Fighting Islamic State: Why US training of Iraqi forces will be harder this time

Fully half of all current Iraqi security forces 'are not trainable,' because they are too sectarian, says Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno. And it could take years to win back the trust of Sunni tribes.

Karim Kadim/AP
Security forces stand guard at the site of the aftermath of a car bomb attack the northern Shiite district of Kazimiyah, in Baghdad, on Friday, Sept. 19, 2014. A series of bomb and mortar shell attacks in and around Baghdad killed dozens, Iraqi officials said on Thursday, in an assault that underscored the threat posed to the Iraqi capital by marauding Islamic militants that have seized large parts of country.

The US military’s efforts to train Iraqi soldiers to take on jihadist insurgents is going to be harder than it was during the Iraq War, the nation’s top Army officer warned Friday.

That’s in large part because fully half of all current Iraqi security forces “are not trainable because of the sectarian nature” of their politics, says Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno, who was also a former commander of US troops in Iraq.

The Iraqi military is rife with Shiite militia members who must either be ferreted out of the force or retrained.

General Odierno’s remarks echoed the estimates of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, who said that roughly 26 of the 50 Iraqi Army brigades will be competent partners for the US military. 

The capable forces “appear to have a national instinct, instead of a sectarian instinct,” he told the Associated Press this week. The other half of these forces do not.

This could represent a sizable challenge ahead for US troops who are being sent to retrain the Iraqi forces – an operation that could take upward of three years, Odierno said Friday in remarks at a Center for Media and Security breakfast.

In the meantime, the US military would be well-advised to “have better focus” on the Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, in the north. The peshmerga gained a reputation as particularly capable fighters among US troops serving in Iraq during the war. 

The problem is that, for years, the Iraqi government “limited what we could do with the peshmerga,” Odierno said. Concerned that the Kurdish forces in the north would become too strong, former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did his best to keep the resources they received to a minimum. 

“We now have to make sure that the peshmerga through the Iraqi government gets trained, so they can contribute.”

The Sunni tribes in the west also have to be convinced to pull their support from Islamic State and give it to the Iraqi government once again. This job, however, is “going to be more difficult than it was the first time,” Odierno warned, “because you now have to rebuild the trust that was lost.”

However, even if many of the Iraqi fighters who have skilled honed in years of counterinsurgency warfare come together – with the help of US airstrikes and intelligence – to fight IS forces, it still may require US ground forces, Odierno said – a warning that Dempsey has issued as well, which many pointed to as contrary to the White House assurances that these operations would require no “boots on the ground.” 

Air strikes alone will not defeat IS, he said. While the goal is to have well-trained Iraqi troops along with – eventually – a Syrian fighting force made up of “moderate” Muslims, it may not be enough, Odierno acknowledged.

Arab countries would ideally contribute to the fight, but “none have stepped up yet.”

So, “if sometime, someday” defeating IS “might mean US [ground] forces, that might be something we recommend.” 

What is clear, Odierno stressed, is that “it’s going to take some time to do this – it’s going to take a long period of time.” 

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