The Iraqi security forces were always America's ticket out of Iraq, so after many early disappointments, U.S. military leaders built the forces in their own image.
The ISF that the U.S. left behind in 2011 numbered nearly 350,000 soldiers and police, exercised in state-of-the-art training centers, and drew support from reformed civilian Ministries of Defense (army) and Interior (police). The Iraqi Special Operations Forces that conducted counterterrorism missions each night alongside their U.S. counterparts were considered the best in the Arab world. In a region long dominated by the struggle for power between secular military dictators and Islamist tyrants, the ISF were painstakingly designed over nearly a decade and at a cost to the United States of more than $25 billion to be a game-changer: a multiethnic, professional military force that provided time and space for the nascent institutions of democracy to take root.
So when the ISF crumbled before an onslaught by a few thousand Islamist militants who have advanced to the doorstep of Baghdad in the space of a week — with hundreds and perhaps thousands of the surrendering ISF troops summarily executed — U.S. hopes for a unified Iraq that anchors a more democratic Middle East have likely died with them.
"The fact that the four ISF northern divisions were overrun or collapsed with almost no resistance is extraordinary, and hugely alarming," said Jessica Lewis, a former Army intelligence officer and director of research at the Institute for the Study of War.
A number of the most competent and deployable ISF forces, she noted, have been tied down for months in often bloody fighting around Fallujah in western Anbar Province, where the Islamist State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) planted its black flag this spring. That left no rapidly deployable reserve force that could block ISIS shock troops approaching Baghdad from the north after capturing a string of northern cities including Mosul and Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's birthplace.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — having replaced U.S.-trained and -mentored ISF leaders with Shiite cronies who have neglected it in recent years — was thus forced to call for help from Shiite militias that were behind the wanton sectarian slaughter that nearly drove Iraq into the abyss in 2007-08.
"Under Maliki the ISF has atrophied to the point of becoming just another Shiite-led, Shiite-dominated militia, validating the worst fears of the Sunni population," Lewis said. "So for two years ISIS has been planning to stoke sectarian fighting between Sunnis and Shiites in both Syria and Iraq into an existential, cosmic confrontation. And with this offensive, ISIS's strategy is actually working."
There is plenty of blame to go around for a crisis that is splintering Iraq along its sectarian divides between majority Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish areas. The George W. Bush administration disastrously disbanded the regular, secular Iraqi army in 2003 and vastly underestimated the sectarian tensions that would be unleashed with the toppling of Hussein's Sunni regime in Shiite-majority Iraq. The U.S. military underestimated the mammoth, time-consuming job of building Iraqi security forces virtually from scratch, beginning a serious effort only after years of occupation had worn out America's welcome.
For its part, the Obama administration ignored warnings from senior U.S. military leaders, failing to successfully negotiate a status-of-forces agreement that would have left residual U.S. trainers and mentors there to enable Iraqi forces and to buffer them from Baghdad's sectarian politics. President Obama's decision to ignore the advice of his top national security leaders to arm the Syrian rebels and bring that conflict to a speedier resolution also helped breathe new life into ISIS.
Obama's announcement Thursday that he was redeploying up to 300 U.S. military advisers and additional airborne reconnaissance and surveillance platforms to Iraq, and is contemplating airstrikes against ISIS fighters there, is a clear indication of just how dire the situation has become. Unless the assistance is followed by a political deal forcing Maliki to meaningfully share power with the Sunnis, or step down altogether, it is unlikely to prove decisive given the decrepit state of the ISF.
Of course, most of the blame for the current crisis weighs on the shoulders of Maliki. He initially won praise and grudging Sunni support for using the ISF to put down Shiite uprisings in Basra and Baghdad's Sadr City in 2008. But without a U.S. military presence to constrain him after 2011, Maliki ultimately gave in to the temptation to use the ISF as a personal fiefdom to reward cronies and intimidate political rivals.
"The U.S. military worked incredibly hard in the 2005-2008 timeframe to build the ISF into a professional, national force that represented all Iraqis, and the fact that it is increasingly seen as just another sectarian militia, and one that folded so fast when confronted with Islamic extremists, is a very dangerous development," said retired Lt. General David Barno, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and formerly a senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan. "The fact that Maliki and the Iraqi government quickly called up the Shiite militias to defend Baghdad and looked to help from [Shiite] Iran, making this into an unmistakably sectarian crisis, speaks volumes about the lack of confidence in Iraqi Security Forces. That is very, very troubling."
In retrospect a number of warning signs indicated that the positive development of the ISF would stall once all U.S. forces departed at the end of 2011. With no U.S. military officials to push back, Maliki largely reneged on promises to continue paying government Sunni tribal fighters who turned against al-Qaida in Iraq as part of the 2007 "Anbar Awakening." Borrowing a page from the Roman emperors, he also began using a number of Iraqi Special Operations Forces in Baghdad as a personal Praetorian Guard for self-protection and political intimidation.
Ryan Crocker was U.S. ambassador to Iraq during the 2008 "surge" in U.S. forces. "More than anything else, I think that Maliki is still motivated by fear. Fear of the past, and fear that in the future Shiites will once again feel the boot of the Sunni Baathists on their necks. Maliki lived that history. He was forced into exile. He used to quote that history to me chapter and verse," Crocker told me in an interview late last year. "I asked, once, why he insisted on forming special-operations units whose commanders reported directly to his office, rather than to the Ministries of Defense or Interior. And Maliki told me that unit was an insurance policy against his being deposed in a military coup like so many of his predecessors."
Ironically, Maliki's sectarian instincts in manipulating the ISF and failure to solidify the gains of the "Anbar Miracle" have brought about the very threat he feared most, with former senior members of Hussein's Baath Party and other disaffected Sunni groups now finding common cause with the Islamist militants of ISIS. Faced with an Islamist threat, other Middle Eastern autocrats such as Egypt's General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Syria's Bashar al-Assad have used military force to retain their iron grip on power. But Maliki has so compromised the ISF that they no longer seem up to the job.
That makes Nouri al-Maliki the loneliest and potentially most vulnerable leader in the Middle East: a strong man, caught in a sectarian whirlwind, without strong military backing.