After Mosul: The Collapse of the Iraqi Military and What it Says About Iraq
Since the fall of Iraq’s third largest city, Mosul, last month much media attention has been on what actions the Obama administration may or may not take in countering the ISIS advance to Baghdad and what it could mean for American-Iranian relations. However, little consideration has been given to why the Iraqi military’s astounding collapse demonstrates just how divided that country’s society is and how bleak the prospects are for long-lasting stability.
At first glance, the inability and unwillingness of some 20 battalions of Iraqi security forces, totalling upwards to 30,000 personnel, to withstand 1,500 militants in pick-up trucks, in just three days, is remarkable. But dig deeper and you will find that the roots of this battlefield rout stretch all the way back to 2003 when Jerry Bremer, then head of the American appointed Coalition Provisional Authority, abolished the Saddam Hussein-era military and banned all Baath Party members from participating in the new Iraqi government.
These orders saw the release of thousands of disgruntled and experienced military officers, most of whom were members of the Sunni minority. These people formed the nucleus of the original insurgency in 2003 and are at the heart of the ISIS organization today. Compounding those effects has been the inept governance of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who, since 2010, has increasingly become the Shia version of Saddam Hussein.
His actions towards alienating the Sunni minority, and thereby weakening the institutional cohesion of the military, have been manifold. Maliki has consolidated the ministries of defence and the interior under his authority and appointed his son as head of the prime ministerial bodyguard. He has abolished merit promotions in favour of sectarian loyalists, leaving an Iraqi military that is both devoid of independent-thinking and corrupt, as officers pad payrolls, and sell equipment and food. Meanwhile, the elite units that guard Baghdad, and thus Maliki, remain composed of his co-religionists while those sent to fight ISIS are multi-ethnic, poorly paid, and poorly led.
With the powers of the state’s security forces firmly concentrated in his office, Maliki has used them to target Sunni militias, while giving their Shia equivalents a free pass. Thus, the Iraqi army morphed into a Shiite army as it has turned against peaceful Sunni protests and Sunni leaders, including even the Vice-President, Tariq al-Hashimi (now in hiding in the Kurdish north). This is the Iraqi military that the United States now faces in supporting.
Of course, it never had to be this way. Following the successes of the American ‘surge’ in 2007 and the crackdown, by Maliki, of Shiite militias in Basra in 2008 many in the Sunni community had bought into the new political experiment in Baghdad. But the joint failure of the Obama administration in not obtaining a status of forces agreement that would have kept American advisors in place and later completely absolving itself from anything Iraqi after the 2011 withdrawal has come back in spades to haunt them. The rot, it is clear, is deep and any measures taken by the United States to not only defeat ISIS but prevent another repeat are going to need to be long-term.