Understanding Iraq’s Disappearing Security Forces

Little now stands in the way of al-Qaida’s goal of a civil war that redraws the map of the Middle East.

Iraqi Shiite men, some of them wearing military fatigues and guns given by the government, raise their weapons as they gather in the Iraqi town of Jdaideh in the Diyala province on June 14, 2014, to show their support for the call to arms by Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Sistani's yesterday call to defend the country against the offensive spearheaded by the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) came as US President Barack Obama said he was exploring all options to save Iraq's security forces from collapse. 
National Journal
James Kitfield
June 19, 2014, 4:34 p.m.

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.

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