US military bombings of Islamic State fighters in Syria have been grabbing the media spotlight this week. But most analysts agree that the air strikes – conducted, as they are, against insurgents without much of an air force and a Syrian government that has remained “passive,” in the words of senior Pentagon officials – are going to be the easy part.
These air strikes will, and have, hit large moving vehicles, headquarters buildings, and any massing of fighters. Important as these targets are, there will still be plenty of heavy lifting left for ground forces to do, military officials say.
The question has been whether US troops will be among these ground forces. That remains to be seen, but what is clear is that Iraqi and Syrian security forces will be vital to cementing any gains that these military strikes may garner.
That is why Pentagon planners are carefully concentrated on the training of Iraqi national security forces, and the creation of some semblance of a moderate Syrian military.
At the moment, the focus is on the Iraqi Army specifically, since it will take roughly five months, defense officials estimate, before possible Syrian soldiers are even vetted and approved to begin months of training.
Yet, though Iraqi security forces exist, they are going to be even more difficult to create and train the second time around, say top US military officials, who add that the process could take years.
Why will this process be so difficult, some may wonder? After all, many of the fighters of IS, also known as ISIS and ISIL, receive training far below the caliber of what US troops already have provided to the Iraqi security forced, for example – and still fight so effectively.
Much of the zeal with which IS fighters have been waging war in Iraq and Syria has to do with motivation and complete commitment to the cause, officials add. Can this be instilled in Iraqi security forces?
Retired Lt. Gen. James Dubik took over command of the training effort for Iraqi security forces in 2007, and recalls that, at the time, many Iraqi troops refused to leave their home stations.
Within one year, trainers were able to rid them of that reluctance with drilling and, particularly, leadership training, he said.
By April 2008, “they were swinging all over the country, both Shia and Sunni-led brigades,” says retired Lieutenant General Dubik, now a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War.
This included key Iraqi-led operations in Basra; Sadr City; and Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which IS forces now control.
“In a matter of a year, you changed the dynamics of security forces and confidence inside of themselves,” he says. “They had so much confidence in their forces, and the forces had confidence in themselves.”
But by 2012 this confidence was beginning to erode, as Al Qaeda in Iraq – the remnants of which formed the basis of IS – launched an assassination and intimidation campaign against Iraqi military leaders.
By 2014, “that confidence was gone,” Dubik says. The good Iraqi military commanders had been assassinated, and “the not so good ones were subject to intimidation.”
Coupled with the cronyism practiced by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, this caused many soldiers to lose motivation and trust in their leadership, he said.
The key to training now, says Dubik, “is the revitalization of that confidence.” This will likely come through the use of US Special Operations Forces to help tutor Iraqi troops.
“It’s more of a revitalization of units that are not effective,” Dubik says. In many cases, he adds, “that’s the right way to talk about it, not retraining from scratch.”
Special Operations Forces also will tutor the Iraqi security forces in the skills to take the gains made from air strikes and turn them into a “counteroffensive to eject ISIS and establish a sovereign border,” he adds.
Most senior defense officials have publicly estimated that this will take about three years. Dubik concurs.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that one great challenge will be that roughly 24 of the Iraqi Army’s 50 brigades are “untrainable” due to sectarianism. These units will need to be “reconstituted,” meaning that their leaders will need to be removed and replaced with either experienced leaders from other functioning units, or new leaders who must be recruited from the ranks, trained, and brought in to take over.
Because Mr. Maliki was more interested in making Iraq’s military into a personal security detail rather than a functioning defense force, he made loyalty more important than competence when selecting commanders, Dubik adds. “They did this on purpose.”
The impact was predictably damaging.
“If you don’t have combat leaders, in spite of all of the money you’ve spent, you have no idea how to perform,” says Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If you then put them in a corrupt environment” – as happened in 2012 and beyond – “that discipline and training gets lost surprisingly quickly.”
While motivation is helpful, however, the depth of religious conviction in jihadist IS fighters does not necessarily translate into battle skills.
“Being willing to blow yourself up is not a measure of tactical genius,” Dr. Cordesman says. “Motivation is a matter of unit discipline.”
In other words, people aren’t necessarily loyal to lofty ideals in training, he adds. They are loyal, first and foremost, to their fellow soldiers.