incompetent, and unmotivated from the beginning, and that top U.S. officials papered over this inconvenient fact for years in order to protect their commands and maintain public support for the U.S. intervention.
The Paper Tiger Folds
The September attack took place just 45 miles west of Baghdad, and the base had been under siege without food or supplies for a week when ISIS fighters dressed as the Iraqi Army rolled up in a convoy of bomb-laden Humvees and blew the place up. Details emerging from survivors indicate that the Iraqi Air Force refused to provide air support to its comrades under fire on the ground.
Perhaps the most stunning defeat for the Iraqi Army came when the entire 2nd Division collapsed in June as ISIS took over the strategic cities of Tikrit and Mosul. “Positions collapsed without a shot fired,” wrote analysts Yasir Abbas and Dan Trombly for War on the Rocks. “They left behind weapons, vehicles, uniforms, and no government opposition to ISIL within Mosul itself.”
All told, reports over the last month suggest that several Iraqi divisions—there were 14 to start—have just evaporated (American officials prefer to say they’re “combat ineffective”) since ISIS began its current march across Iraq. According to a military source quoted in the New York Times in June, 60 out of 243 Iraqi combat battalions “cannot not be accounted for and all of their equipment is lost.”
“You haven’t seen much of a fight because the (Iraqi) army just disappeared,” Marine Corps veteran Matthew Hoh, who served two tours in Iraq, tells TAC. “They were not made to defend the country against invaders.”
This is a long way from the rosy picture described by top U.S. generals like David Petraeus and his protégé Raymond Odierno (now Army Chief of Staff) just a few years ago. In June 2009, as the U.S. was readying the first phases of withdrawal, Odierno, then-commander of American forces in Iraq, told the media and Congress that Iraqi forces were ready to operate on their own.
“I do believe they’re ready,” General Odierno said from Baghdad on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “They’ve been working towards this for a long time. And security remains good.”
Petraeus told Congress a year earlier, “the performance of many units was solid, especially once they got their footing,” and that over 100 combat battalions were capable of taking the lead, “albeit with coalition support.” He continued in his April 2008 testimony to describe “an increasingly robust Iraqi-run training base” that “enabled the Iraqi Security Forces to grow by over 133,000 soldiers and police over the past 16 months,” with “an additional 50,000 Iraqi soldiers and 16 Army and Special Operations battalions” expected by the end of the year.
Of course, Petraeus was busy selling himself, too. He was already taking credit for what CNN’s Peter Bergen called bringing “Iraq back from the brink of disaster,” as “the most effective American military commander since Eisenhower.” It was in his best interest to try and prove that helping Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vanquish all his Sunni and Shia rivals, and putting 100,000 Sunni fighters on the American payroll, were more than just temporary Band-Aids.
In a late 2013 treatise unfortunately titled, “How We Won in Iraq,” Petraeus said,
Over time, we and our Iraqi counterparts achieved slow but steady progress in building the capabilities of the Iraqi Security Forces. … Progressively, over the months and years that followed [the surge], the coalition turned over responsibility for security tasks to Iraqi forces until, at the end of 2011, Iraqi elements assumed all security tasks on their own, with only a residual U.S. office of security cooperation remaining in Iraq.
“Claims by Petraeus, Dempsey, and other U.S. generals of Iraqi effectiveness were always exaggerated or false,” said (Ret.) Col. Doug Macgregor, an author and Army consultant who served in the first Gulf War. “The generals were simply cultivating their Bush administration sponsors in pursuit of further promotion.”
A Military Divided
In May 2010, according to the Pentagon’s mandated report to Congress, there were approximately 666,500 security force personnel in Iraq. When the U.S. finally left Iraq in 2011, there were supposedly 930,000, including a 200,000-strong army. The U.S had invested billions in equipping and training them. Upwards of $500 million worth of equipment and material were just handed over to the Iraqis, while Maliki’s government contracted for billions more.
If ISIS, at the most, has 50,000 stateless fighters spread between Iraq and Syria, how has it routed such a superior force? The popular narrative, particularly on the pro-war right, is that President Obama squandered everything Petraeus had built by leaving Iraq too soon. In an interview in June, retired Gen. Jack Keane, co-architect of the surge, suggested that the Iraqi Army was “well-led and it was competent” while American forces were present, but broke down “systematically” after U.S. withdrawal under the leadership of Prime Minister Maliki.
And indeed, after the U.S. withdrew, Maliki did fail to populate his security forces with Sunnis, instead alienating all the Sunni fighters once on the U.S. dime by keeping them unemployed. At best, those Sunnis are now standing down in the face of the ISIS invasion. At worst, they are joining them.
But others say that’s only half the story. While the investment was real and the training, too, the entire effort was doomed from the beginning—when the U.S. invaded and disbanded Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath army in 2003. That was the closest thing to a professional military that Iraq had, and it was gone in an instant.
“Fundamentally, the fault was America’s for destroying the existing army, but there was nothing America could do after that to build a truly inclusive and effective new army,” war correspondent David Axe, who writes for the popular War is Boring blog, tells TAC. “That required compromise, will power and competence on the Iraqis’ parts—all of which were lacking.”
Others argue it was the corruption in the ranks, beginning at the top and filtering all the way down to the lowliest private, that sabotaged Iraq’s security forces. Commands were bought and sold, and subordinates were fleeced. According to a recent interview with author Patrick Cockburn, the going rate for a colonel’s position in the army is $200,000—$2,000,000 to be a division commander. Then one spends the rest of the time demanding grease from everyone else.
“They have no interest in fighting anybody; they have interest in making money out of their investment,” Cockburn told Tariq Ali in late September.
Lt. Col. Danny Davis traveled to Iraq in 2009 as a chief of a transition team with direct experience working with Iraqi commanders and recruits. “When I was sent out to train this battalion I had no idea who (commanders were) and how they got there. That was, ‘internal business,’” said Davis.
Shipments of gasoline, spare parts, and weapons would be pilfered before they reached their intended destinations, he recalled. Ethics were an anomaly. “All the skimming and graft and all the rest—a corrupt army can’t fight and won’t fight,” added Hoh.
A Marine Corps colonel who did not want to be identified because of his current status as a deployed active-duty officer, said he served multiple tours in Iraq and on the last, as a team leader for an Iraqi Army (IA) advisor team from 2007-2008.
“Based on that last tour with the IA, I’m not surprised what is going on in Iraq. The IA (battalion) I was with was considered one of the best, and were still lousy,” he wrote to TAC in an email.
Leaders looked out for themselves first by making side deals involving food, water, and even electricity if they were sitting on top of a generator. I got the first two battalion commanders I worked with fired for corruption that involved taking money out of soldier’s salaries and the rape of local Sunni women by the Shia soldiers. I understand what we consider corrupt in our culture was not in theirs, and I was learning to live with it. But I told them if it starts directly involving the welfare of their men, then I would come after them.
Yet corruption was only part of the problem. Starting from scratch meant that the military’s leaders had no institutional experience. As a fighting force they never became tactically sophisticated enough to deploy as coherent, effective units, or engage in complicated maneuvers that would require “taking it to the enemy.”
“They could not adapt rapidly and were not agile,” said the Marine colonel. “Against an agile, adaptive enemy, they would easily become morally, physically, or mentally isolated.”
Most of all, however, loyalty was the biggest factor in the Iraqi failures. After their own families, the soldiers and leaders were loyal to their tribes and then their religion, he said. “Iraq as a nation falls at the bottom of the list. Combine this with lack of cohesion, unity, loyalty, and camaraderie among themselves, and you have an organization that will disintegrate under pressure,” he wrote.
Set Up for Failure
There is enough blame to go around, said Maj. Donald Vandergriff (Ret.), who has done contract work training Afghan security forces. He said the U.S. made the same mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq that it did in Vietnam over 40 years ago. “I’ve said all along, we keep trying to make these forces in our own image,” he said, and “they don’t take ownership because the system was forced upon them.”
The technology, the logistics, the modern air power, the intelligence—were and are all foreign to them. U.S. trainers come and go on short rotations, and there is no consistency, no ability to learn the foreign culture and understand the gaps. “Again we have to say, what kind of force would these people buy into? What kind of military can they afford and accept? Instead we force our own grand, narcissistic vision.”
In the end, the U.S. is returning to Iraq to bail out a country that then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (despite his current views) said was “capable of [addressing] its own security needs.”
“Three years later and where are they now?” demanded Davis. “Were they ever able to function on their own?”
Perhaps an even more pressing question: how do we expect the U.S.-trained Afghan military to perform against the Taliban when most U.S forces leave Afghanistan at the end of this year?
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.