Small Wars Journal

To Thine Own Military Be True: A Five-Year Model for the New Iraqi Army

Mon, 02/04/2013 - 3:25am

“Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast” – William Shakespeare


On 28 April 2012, the New York Times chronicled a performance of Shakespeare’s classic “Romeo and Juliet” that preceded its debut at the UK’s Royal Shakespeare Company—with a twist that, for many Iraqis, was all too familiar.  Cast in modern-day Baghdad, Shakespeare’s original text is transposed into an environment where Romeo and Juliet are divided not only by family, but also by religious sect. While the play has its criticisms, the bitter rivalry between Sunni and Shi’a is one that plagues Iraq even today, precluding it from developing a cohesive national identity. Indeed, sectarian violence among Iraq’s various ethnic and religious communities constitutes one of Iraq’s foremost threats to stability, particularly as US forces continue to draw down. Not only do such tensions result in ongoing hostilities, they also have contributed to political stalemate. Devoid of any imminent external threats, Iraq’s greatest challenges are currently those that exist within its borders, such as sectarianism, insurgency, and rampant unemployment. This paper will suggest a model for the Iraqi military that seeks to minimize these threats over the next five years through mandatory conscription—a strategy designed to forge a national consensus and reduce the incentives to turn to insurgent groups for protection. It will also argue that there must exist a clear separation of power between the Iraqi military, which will focus exclusively on external threats, and the Iraqi police force, which will focus on internal security (namely, counterinsurgency).

Mandatory Conscription

It is ironic that perhaps the most relevant model for mandatory military conscription is that of Israel, a country with which much of the Arab world, including Iraq, has been in conflict for decades. Nevertheless, there exist a number of parallels between Israel’s nascent 1948 society and Iraq at present, of which the need to develop a cohesive national identity figures prominently. When Israel was first formed, it was comprised of a conglomeration of individuals who had emigrated from across the world, few of whom even spoke the same language. The military became a tool that political leadership could harness as a unifying force—an institution that cultivated a sense of identity for a country that would otherwise remain fragmented. Through mandatory conscription, the diverse individuals who made up the new Israeli state could be transformed into Israelis above all else. Conscription grew into a source of pride, camaraderie, and national honor. Of course, Israel’s case is not completely analogous to that of Iraq, as the Israelis also faced a very real external threat to their survival that created a tangible urgency toward integration. Still, Iraq’s internal challenges and the dangers of falling back into outright civil war could serve as a similar motivating force.

Indeed, although Iraq has possessed a national identity in the past, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent years of conflict have left the country in a state akin to that of a newly formed nation. The rivalry between Sunni and Shi’a is not, however, unique to the current situation; Saddam heavily favored the Sunni minority for positions of power and often suppressed the Shi’a population’s freedoms. This dichotomy notwithstanding, it was perhaps because of Saddam’s heavy-handedness that both groups believed themselves to be culturally Iraqi above all else. During the Iran-Iraq War, Iran invaded Iraq under the assumption that Iraq’s Shi’a would rise against their abusive leader and join forces with Ayatollah Khomeini. To Iran’s surprise, the Shi’a instead held their ground and remained loyal to their country; their national identity transcended that of religion, at least when it came to matters of state defense.

Unsurprisingly, the latent rivalries between these religious sects still existed, as the absence of a centralized authority in recent years led to the manifestation of outright conflict. Still, it is notable that Sunni and Shi’a alike came to the aid of their country at a time when sovereignty seemed to be threatened—and there is no reason that such a union cannot occur again. Though the intricacies of the beliefs of Sunni and Shi’a are beyond the scope of this paper, it is worth emphasizing that these sects are more alike than they are different. Both groups believe in many of the same core principles of Islam and, more importantly, both groups face the same threats to their well-being amidst Iraq’s period of reconstruction. The creation of an Iraqi military that mandates conscription, drawing equally from all religions, ethnicities, and creeds, will offer Iraq’s fragmented society an institution around which to rally and will appeal to the traits of honor and loyalty that are so valued in Arab culture.

This is not to say that such a policy would be unilaterally well-received or that it would instantaneously unify Iraqi society; such a process would certainly take months, years, or even generations to complete. Nevertheless, as the Israeli example demonstrates, the creation of a military in which participation constitutes a rite of passage for every citizen awards the institution a palpable influence—a capacity to take what appear to be disparate and contentious individuals and mold them into a force with congruent goals and values. In the long-term, such a model is one to which the Iraqi military can aspire, but the process has to start somewhere. Although a military consisting of members of the various Iraqi ethnic and religious sects may initially be difficult to manage, the fact that the group’s membership will equally draw from all sectors of society will set an example for the future and will serve as a microcosmic representation of what Iraqi society as a whole should ultimately constitute, a country bound by national pride and unity.

Loyalty, honor, and courage are traits that are touted throughout Arab society, from the smallest institution of the family through the larger bureaucratic institutions like the military. Arab military history has repeatedly demonstrated the prevalence of these traits; even when armies faced the worst of circumstances, Arab soldiers displayed exemplary bravery and allegiance to their comrades. Although unit cohesiveness was uneven, Arab forces in many instances fought until the last man was standing, even when it was clear that their units would be decimated. Egyptian military brigades demonstrated such behavior against the Israelis in 1967, as did many Iraqis when confronted with Iranian human wave attacks during the Iran-Iraq War. Through the extensive time spent training, living, and working together, a universal conscript Iraqi army would harness these cultural traits to begin cultivating a tribal-like bond of trust among the various societal elements—one that could ultimately serve as the basis for a national identity. 

A policy of mandatory military conscription would also help address Iraq’s other major security concerns of insurgency and unemployment. After the U.S. dissolved the Saddam-era military shortly after its invasion, thousands of armed men were left on the streets devoid of any income. With the country’s economic and political infrastructure at a standstill, unemployment rates soared. Even as the Iraqis have begun to rebuild their economy, there are still far fewer jobs than there are those in need of a livelihood, particularly youth. Although this is a vast oversimplification of a complex and multifaceted issue, unemployed and disenchanted youth have been one of the primary drivers of the Iraqi insurgency. Left with no means of providing for themselves, many individuals have turned to local insurgent groups, pledging their support to an ideological cause in exchange for the provision of basic needs and protection for their families. Military conscription offers a productive alternative for a substantial portion of Iraqi society, some of which might otherwise be inclined to contribute to the violent environment rather than work counter to it. Naturally, conscription alone is far from a comprehensive solution to this issue, but it would at least begin to address the insurgents’ most susceptible recruiting pool. Required military service would also assist in reducing unemployment rates by removing an entire sector of the population from the job market for at least a few years. This delayed entry would not only allow the Iraqi economy more time to recover, but would also ensure that military conscripts are trained in skills that will eventually prove valuable to society upon leaving military service.

A potential danger of a universal conscript army would be its evolution into a praetorian institution, wherein the military would essentially control the state. This criticism is one that has been lodged against Israel, which is sometimes characterized as possessing little national identity beyond that of the military. Arab armies have also fallen prey to this form of politicization, most notably the Egyptian army under General ‘Amr in the 1967 war and the Iraqi army throughout the 1960s. Putting aside the dangers of such a model to a state’s political stability, it is worth noting that the praetorian model has proven especially damaging to military strategic leadership, which is typically preoccupied with internal matters and subject to political rivalries. The best way to guard against a praetorian military would be the creation of adequate civilian institutional oversight mechanisms—something Iraq is not in a position to currently provide. Still, given the extent of Iraq’s security situation, the benefits of the universal conscript model are worth this risk.

Back to the Basics: Size, Organization, Mission Emphasis, and Weaponry

The luxury (if one can call it that) of the current Iraqi situation is that the lack of any imminent external threats awards the military time to develop itself into the professional, well-trained, and well-equipped force it would need to be to protect against a conventional challenger. This is, of course, easier said than done, especially when taking into consideration the overarching poor performance of Arab militaries since 1948. Even Saddam’s army—one that was enormously bloated in size and governed under the iron fist of a dictator—did not demonstrate strong tactical skills in its conflicts with Iran, Kuwait, and, more recently, the U.S. Although the military performed well with scripted operations that relied on vast amounts of firepower, accuracy was poor and soldiers frequently proved themselves unable to maneuver or participate in combined arms operations the moment circumstances veered from their memorized script. Probably the best example of an improved Iraqi military performance was at the conclusion of the Iran-Iraq War, after Saddam had thrust an entire generation of untrained and uneducated Iraqis into military service and mobilized the entire society through the provision of a massive military-industrial complex to support the war effort. It took an excruciating amount of effort for Saddam to win even modest benefits in military outcomes. A new Iraqi military that hopes to transform itself into a more effective force will have to ensure it approaches its organizational structure and mission emphases in such a way so as to mitigate the weaknesses it has previously suffered and allow for tactical adaptability.

Although a large military is frequently thought to be unwieldy, Iraq will benefit in the short-term from a force that encompasses a wide range of the population. Again, the lack of any immediately apparent external threats is advantageous as it allows Iraq to focus on alleviating its internal threats while simultaneously taking its time in developing a force that will someday be ready to confront an external rival. As has been previously demonstrated, a mandatory conscript military will work toward assuaging a number of Iraq’s most debilitating domestic challenges by cultivating national unity and keeping armed unemployed youth off the streets. Such a military would necessarily be rather large in size—something that offers an opportunity for a country that is attempting to reestablish itself as a regional power and reconstruct its military institution from the ground up. The next five years of Iraqi military development should focus nearly exclusively on training, ranging from basic education to areas such as military tactics, intelligence, and logistics. The forces should be organized into a number of battalions, sub-divided into companies that will go through training courses together and rotate through the different topical areas. The provision of a large military offers Iraqis a wide pool from which recruits can be vetted and promoted based on their skills and strengths. Through observation and evaluation, the most talented individuals can be identified and placed into specialized training programs—programs that can eventually field technical specialists, an officer corps, or a more elite tactical force akin to the U.S. Special Forces.

The Iraqi military should emphasize defensive military tactics for the foreseeable future, as well as the cultivation of a more robust intelligence and logistics capability, while avoiding a focus on the tactical mitigation of Iraq’s internal insurgency. As a country recovering from a decade of war, Iraq is tactically and financially incapable of embarking on any offensive military endeavor in the near future, nor could it afford to do so. Over the next five years, the Iraqi military should take advantage of its limited conventional threats and develop its capacity to defend itself should a country such as Iran decide to demonstrate a show of force.  In this regard, training should emphasize enhancing the capabilities of the infantry and the artillery through the provision of weaponry such as assault rifles, RPGs, tanks, heavy armor, and air defense equipment (namely, surface-to-air missiles and sensors). The military should procure weapons that are more advanced than those of the Soviet era, ideally acquiring weapons models whose advanced technology renders them more accurate in their targeting and more in line with global military standards. In addition, it should seek out better tactical weapons training in order to serve the needs of a more flexible fighting force. For example, Arab armies have demonstrated a tendency to use tanks solely as “battering rams” with little capacity for maneuver; such a methodology is not necessarily ineffectual in a defensive capacity where Iraqis would be familiar with their terrain.

The military should also seek to develop a modest naval capability to guard against a potential assault from its southeastern border—an area where many of its valuable oil refineries are located.  Iran has already tested Iraq’s defenses in this area, sending ships into the Persian Gulf as a means of evaluating the country’s ability to respond. By all accounts, the Iraqi navy was able to defend its border without further incident—a capability that should be enhanced and maintained through ongoing training. The military should avoid spending its time or money on the development of an Air Force. Perhaps more than any other combat mission, sorties often require split-second decisions and carefully rehearsed plans can change in an instant. Amidst the tendency to defer to authority for tactical decision-making, many Arab militaries have consistently performed poorly during air-to-air combat and air assault missions where they were expected to display creativity, flexibility, and initiative. Without the need for an immediate offensive capability, the Iraqi military should focus on defensive training in areas where it has the most capacity for improvement and efficacy; the Air Force is simply not one of these.

Separation of Powers

Above all else, the Iraqi military should exercise a stark distinction between its emphasis on external threats and what would be exclusively the police force’s emphasis on internal counterinsurgency efforts. At present, Iraqi military forces have played a large role in assisting with the maintenance of internal security, so much so that the entire Ministry of Defense has taken the lead in handling domestic security issues. Throughout Arab military history, and particularly that of Iraq, armies that have dealt with internal “threats” have often been utilized as forces to quash any semblance of internal opposition. Rulers such as Saddam who were paranoid about losing power took commissarism (coup-proofing) to a more extreme extent through the creation of “palace guards.” These groups, such as the Iraqi Revolutionary Guard, were predominantly responsible for serving as the eyes and ears of the dictator, often using shows of force against innocent civilians as a means of frightening the populace into submission. Saddam’s frequent use of his military to quell Kurdish strides for independence is one example of a way in which the armed forces became an entity to be feared, rather than honored.

It is in this regard that the Israeli model of universal conscription diverges from a model that would benefit Iraq. In addition to their mission of defending the Israeli homeland against external attack, the Israeli armed forces are responsible for an enormous number of internal functions as well, often manning checkpoints and guarding against sectarian violence. Such a model would be detrimental in Iraq; given the historically adverse relationship between the Iraqi population and internally focused military, it is unlikely that the Iraqi army will be able to garner the requisite support to effectively carry out a counterinsurgency mission. In contrast to its current focus, the Iraqi military should solely assist its country’s police forces as a last resort and turn its attention to intensive training for external threats. Still, the Iraqi police forces are also starting anew and will likely require some degree of assistance in the monumental task of quelling the insurgency and ensuring municipal security. To contribute to this mission, the Iraqi military should designate a small National Guard to be trained to assist the police with counterinsurgency. 


The Iraqi military is going to have a long road ahead no matter what model it chooses to emulate. Regional military history has demonstrated a prevalence of challenges seemingly inherent to Arab militaries, ones that are difficult to overcome even without taking into account the need to entirely reconstruct Iraqi society. Despite the U.S. military withdrawal, Iraqi forces’ performance is still nowhere near what it should be; the current model, not for wont of trying, has just been ineffective. Although it is by no means a panacea, an Iraqi universal conscript army will at least begin to more readily address the omnipresent threats of sectarianism, insurgency, and economic stagnation and help to cultivate a national identity. Moreover, a clear separation of responsibility between the military and the police force will allow the military to gain the respect and trust it needs to be an effective fighting force. Most importantly, the current external threat environment (or lack thereof) offers the Iraqi military an unprecedented opportunity to focus intensively on training and the vetting of new members to create specialized units. Indeed, time offers perhaps the greatest potential for the Iraqis—an opportunity to learn to work with their culture and not against it.  

About the Author(s)

Alexa Hoyne currently works for the Department of Defense and will complete her Master's in Security Studies from Georgetown University in May 2013. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect upon those of the Department of Defense. She graduated from the College of William and Mary in 2010 with a BA in Middle Eastern Studies and received Highest Honors for her undergraduate thesis on strategies to counter Islamist violence toward women in Iraq.


I thought that this was a very good and concise article. I do have a few comments:

1. In so far as Israel is concerned, Europeans are not as dominant as they once were. Israeli Jews of Sephardic origin are probably equally as numerous. When one observes groups of soldiers, it is very obvious that as in the United States, "everyone is from somewhere else". Not only are there a lot of Sephardic youth in the military but quite a few Africans. I would also point out that there is no such thing as a dominant European group. Europeans are very diverse.

2. It is true that Arab soldiers from some countries fought very bravely. This was even more true for the Jordanians. The Egyptian soldiers fled in 1967 only because they were abandoned by their officers who were chosen for their loyalty not ability. The Syrian soldiers in 1967 were chained to their guns in the bunkers to "fight to the last man" while their officers fled.

3. It has been a long time since Arab armies fought well as large units. They have fought well as squads and platoons. I think that the Poitiers was the turning point. The performance of Iraqi divisions in their wars with Israel, Iran and the US were abysmal.

4. Insofar as national identity is concern, we need to remember that Iraq was created by the British Colonial office. The Sunnis were put into power by Britain. If the Iraqi Shia fought against the Iranian Shia, it may well have been because the Iranians are largely Persian and not Arab.

5. While we may think that the Sunnis and Shia are similar, they apparently see large differences. The conflict between Sunni and Shia has been going one since the death of the Prophet, peace be upon him. From their perspective, there is not a lot of difference between Christians but that certainly did not stop the Thirty Years War or Kulturkampf.

6. I think that Iraq will have to have an air force . Armor is useless without air and artillery cover. Traditionally, armor in Arab armies has been used to suppress the civilian population.

7. The wars against the Kurds predates Sadam. In the 1950s, Nasser sent armored divisions to Bagdad to guard against a coup while the Iraqi armor was off fighting Kurds.

Mark Pyruz

Mon, 02/04/2013 - 4:58am

Actually, with regards to potential conscription in Iraq, a far better example than Israel (where the dominant political majority is comprised of extra-regional eastern Europeans), is the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran has mandatory conscription among all its indigenous peoples, which are to a large extent mirrored in Iraq. In addition to Persian, Iran has Azaris, Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Armenians, Shia, Sunni, Christians and Jews, among many others.