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The Time to Stop Bankrolling the Iraqi Military is Now

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 [1] 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 [2] 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 [3]. 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 [4].

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 [5] 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. [6]

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 [7] 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 [8], 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.

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "The Time to Stop Bankrolling the Iraqi Military is Now"

#1 Comment By Jawad Hussain On May 15, 2018 @ 3:14 pm

Hopefully the US gets out of Iraq, but Sadr recently said he’s ok with the US continuing to train the Iraqi army. It’s also likely he forms a coalition with Abadi’s party and that Abadi remains the PM. One small correction though. Sadr has nothing to do with fighting ISIS as he disbanded the Mahdi army a while back. The PMU groups along with the Iraqi army fought ISIS and Sadr had nothing to do with the PMU

#2 Comment By LouisM On May 15, 2018 @ 6:19 pm

Its time for the US to support the Kurds breaking off from Iraq.

It is also time for the US to support the Kurds breaking off from Syria.

It is also time for the US to realize that Turkey is not as close and reliable an ally as it was 10 or 20 years ago. Infact, Turkey and its immigrant population to Europe is a threat to Europe and its a threat Syria, Israel, the Kurds and both EU and US interests in the region.

Turkey is also building nuclear power plants and may be the next Islamic nation to join the nuclear weapons club.

I don’t have enough information to know if it is true that Iraq has fully fallen to Iran or if US aid is the only thing keeping a semblance of Iraqi independence from Iran. If it is true that Iraq has fully fallen to Iran then the US people will not support another invasion of Iraq and its best to cut off the checks.

I have to admit that I don’t agree with the Syria policy. There were more civil liberties under the Assad rulership than in any other muslim (except Turkey). I agreed with Ann Coulter that it would have been better to ally with Assad and fight AlQueda and radical islamists than to fight Assad and Russia and Iranian proxies. A great many Syrians and Syrian refugees are Iraqi refugees.

The whole Assad, Turkey, Kurd, AlQueda, Isis, Syria and Iraq policy is lacking any coherence and logic. I cant figure it out. It makes no sense. Frankly, I’m more concerned with Turkey over reach and Turkish radicalization than I am with Assad. If the answer is breaking the Kurds off from Iraq then that opens the door to the Kurds breaking off from Turkey and Iran sometime in the future (which may be the best outcome build up the miniscule non-state Kurds and diminish the unstable or radical muslim states). If that is the best scenario then refocusing the use of the checks towards a transitioned breakup with a finite cut off point would be a good strategy.

#3 Comment By KevinS On May 15, 2018 @ 9:00 pm

If he actually knew/understood anything about Iraq he might.

#4 Comment By Sisera On May 15, 2018 @ 9:49 pm

The roadmap for our Middle East Adventures (“Strategy for Securing the Realm”) spoke of emboldening anti-Iranian Iraqi Shias.

These Iraqi Shias would create an ‘alternate ayatollah’, some cleric based out of Basrah, that would pry all the Arab Shias away from Iran’s influence.

This is what this is.

#5 Comment By David Cobb On May 16, 2018 @ 7:20 am

Too bad we went in and totally destroyed the Iraqi military and country so many years ago. They haven’t the resources or stability yet to fend for themselves in any financial endeavor.

#6 Comment By Fred On May 16, 2018 @ 9:35 am

All of Lockheed Martins expensive high-tech gizmos can’t beat some dirt poor peasant with an AK. Hope we never have to find out how well their overpriced stuff does against a real enemy.

#7 Comment By Roger On May 16, 2018 @ 9:53 am

The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

#8 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 16, 2018 @ 11:39 am

We are over extending, the over extended

#9 Comment By Sid_finster On May 16, 2018 @ 1:33 pm

Considering what the United States has done to Iraq, a country that never attacked or threatened us, the blank checks should continue until the day that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice, Blair, and perhaps also Obama and several members of his administration are placed in irons and delivered over bodily to Baghdad.

We made war on that country on the basis of conscious lies, and at Nuremberg, men hanged for less.

#10 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 22, 2018 @ 6:11 pm

“We made war on that country on the basis of conscious lies, and at Nuremberg, men hanged for less,”

I have often considered this. And early non i even tended to be in doubt whether we could walk away given what we messed up. One has to consider what kind of conscienceless people we have to be to needless upend another’s table and simply walk away.

But lately, I am thinking perhaps, that’s the problem, we are so busy tending to others we our conscience is askew. Maybe some reflection, some accountability as result might be a better means of recompense. Decreasing the number of mistakes is a far better choice in my view than having to constantly fix someone else kitchen we demolished.

Let’s do some remodeling of our own on our own stuff.