We Already Built an Iraqi Army Once, Now What?
Secretary of State Kerry is in the Middle East, looking for regional allies for President Obama’s proposal to deal with the threat of the Islamic State (IS). That is entirely appropriate -- IS poses a more immediate and dire threat to regional players than it does to the United States. Convincing Turkey and Qatar to stop funding and supporting jihadists, for example, would be an excellent start.
However in Iraq, Kerry was seeking the “boots” President Obama insists will not be ours in the war to come. It was a sharp reminder of what we’ve already sunk into building the post-invasion Iraqi military that was supposed to secure the borders of their own country -- and failed ignominiously. And it is a warning about the President’s plans to arm and train Syrian rebels.
Kerry called for a “do-over” -- a mulligan -- as he told reporters that the Iraqi army “will be reconstituted and trained and worked on in terms of a number of different strategies through the help not just of the United States but of other countries also…This is a fight that the Iraqi people must win, but it's also a fight that the rest of the world needs them to win.”
If we need them to win more than they believe they need to win, our plans are already in trouble. Check the record.
The final report of the Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction said the U.S. Government spent nearly $25 billion “training, equipping and sustaining” the Iraqi security forces between 2004 and late 2012. Aside from training, they received equipment from small arms to top-of-the-line M-1 tanks. And with all of that, they failed. Some of the trainers could explain the difficulties—which will accrue to Iraqis the second time we try to construct their army and will certainly accrue to any Syrians we try to train:
- Marine First Lt. Dave Jackson, who fought with Iraqi forces during two deployments to Iraq, said, “No matter how many billions of dollars you spend you cannot buy experience. You cannot buy legacy. You cannot just manufacture that out of nowhere…They've been set up for failure from the beginning.”
- Matt Pelak, who as an infantryman in 2004 took part in the training mission, noted the language barrier. “Imagine being in a country where you can't communicate with the people that you're working with, but it's your job to train them to form a cohesive army.”
There were anecdotal reports from the beginning that Iraqis were not fully committed to the NATO Training Mission - Iraq established in 2004, but not all the blame falls directly on the troops. In later years, the Maliki government undermined the military by purging senior leaders, many of whom were Sunni, and replacing them with politically reliable Shiites. Retired General Jack Keane, former US Army vice chief of staff, said the Army had been “well-led and competent…but began to systematically break down for the last three years” because of “ineffective leaders.”
The U.S. built the Iraqis a police force as well.
U.S. Government auditors said about $8 billion was spent to train and equip Iraqi police, raising the total from 58,000 in 2003 at the time of the invasion to between 412,000 and 650,000 depending on how you count border police in 2010. The U.S. military did the job until the Americans withdrew in 2011, leaving the training to the embassy, but the auditors called the results "mixed." Again, Iraqi politics played a role, with some officers being told to skip training sessions, and the audit cited Iraqis who blamed “lukewarm relations between the Americans and Iraqis (that) has created some distance between them.”
Then consider Afghanistan. From 2003-2013, the U.S. spent approximately $60 billion to train and equip the Afghan military under the leadership of hand-picked U.S. ally Hamid Karzai. But since the “Afghan surge” of 33,000 troops under President Obama, “insider attacks” by Afghan troops on U.S. and allied troops also surged; more than 65 in 2012 alone. This year, an insider attack took the life of Maj. Gen. Harold Greene, the highest-ranking officer to die in a combat zone since Vietnam. Some of the attacks were committed by actual Afghan soldiers, others by impersonators, leading to questions about the ability of the Afghan government to properly vet soldiers and prevent infiltration into units by Taliban operatives.
Iraq and Afghanistan had governments the U.S. had installed or approved, open operations on military bases, NATO allies as part of the package, plenty of weapons available. But the result of more than $90 billion spent over 11 years total in two countries under optimal conditions was never great and recently terrible.
What can the U.S. expect from a hasty mission to train Syrian rebel groups with whom we are still generally unfamiliar? Was the Pentagon planning to work with the rebel Ahrar al-Sham group? Twenty-eight of its leaders, including Chief Hassan Abbud, were killed at a meeting in Idlib this week in an explosion attributed to IS. That would mean IS had serious intelligence -- and undiscovered penetration -- of the rebel faction. Is the U.S. prepared to begin working with rebel groups many of which may well be penetrated? Is our intelligence in Syria better than that of IS?
The President is trying to sell the country on a “nuanced” war strategy. There are things we will do, things we won’t do, and things we expect of others. It’s that last part that consistently gets us in trouble. Expecting others to commit to our program, or to take our training and be willing and able to use it in ways we want them to is a tenuous proposition. In this case, we’ve already built the Iraqis an army and they couldn’t/didn’t operate it in accordance with the American program.
Building them a second one -- or Syrian rebels a first one -- under markedly less controlled circumstances is even less likely to succeed.