July 15, 2014

Initial assessment of the Iraqi Army - it's worse than we thought....

Iraqi troops on parade at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Baghdad

The initial cadre of American advisers deployed to Iraqi to assess the capabilities of the Iraqi Army and the threat posed by the forces calling themselves "The Islamic State" (TIS, formerly the Islamic State in Iraq and [Greater] Syria, or ISIS) has provided its first report to the Pentagon. It is not good news; in fact, it is hard to imagine it being any worse.

According to parts of the assessment of Iraqi military and security forces that have found their way into the media, the Iraqi Army is not capable of conducting an effective defense of the country.

The report amplifies the remarks made by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey at a news conference on July 3. At that time, General Dempsey said that Iraqi forces are capable of defending Baghdad, but do not have the ability to launch a counteroffensive to retake the areas now under TIS control without outside assistance. The general did not elaborate on his definition of "outside assistance."

The assessment made by American military officers on the ground in Iraq goes even further, calling into doubt the ability of the Iraqi Army and security forces to hold Baghdad in the face of repeated TIS attacks. TIS has already begun a campaign of car bombings in the capital, and has made advances toward Baghdad International Airport and areas southwest of the capital.

It was the ISIS/TIS advance on the Baghdad airport and low confidence in Iraqi Army capabilities that led the Defense Department to deploy hundreds of American troops - not advisers - and six U.S. Army Apache helicopter gunships to the airport. (See my article, Baghdad International Airport - the Achilles heel of the American evacuation plan.)

What happened to the Iraqi Army?

The American officers' assessment points to some key factors. Iraqi Army units have become so ineffective because of the replacement of qualified officers of either the Sunni or Shi'a sect with less qualified (that's a polite way of saying unqualified) Shi'a officers with personal ties to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. According to the assessment, only half of Iraqi military units are capable enough that assigning American officers would do any good.

The quality of the individual Iraqi soldiers has been subverted by poor leadership - mediocre troops with good leadership can perform well when required; conversely, good troops with ineffective leadership will normally fail when ordered into action. This is what we saw in Mosul and the Tigris Valley as the army seemed to collapse when faced with determined ISIS fighters. For my take on what happened to the Iraqi Army, see my article from June, Where is the Iraqi Army?

There is another concern voiced by the American officers. They believe some Iraqi units have been infiltrated by Sunni extremists who are at best informants for TIS or at worst possible saboteurs who could pose a threat to American advisers. We all remember the "green on blue" attacks suffered by American forces in Afghanistan when our erstwhile Afghan allies turned on the embedded advisers, killing scores of American troops.

There are also fears that other Iraqi Army units are likewise infiltrated by Shi'a members whose primary loyalty is to their sect and may transcend loyalty to Iraq, raising concerns of Iranian influence in the Iraqi Army. That may also pose a safety issue for American advisers as well.

There is also concern over the presence of Iranian militias in the country, as well as the rumored presence of two battalions of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps troops in Iraq. That should come as no surprise. The Iranians have delivered at least five, likely more, Sukhoi SU-25 ground attack fighter jets to the Iraqi Air Force. I hope the Iraqis do not think that we are naive enough to think that the Iranians are not flying the jets - they have been used against TIS targets in Mosul and Tikrit.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi Army has failed to retake the city of Tikrit back from TIS forces. There is a constant flow of official Iraqi media touting battlefield successes, yet the city of Tikrit is still in TIS hands. See my earlier article on Tikrit, The battle for Tikrit - bellwether of the future in Iraq?

This assessment made by American officers on the ground in Iraq is abysmal news for the Administration and complicates future planning. Do we begin American airstrikes? Can they be effective given the sad state of the Iraqi Army? Are American ground troops a possibility?

None of this bodes well for the future of Iraq as we know it.