As the Islamic State in Iraq and [Greater] Syria (ISIS) rolls through western and north central Iraq, seizing cities, towns and border crossings seemingly with little resistance, many military analysts - many of us with experience in Iraq - are asking the question, "Where is the Iraqi Army?" What happened to the force that we spent billions of dollars and countless man hours training and equipping.
As the Islamist fighters of ISIS approached Iraq's second largest city of Mosul (al-Mawsil), the Iraqi Army defenders appeared to collapse in the face of the jihadi fighters pouring into the country from their ISIS enclave in northern Syria. By most accounts, the soldiers deserted and headed south. What happened? Four of Iraq's 14 divisions simply evaporated?
I have to admit my surprise at the collapse of the Iraqi Army. In 1988 - the last year of the Iran-Iraq War - I served at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad as a liaison officer to the Iraqi Army's military intelligence service. As part of my duties, I traveled to several battlefields and was able to observe the Iraqi Army in action.
After eight years of fighting, the Iraqi Army had developed into an effective force, at least in the context of the Middle East in the 1980s. They had an inflated sense of their own capabilities, which did not serve them well when confronted with the much better trained and equipped U.S. armed forces a few years later in Operation Desert Storm.
After the two crushing defeats at the hands of the Americans in 1991 and 2003, the Iraqi Army was essentially destroyed, not only as a fighting force, but as a social institution as well. Many Iraqi Army unit commanders had been recruited by American intelligence officers between 1991 and 2003 and had been convinced not to fight when the Americans invaded, with the promise that they and their soldiers would be part of the post-Saddam military. That effort served American forces well as they made the lightning thrust to Baghdad - U.S. senior commanders were aware of which units would not engage them.
Following the ill-advised disbanding of the Iraqi army in 2003 by Coalition Provisional Administrator Paul Bremer, a new Iraqi Army had to be built from scratch. (I will not go into the far-reaching ramifications of Bremer's disastrous decision to dismantle the military, security and intelligence services; I have decried that mistake in great detail since the day he did it.)
Given the abysmal performance of the new post-Saddam Iraqi Army over the past few weeks, it would appear that the huge investment in time and money on the part of the United States was wasted. An estimated $25 billion was spent training the Iraqis, not to mention the billions of arms ordered by the Iraqi government. Much of the equipment fell into disrepair after U.S. advisors and trainers left at the end of 2011. American-made military equipment deployed to western Iraq is now in the hands of ISIS - some of it has been moved to ISIS-controlled areas of Syria.
So what happened?
There are numerous reasons for the poor performance and abysmal state of the Iraqi Army. First, when the United States withdrew its troops in late 2011, the training of Iraqi troops had barely reached the battalion level. This is critical, since the basic combat formation of most armies, including Iraq's, is the brigade. When deployed to the field, the units were not thoroughly trained in working at that level. (Note: I have already made my thoughts known about the effects of the American withdrawal in 2011.)
Soon after the removal of American troops, whose presence had provided a useful set of eyes and ears on the ground throughout the country, especially in the military and security forces, the Shi'a-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki began to systematically remove the competent military commanders - many of them Sunni Muslims - and replace them with his Shi'a cronies.
Military forces in many countries are more than just armed forces, they are social institutions. In poorer countries, they are also a source of money - weapons and the associated materials of war are expensive. There is a lot of potential for graft and corruption - I am told by many of my Iraqi contacts that this is exactly what happened. The Iraqi Army began a downward spiral from an army in the making to a third-world military rife with corruption.
The quality of the rank and file Iraqi soldier soon became irrelevant. In military service, the key ingredient is leadership. A mediocre army with good leadership can accomplish difficult missions; a good army with mediocre leadership can be defeated. I think we have just witnessed the latter.
I will watch with interest as the American officers make their assessment of just how broken the Iraqi armed forces are now. It may not be fixable in the time required to prevent ISIS from becoming established in the western part of Iraq.