The Iraqi army the US spent billions building is a disaster
And if a small fortune spent over nearly 10 years, along with tens of thousands of American military trainers, didn't work, what can a few hundred advisers hope to do?
The US has dispatched hundreds of troops to Iraq in recent weeks as well as Apache attack helicopters. The US has also been flying armed drones over Baghdad. Though their mission appears to be largely about preparing for a possible evacuation of Embassy personnel and other US civilians in the country, President Barack Obama and his staff have also spoken of an "advising" mission.
"American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq but we will help Iraqis as they take the fight to terrorists who threaten the Iraqi people, the region and American interests as well," President Obama said last month. He also spoke of assessing "how we can best train, advise and support Iraqi security forces going forward."
But it's hard to see a handful of US troops, no matter how capable, making much of a difference to the conduct of Iraq's military. Iraqi soldiers collapsed in the face of the insurgent surge in the north and west of Iraq, which is threatening to permanently remake the map of the country and has pushed the civilian death toll over the past month to grim heights not seen since 2008.
When the fight came, the Iraqi military was woefully unprepared for it. And this, despite $17 billion spent by the US training and equipping the new Iraqi military between 2003 and 2012. The US also spent about $8 billion training and equipping the Iraqi police, who have an even worse reputation for corruption and brutality with civilians than their military counterparts.
Yasir Abbas and Dan Trombly have taken an in depth look at the collapse of security forces in Nineveh Province, where the self-styled Islamic State (IS) waltzed in and took control of a number of cities last month, including the provincial capital of Mosul. It makes for grim reading. The article depicts command appointments as sinecures secured with bribes; abuse of subordinates and locals; promotion based on personal loyalty to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki; and a level of corruption that made preparing for and fighting wars almost an afterthought.
Citing interviews with former and serving Iraqi soldiers and civilians from the Mosul area, the authors paint an ugly picture of at least a large chunk of the Iraqi military:
On June 6 and 7, car bombings and firefights precipitated an increase in deaths in southern and eastern areas of Mosul. Following that, forces under Nineveh Province Operations Command retreated in disarray, with many soldiers reporting their positions collapsed without a shot fired. They left behind weapons, vehicles, uniforms, and no government opposition to ISIL [now IS] within Mosul itself.
In Mosul, it appears the Iraqi military behaved like an occupying power primarily interested in lining its pockets. The military extracted bribes from the families of detained Sunni Arabs to secure their release, and ran protection rackets on local businesses. The predation did not stop at civilians, with the command hierarchy resembling something more like a mafia pyramid than a modern army (this Sopranos clip will explain what I mean.)
In the Iraqi army, leadership at the division level maintains enough sway over logistics and pay to embezzle and extort lower ranks. Many officers ... see their units as businesses with reliable revenues rather than combat outfits. “You don’t earn a [commanding position]: you buy it,” a Captain in the Iraqi army said. The administrative structure of Iraqi forces aggravates this problem. For example, high-ranking officers are supposed to budget food purchases for their soldiers and deduct money for them out of their salaries. In practice, officers pocket most of this money, and establish revenue quotas for subordinates. Soldiers in Mosul often had to purchase their own food and water from civilian markets and cook themselves, adding additional duties onto already undesirably long working hours.
The New York Times' CJ Chivers has a similar story to tell, about the collapse of Iraq Border Guard's 9th Brigade, responsible for patrolling much of the border with Syria, which jihadis and other Sunni Arab insurgents now move back and forth across at will:
In the case of the Ninth Brigade, at least, its members insisted that they were eager to fight but were undermined by high commanders who failed to provide border forces with water and food, causing the brigade to abandon positions in the searing desert heat...
But the bitter experiences of the Ninth Brigade, as told by its members, showed the force to be so undercut by cronyism that it was able to fight for less than two weeks before it descended into a venomous internal dispute. Members of border-guard units said the breakdown was especially galling because after years of Western training and funding, and the commitment of the enlisted men who staked their lives on Iraq’s young government, it was senior officers who failed.
Failures of leadership, military and civilian, are thick on the ground in Iraq these days. Whatever US advisers might do, they simply don't have it within their power to change a country's military and political culture.