Why the Iraqi army runs away in battle

Matt Schiavenza of The Atlantic has an interesting article that seeks to explain the dysfunction of the Iraqi army which has led to several highly visible routs at the hands of Islamic State.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter pointed out this dysfunction on Sunday when he said that the Iraqi army has no "will" to stand and fight against ISIS despite their superior numbers and superiority in equipment.  The U.S. has spent $25 billion in train and army the Iraqi army in the last decade with literally nothing to show for it.

What accounts for the Iraqi military’s failure? Many problems stem from the Bush Administration decision to disband the existing Iraq military in 2003 and build a new one from scratch. Intended to rid the institution of officers linked to Saddam Hussein, the move instead left thousands of armed men unemployed and embittered. This contributed to a security vacuum within Iraqi society and fed a vicious anti-U.S. insurgency. Many high-ranking officials who served under Saddam have now become senior commanders with ISIS.

The Iraqi army is also notoriously corrupt, a legacy of Nouri al-Maliki’s years as prime minister. Fearful that a strong military would pose a threat to his power, al-Maliki replaced top commanders with political patrons drawn from his Shia sect, undermining any attempt to establish a merit-based system of promotion. So-called “ghost battalions” draw salaries despite never reporting for duty, and the forces who do remain are no match for fanatical ISIS fighters. “Military training, no matter how intensive, and weaponry, no matter how sophisticated and powerful, is no substitute for belief in a cause,” William Astore, a former U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, wrote last year in the American Conservative.

But the main problem with the Iraqi military is the problem with Iraq as a whole—the country effectively no longer exists as a unified state. Kurdistan, for all intents and purposes, acts as an independent country. Much of the Sunni population lives in territories controlled by ISIS. The rump Iraqi government, meanwhile, operates in close cooperation with Iran, who funds Shia militias that act as a paramilitary force. The Iraqi military, then, is less a cause of the country’s failures than a reflection of them.

The longstanding problems with discipline and leadership have hamstrung the army since it was reconstituted by the Bush administration.  Without competent officers to lead them, the lower ranks don't see a reason to stand and fight – especially since among the first to drop their weapons and flee are the officers themselves.  Also, the terrifying reputation of ISIS in how they treat captive soldiers adds to the fear of the ordinary soldier.  And with little stake in the army's success, the average soldier simply sees no advantage to making a stand.

This is a problem with no quick fix.  Only time and training will develop leadership skills in officers and unit cohesion in the ranks.  And if there's one thing the Iraqis don't have, it's time.  The Shia militias match the Islamic State in fanaticism, but their military abilities leave much to be desired.  There is no substitute for a professionally trained army and it will be years before Iraq's military will even approach that standard.

Matt Schiavenza of The Atlantic has an interesting article that seeks to explain the dysfunction of the Iraqi army which has led to several highly visible routs at the hands of Islamic State.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter pointed out this dysfunction on Sunday when he said that the Iraqi army has no "will" to stand and fight against ISIS despite their superior numbers and superiority in equipment.  The U.S. has spent $25 billion in train and army the Iraqi army in the last decade with literally nothing to show for it.

What accounts for the Iraqi military’s failure? Many problems stem from the Bush Administration decision to disband the existing Iraq military in 2003 and build a new one from scratch. Intended to rid the institution of officers linked to Saddam Hussein, the move instead left thousands of armed men unemployed and embittered. This contributed to a security vacuum within Iraqi society and fed a vicious anti-U.S. insurgency. Many high-ranking officials who served under Saddam have now become senior commanders with ISIS.

The Iraqi army is also notoriously corrupt, a legacy of Nouri al-Maliki’s years as prime minister. Fearful that a strong military would pose a threat to his power, al-Maliki replaced top commanders with political patrons drawn from his Shia sect, undermining any attempt to establish a merit-based system of promotion. So-called “ghost battalions” draw salaries despite never reporting for duty, and the forces who do remain are no match for fanatical ISIS fighters. “Military training, no matter how intensive, and weaponry, no matter how sophisticated and powerful, is no substitute for belief in a cause,” William Astore, a former U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, wrote last year in the American Conservative.

But the main problem with the Iraqi military is the problem with Iraq as a whole—the country effectively no longer exists as a unified state. Kurdistan, for all intents and purposes, acts as an independent country. Much of the Sunni population lives in territories controlled by ISIS. The rump Iraqi government, meanwhile, operates in close cooperation with Iran, who funds Shia militias that act as a paramilitary force. The Iraqi military, then, is less a cause of the country’s failures than a reflection of them.

The longstanding problems with discipline and leadership have hamstrung the army since it was reconstituted by the Bush administration.  Without competent officers to lead them, the lower ranks don't see a reason to stand and fight – especially since among the first to drop their weapons and flee are the officers themselves.  Also, the terrifying reputation of ISIS in how they treat captive soldiers adds to the fear of the ordinary soldier.  And with little stake in the army's success, the average soldier simply sees no advantage to making a stand.

This is a problem with no quick fix.  Only time and training will develop leadership skills in officers and unit cohesion in the ranks.  And if there's one thing the Iraqis don't have, it's time.  The Shia militias match the Islamic State in fanaticism, but their military abilities leave much to be desired.  There is no substitute for a professionally trained army and it will be years before Iraq's military will even approach that standard.