Now that Washington’s long-time nemesis Muqtada al-Sadr appears to have scored a surprising victory in this week’s national elections in Iraq, it is unclear how that will square with the Pentagon’s seemingly open-ended commitment to keeping that country’s military afloat.
Shiite cleric al-Sadr was not on the ballot, but his coalition (consisting of his own Sadrist Movement and Iraq’s Communist Party), is poised to win 54 out 329 seats in the Iraqi Parliament. Most Americans will remember him as having spent the better part of the Iraq war leading the Mahdi Army against the U.S.-led invasion and occupation. He has, according to reports, refashioned himself as a populist and a nationalist and has distanced himself from neighboring Shiite Iran.
Al-Sadr’s militia forces were also instrumental in helping the U.S. and the Iraqi Army finally oust the Islamic State from Iraq last year. But having declared victory over IS, the Iraqi Army is in now shambles. Going forward it will be interesting to see how much power al-Sadr will actually wield, and whether or not his influence will affect current arms sales agreements and the ongoing train-and-equip effort that has cost U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars since the beginning of the war 15 years ago.
With Iraq largely out of the news today, few seem aware that Washington has continued this indefinite military presence in Iraq, and is now in the awkward position of rebuilding the Iraqi military for a second time. Not only are the ranks decimated after the ongoing ISIS battles, much of the American-supplied equipment and weapons were looted by the terrorists as well.
Creating a whole new Iraqi military from scratch, armed with higher-tier U.S. weapons, is not a cheap proposition. The United States spent $25 billion on this from the start of the 2003 occupation through 2016. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as Washington also gave Iraq billions in loans to buy equipment they clearly aren’t able to pay back. While at some point, the U.S. managed to convince Iraq to cover a fraction of the cost with their oil wealth, that isn’t an option this time around.
That’s because the constant wars, oil market struggles, and general rebuilding costs have left Iraq’s economy in tatters. There is simply no oil surplus to draw upon, and plans for Iraq to start paying for the Office of Security Cooperation were unceremoniously scrapped.
That agency was meant to pay for much of Iraqi Army 2.0., including weapons purchases, and was supposed to be funded beginning in late 2017. When it became clear that Iraq didn’t have the money to do that, the State Department kept funding the office themselves, to the tune of $42 million.
Of course, $42 million doesn’t buy much, which is why all the army rebuilding is being tasked to the Pentagon. What, if anything, the Office of Security Cooperation is going to do going forward is unclear. Given their budget, however, it can’t be not much, and seemingly the only reason the U.S. didn’t close the office outright was to avoid talking about how awry these plans have gone.
Even where the U.S. has stepped up to pay, Iraq’s rebuilding efforts are mixed. The country’s elite Counter Terrorism Services had lost about 40 percent of its fighters to casualties fighting ISIS, and virtually all of their equipment is gone. Washington is in the process of buying them new gear, but the $1.2 billion earmarked to grow the force, from 6,000 troops at present to 20,000, is another matter. A 2017 recruitment drive produced 300,000 applicants, of which only 1 percent were even considered eligible. After preliminary screening, about 1,000 were potentially able to join the academy. Six months later, the Pentagon reported that of those 1,000, none were successfully trained for the unit.
President Trump campaigned heavily on the idea that the United States could no longer afford to provide security for all of these allied countries, and needed to start insisting on reimbursements. Iraq’s planning seemed to be built around just that principle, but when things went wrong, Washington quietly resigned itself to footing the bill with even more taxpayer dollars.
This model isn’t unique. The United States is already on the hook for Afghanistan’s military, too, forever throwing billions annually at maintaining the Afghan forces there, even as they actually grow weaker over time. And Afghanistan’s disastrous economy will require the U.S. to keep paying the bills forever.
This is a big problem, as the inflated U.S. military budget is increasingly being used to pay for other countries’ militaries overseas.
The only way around this is for nations like Afghanistan and Iraq to have militaries they can actually afford. The big obstacle to this, of course, is the influential American defense industry, which makes a lot of money rolling new Iraqi vehicles and arms off the assembly line. For them, the fact that the American taxpayer is ultimately picking up the tab is a secondary concern, if a concern at all. They get paid either way.
An Iraqi military not designed in Washington, D.C. would likely rely on cheaper equipment from other countries for at least some of their needs. That’s the sort of competition that the Lockheed Martins of the world neither want nor are likely to accept.
This is a major moment for President Trump’s campaign commitment not to let other countries bankrupt America. Doing so was always going to be unpopular with the defense lobbies, and the question now is whether the administration is willing to resist them—or whether it will knuckle under and keep quietly signing the checks. Perhaps with new leadership in Iraq, these tough decisions will at last be made.
Jason Ditz is news editor at Antiwar.com, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the cause of non-interventionism. His work has appeared in Forbes, the Toronto Star, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Providence Journal, the Daily Caller, the American Conservative, the Washington Times, and the Detroit Free Press.